Tribal Governments Come In Many Forms

Smithsonian Institution Chiefs of the Six Nations at Brantford, Canada, explaining their wampum belts to Horatio Hale September 14, 1871. The image shows Joseph Snow (Hahriron), Onondaga Chief; George H.M. Johnson (Deyonhehgon), Mohawk chief, Government interpreter and son of John Smoke Johnson; John Buck (Skanawatih), Onondaga chief, hereditary keeper of the wampum; John Smoke Johnson (Sakayenkwaraton), Mohawk chief, speaker of the council; Isaac Hill (Kawenenseronton), Onondaga chief, fire keeper; John Seneca Johnson (Kanonkeredawih), Seneca chief. Hale inscribed these photographs, which he sent to colleagues, “The wampum belts were explained to me on the reserve, at the residence of Chief G. H. M. Johnson; and at my request the chiefs afterwards came with me to Brantford, where the original photograph… was taken.—H. Hale, Clinton, Ont.” This copy of the photographs was one that belonged to J. N. B. Hewitt.

Tribal Governments Come In Many Forms

When the U.S. and Canadian governments suggest and support Western-style governments for indigenous nations, they are trying to improve Native government and make it more compatible with national government. Indigenous nations have diverse political arrangements and forms of government. When adapting to present-day nation states and market economies, if possible, indigenous nations will make political changes that express their historical political and cultural relations.

There is so much diversity of indigenous political governments, there can be no one pattern that is effective for all. Some indigenous nations have found that Western-style constitutional governments work for them. Say, for instance, among the Five Civilized Tribes of the U.S. southeast, and later Oklahoma. However, there are many nations that feel that contemporary democratic government forms are not agreeable. Many tribes like California or Pueblo nations rejected American constitutional models when offered during the 1930s. During the 1920s, many Canadian indigenous nations, in particular the Iroquois nations already with a long political tradition and rules of government, resisted the semi-constitutional forms of the Canadian Indian Act. Many Canadian reserves, such as the Mohawk at Akwesasne, have long resisted and worked to recover not only more self-rule, but self-rule within their own traditional political forms and rules.

Indigenous nations with governments that are organized by general councils are often very reluctant to take on constitutional forms that delegate authority to elected officers and consist of a population of individual voters. General councils were present among many indigenous nations and emphasized consensus decision-making among social groups, clans, lineages, villages, or bands, before any collective action was approved or carried out.

The Iroquois Confederacy worked this way. The confederacy was organized by lineages, clans, nations, and then the confederacy, which was the coalition of the several nations. At each level, starting with each lineage, a proposition was proposed and needed consensual agreement to proceed to the next level. If the lineages agreed internally, then the issue was discussed among the clans, and if agreed, discussed at the nation level, consisting of all the clans, and then onto the Confederacy. This form of political democracy places community consensus above political government, as well as above economy and justice. Many indigenous nations are arranged by consensual political rules that put the will of the community as foremost in political relations.

The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin were once a part of the Iroquois Confederacy, but missionaries and historical circumstances led them to give up clans, the confederacy, and remove to Wisconsin, far from their original homelands in upstate New York. Nevertheless, the Oneida of Wisconsin uphold a very strong sense of collective community that might now more resemble a Christian church group than past clans and lineages.

When the U.S. offered a constitutional government to the Oneida of Wisconsin in the 1930s, they complied by accepting an elected business committee. However, when writing the constitution, the Oneida incorporated their own ways of political process by forming a general council composed of all adult members within the nation. The general council was not the legislative branch of the Oneida government, but the most powerful political institution in the nation, where all power resided that was not explicitly delegated to the business council.

The General Council ensures that all Oneida can participate and voice their views in semi-annual meetings. All significant decisions are made by the General Council, which oversees the day-to-day action of the business committee. The Oneida bowed to the requirements of the United States for political reform, but at the same time ensured that community voice was still the most powerful entity in the nation, analogous to the Confederacy days. The General Council, which is the same as the community, manages business enterprises, cultural revival, and social programs, in ways that are congruent with Oneida political traditions.

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