How Tribal Nations Need to Be Understood Around the World

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

The word “nation” is one of those words that gets thrown around haphazardly by academics, laypeople and politicians alike; it has become synonymous with “nation-state” and “state” to describe what we understand today as the global polities we refer to as countries. But there are distinctions to be made, and the reason it’s important is because of the rapidly changing nature of the global political arena in which indigenous peoples find themselves engaging. Words have the power to create reality, not just reflect it—especially in law—so we must be very clear to say what we mean, and mean what we say.  

In academic circles there are vigorous debates about what constitutes a nation, a state or a nation-state. In international relations theory the terms are used to describe a singular international system in which state governments and non-governmental bodies interact with each other, which privileges the centrality of the state as the primary actor. Other social science theories are more critical about this line of analysis; the state is, they argue, a very recent human creation that goes back only to the European Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, resulting in what we call the Westphalian system. Theories diverge from there, but it is from the perspective of Fourth World theory (which is one form of indigenous theory) that I draw my distinctions.

Nations are distinct communities of people who have long, historic relationships to place out of which their collective identities form. This includes what we today call “indigenous peoples,” which refers broadly speaking to peoples colonized since the “discovery” of the “New World.” Yet it is not limited to indigenous peoples as we commonly understand them; in general nations are peoples who have been encapsulated or subsumed by the formation of states around them. They can be found on all the world’s populated continents and some scholars contend that one third of the world’s population is comprised of these nations. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of most of them. Some examples include the Basque (Spain and France), Thuringia (Germany), Guernsey (Great Britain), Baluchistan (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran), Nagaland (India)—and there are many, many more.

The term “nation-state” is often used to describe what are simply states, but in actuality very few of the world’s independent states are nation-states. The majority of states are a plurality of two or more nations that have been artificially joined together under the umbrella of a state (whether consentingly or not), whereas nation-states are single nations that have formed into states under the Westphalian system. Less than 5% of the world’s states are nation-states; examples include Iceland and the Federation of Micronesia.

What we refer to today as an “international system” is a complex maze of states, regional state coalitions, multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations and other non-state actors, including nations (often under the rubric of “indigenous peoples”). It’s a web of relationships between entities who have power and those who do not and it is always changing. When the United Nations first formed in 1945 there were no more than 50 states in the world; today there are more than 200, owing to the breakup of empires, fragmenting into smaller political bodies organized as states in the move to resist the domination that comes with the concentration of power inherent in an empire or a state.

One of the significant trends in the system is in how nations are able to mediate their often very contentious relationships with states, thanks to the ever-increasing demands for democracy and human rights. States are being held accountable by nations who are reclaiming their autonomy, and as a result we are seeing new formulations of nations as international political entities that exceed domestic laws, supported by the international system via human rights instruments like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and others.

For tribal nation governments this means the emergence of new kinds of arrangements with the US federal government. It increases self-determination and how nations exercise it at every level, from within their communities to their engagement with the United Nations and even in diplomatic relations with states as a process of their political development. We can call this process the practice of “nation-craft” (as opposed to “state-craft”); it was evident this year at the Twelfth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May with the statement of 72 Indian nations.

Indians have been taking their concerns to the international arena since at least the 1920s, so Native peoples working within the United Nations is nothing new. What is new is the engagement of tribal governments because up until now it has been primarily through the participation of civil society groups, not governments. It will be necessary and appropriate for Native peoples to continue to work for indigenous rights in the realm of civil society, but it is at the level of tribal government where the advancement of nationhood and political status for indigenous nations will occur.  

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a freelance journalist and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies and a master's degree in American Studies.


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I have been reading Joseph M. Marshall III's books, which, I love and I am learning much about First Peoples culture and history. But as he states in his book I am currently reading, "On Behalf of the Wolf and the First Peoples," we need to get in the lake and experience culture and history through actually walking and talking with peoples from the various nations, whether, Lakota, Tsalagi (Cherokee), Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, or whatever nation of first peoples you may have an interest in rather than just walking around the lake or dipping your toe in through just reading about their culture and history (pg. 34). Many Americans refer to the first peoples as indians or native americans, but these are still stereotypical titles, as the United States were not called America until the Europeans inhabited the continent, which was previously known as Turtle Island. So, we need to learn, that the Lakota, Tsalagi, Cheyenne and various other first peoples are not indians nor native americans, they are Lakota, Tsalagi, Cheyenne or whatever indigenous nation they are from. Mr. Marshall so aptly teaches us so much through his excellent books, too much to go through in one post. I highly recommend his books to anyone who wants to learn not only about the Lakota, but about understanding indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and their culture and history of all the various nations. There are many lessons we all can learn that provide us with lessons for all of life and being better stewards of the earth and land that we have been entrusted with.
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