An Indian of the Tarahumara Mountains in northern Mexico in January 2012.

Preserving Indigenous Democracy

Duane Champagne
2/17/14

When Europeans first came to the Americas they took note of the democratic processes they observed in most indigenous nations. Indigenous political relations were usually decentralized, consensus based, and inclusive. Indigenous democracies may not seem remarkable by contemporary standards, but when Europeans arrived their governments were not democratic. Most of Europe was characterized by centralized absolutist states dominated by class structures, where the majority of people did not participate in the political process. Wars of independence, starting with the United States in 1775 and then throughout Latin and South America during the early 1800s, enabled creation of democratic states after overthrowing European colonial governments. The new democratic American states engaged market economies, and retained class structure, albeit within a nation of individual citizens.

While the influence of indigenous political cultures on American democracies is heatedly debated, contemporary indigenous nations seek respect, compatibility, acceptance, and mutually beneficial relations within contemporary democratic nation states. Indigenous political processes often remain based on kinship, community, culture, and territory. Most nation states do not recognize indigenous nations as political entities, and prefer to incorporate Indigenous Peoples into the body politic as individual citizens. Such a position is consistent with the values of equality, individual citizenship, and inclusive political processes that characterize modern liberal democratic states, but are not consistent with most contemporary indigenous political processes based on family, community, and territory. Many indigenous people want to participate in the nation as citizens, but at the same time retain loyalties to their ancient cultural and political communities. Gaining nation state recognition of the political rights and powers of indigenous governments has been extremely difficult.

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davidche-weilee's picture
davidche-weilee
Submitted by davidche-weilee on
Without rigorously and systematically studying American Indian/Native American history, many people in the United States or broader audience outside of North America context may inquire at least three questions: 1) what is indigenous democracy?2) Do indigenous people have a comparable definition of contemporary democracy to the nation state, such as the United States? 3) To respond to this article’s title, do we have to preserve indigenous democracy? and 4) What can indigenous people benefit from the reconstruction of indigenous democracy if they have lost their indigenous political system or their political sovereignty has been destroyed to some extent? Obviously, Dr. Duane Champagne did not dwell upon the definition of indigenous democracy; however, in his first paragraph, Dr. Champagne has succinctly pointed to the different nature of indigenous democracy that indigenous people indeed have a political system that focuses on relations in line with the nature of their “decentralized, consensus based, and inclusive” tribal government. Also apparently, this indigenous political system is different from the concept of the contemporary term democracy filled with capitalism market mechanisms. For many indigenous nations, maintaining indigenous democracy is vital to their sustainable development, irrespective of economy, politics, culture, education, and society. It would be constructive in discussion this significance in depth. Providing some cases of successful tribal governance may help achieve the stated purpose of this article. Nevertheless, Dr. Champagne chose to highlight the actual incommensurability between these two inconsistent political systems. From concisely describing the history of creation of democratic American to explicitly criticizing the assimilationist political agenda that has hurt the political autonomy of Native American, Dr. Champagne aimed to underscore that it will be unjust to let contemporary Native Americans suffer for the loss of cultural and political autonomy by invalidating indigenous unique government entities. Interestingly, in his second paragraph, Dr. Champagne argued that many indigenous people express their willingness to engage in the nation state as citizens while keeping and respecting their ancient cultural and political structure. But this phenomenon might solicit audiences to ask: Then why “most indigenous nation states do not recognize indigenous nations as political entities, and prefer to incorporate Indigenous Peoples into the body politic as individual citizens”? If the nation state does realize that “such a position is consistent with the values of equality, individual citizenship, and inclusive political processes that characterize modern liberal democratic states, but are not consistent with most contemporary indigenous political processes based on family, community, and territory” Dr. Champagne mentioned, then we really need to rethink and have a legitimate position to question about: 1) Who is the true trouble maker or peace interrupter? 2) Does the nation state, sincerely and seriously, take responsibility to make sense of indigenous political systems to avoid their many misconceptions or biases? For instance, the nation state may think in such way that granting indigenous nations self-governance may cause a negative social separatism or potential civil strife, which may harm American national security. When people have this kind of this question, then they have to take their responsibility to find the evidence and raise the crisis report at the same time. In other words, the nation state does not offer enough and valid room for mutual understandings and negotiations. Or even the nation state has done that, but each of them in fact does not achieve the authentic consensus. To demonstrate a necessity of normalizing ethical relationships as the premise of a peaceful coexistence, Dr. Champagne raised two successful cases in paragraphs 4 and 5, such as Mexican mestizo nation and Canadian First Nations, as evidence to justify the feasibility of a positive symbiotic relationship between Native Americans and the nation state. These two promising examples have documented a sound argument to respond to the question why we have to preserve indigenous democracy and evidenced that indigenous people indeed can benefit from their indigenous-based democracy. I contend that nation states do not necessarily worry about giving political autonomy and sovereignty back to these indigenous nations because indigenous nations will need to take responsibility for the results of their self-determination and self-governance, even if they have to face various challenges as their ancestors have had experienced. But they are born to be survivors with intelligence and wisdoms as their ancestors have had overcome. And as one of members for pursuing social justice, what we need to do is to recognize, respect, support, and bless. I would argue that recognizing indigenous people’s political autonomy and sovereignty is an opportunity for non-indigenous friends and some indigenous nations to learn what kind of indigenous political systems can support indigenous nations to survive for at least thousands of years. How do these unique political systems work to make them get along with each other and balance their life and ecological systems for a long time? Being humble to observe, respect, and learn is always our best teacher. To break the stalemate for recognition of indigenous self-determination and self-governance, I suggest that we can consider Freire’s idea of “intersubjectivity” and “dialogue politics” (Freire 2000) to eliminate the constantly hostile state-nation relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Sincerely, Che-Wei Lee
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