American Indian Institute

Kin-Based Governments Can Be Successful and Profitable

Duane Champagne

A key to understanding American Indian nations, and Indigenous Peoples in general, is local community organization. Local groups, as basic building blocks of indigenous nations, play a powerful role in tribal or national consensus building and decision-making. The ways that local indigenous groups are constructed varies considerably among the nations, and through history.

Historically local tribal groups were composed of kin-based communities or as villages, bands, and sometimes regions. Local groups were generally politically and economically autonomous, and often maintained kinship, political, economic, and ceremonial ties to other local groups and the collective nation. Every indigenous nation is constructed uniquely, and relations and processes between national and local entities are often constructed quite uniquely as well.

Within the Iroquois Confederacy, families and clans were local decision-making groups. Among the Cherokee and Creeks, villages composed of clans were the main local groups. Among the Cheyenne, 10 bands of interrelated families formed the social and political organization of the Cheyenne nation. These unique processes and relations defined social, political, and economic expectations and obligations among the people and composed the rules of the nation. In many ways, this was the way that tribal nations carried on government from time immemorial, thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.

Local community remains a significant part of contemporary Indian political and social life. The bands of the Northern Cheyenne in Montana now form towns, composed of the descendants of the former Northern Cheyenne bands. The contemporary Northern Cheyenne bands play significant roles in the ceremonial and social lives of the Cheyenne, although the Cheyenne constitution does not mention them.

American-style constitutions, not based on local kin-based groups, take individuals as the main political, social and economic unit, and therefore ignore families, and kin-based indigenous social communities. Most tribal constitutions do not recognize ongoing and contemporary local-kin based political organization. The definition of tribal political organization in Western tradition is a family or kin-based political system. Democracy is a rejection of tribal organization, a rejection of kinship-based political organization, which is often still at the heart of contemporary indigenous nations. Individuals and geographical districting, form the basic units of Western democracy and democratic constitutions. Some of the internal troubles that indigenous constitutional governments have are conflicts between traditional unrecognized kin-based political communities and political leaders who serve individuals and districts, according to a constitution.

Local communities within contemporary indigenous nations have survived and changed. Cherokee villages have become stomp grounds. Christian Indians have formed churches that in many ways continue to reflect the same families and kinship relations of former villages or bands. Seminole Baptist Churches transplant traditional village ceremonies and village government, and hold together the same families whose ancestors lived together in a traditional village.

Western policy rejects kin-based political and economic organization as corrupt and inefficient. Nevertheless, many indigenous nations, who are fundamentally local and kin-based, have had considerable political and economic success.

The main social and political groups at Acoma Pueblo are clans and religious kiva. Yet the Acoma nation runs a profitable casino and stable government. The Ho-Chunk community of Nebraska is composed of 12 patrilineal clans, which preserve tribal traditions and ceremonies, and traditionally had formed the government. Many California Indian nations are composed of families that were once politically independent villages. Government officials moved various village members onto reservations and later asked them to form constitutional governments. Most of the new tribal governments rejected constitutional forms. Southern California Indians prefer to organize as general councils that manage all the significant affairs of the nation, as village general councils have done since time immemorial.

Nations like the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and Temecula Band of Luiseño Indians are managing successful business and casino enterprises. Local village and kin-based organization remains a major influence on the community, values, and social and political processes within indigenous nations.