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Many California Indian nations, the Oklahoma Seminole, Pueblos, and Iroquois nations operate governments that are constructed upon traditional village, clan, and kinship groups and rules. The Taos Pueblo is a centuries old village in northern New Mexico that is governed by a tribal governor and war chief.

Indigenous Nations Have the Right to Choose: Renewal or Contract

Duane Champagne

When making significant change indigenous nations make choices about whether to build on traditions or to adopt new forms of government, economy, culture or community. Many changes are external and often forced upon contemporary Indigenous Peoples. Adapting to competitive markets, or new bureaucratic programs, or changes in policy and administration of nation states are matters that are outside an indigenous nation’s control. Changes that are not generated within Indian nations often do not have community or tribal government consent, and therefore are taken in compliance only.

The most important changes that occur in Indian nations are the changes made by the community itself. When Indian nations agree to make changes or new policies, and the community accepts them, there is enduring and committed change that expresses the will and values of the community. Such self-directed change is powerful and enduring, consensual, and therefore an expression of culture, interests, and values of the nation. Indigenous nations are consensus-based communities and, while consensus is not always possible, it is very powerful when gained on fundamental issues.

Every indigenous nation has the right to make choices about its future and whether to adopt change. There are thousands of indigenous nations and thousands of indigenous cultures and governments. There is little reason to believe that indigenous nations will all choose the same patterns of change to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.

In the present state of policy, there are two major patterns of change that are current and offered by nation states or by tribal communities themselves. Tribal nations can form governments by contract or by renewal. Contract theory suggests nations can be formed anew by agreement, while traditional renewal strategies focus on incremental changes to traditional core institutions. Some indigenous nations have adopted many aspects of contracts, while others modify their traditional political forms and recreate them to address contemporary issues. It is a judgment about which choice to make, and only the members of each indigenous nation can make the choice for themselves.

The choices between renewal and contract are drastic. Contract theory, based on Christian and recent Western political theory, suggests that individuals will make choices and agree on a government, such as a constitution, by compact or rational agreement. Constitutions are based on contract theory, which rejects traditional political forms and institutions, and encourages starting governments and political processes new and unencumbered with the past. In Western political practice, contract theory is a method of creating democratic constitutional governments, while rejecting the old centralized and class based absolutist states of Europe. Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) governments and many tribal constitutions or by-laws are developed within the contract approach. IRA constitutions re-organized tribal governments with deliberate intention to eliminate traditional political leaders, clans, kinship, villages and other traditional forms. Contract theory is useful for nations that want to start entirely new, and who wish to reject traditional political forms and governments as unworkable within the contemporary world.

Renewal, a traditional expression for limited change, suggests that many or some traditional forms of political leadership, kinship, clans, villages, or regions many continue to make sense and are useful. Many California Indian nations, the Oklahoma Seminole, Pueblos, and Iroquois nations operate governments that are constructed upon traditional village, clan, and kinship groups and rules. Nevertheless, many tribal governments with core traditional institutions are successful in many ways, such as managing large casinos or protecting their political rights, or avoiding termination. Some nations, like the Teslin Tlingit Council in the Canadian Yukon, are constructed by a combination of constitutional-contract theory and renewal strategies, where traditional clans remain central to the new constitutional government. The diversity of indigenous nations is reflected in the diversity of strategies and choices for nation building and renewal.