AP Nahuatl Incense Procession Basilica of Guadalupe
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
A woman wearing traditional indigenous dress carries incense as a procession enters the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City on October 13, 2015. The Basilica celebrated its first ever Mass in the indigenous language of Nahuatl that day.

Tribal and Christian Communities

Duane Champagne

Tribal communities are usually defined by unique family and kinship relations. Tribal community is an arrangement of kinship and relations among kinship groups. Among the traditional Iroquois, for example, the government is composed of decision making among families, clans, and the united clans, which formed the nation. The Iroquois Confederacy was formed by the unity of the nations, and led by a council of leaders who were attached to specific clans that attended the origin meetings over a thousand years ago. Decisions were made by consensus among the families, clans, nations and then the confederacy. Each family, clan, or nation could object to a proposition, and without complete or near consent, no decision was taken. The decisions of the families, clans and nations were respected and each, in contemporary language, were sovereign entities, and could veto decisions of the whole, and were not bound by decisions to which they did not wholly and willingly give their consent.

Many indigenous nations and kinship groups share a similar emphasis on kinship, village or local group consent for tribal decisions. This respect for the political participation of individuals, kinship groups, and other culturally defined entities, was a major contribution of Indigenous Peoples to a deeper understanding of democracy and political processes that is partly taken up by some present day governments.

A contribution of Christian communities is an emphasis on individuals and collective agreement among individuals within a spiritual or collective community. Building upon the idea of personal salvation, the individual who took responsibility for their own salvation. In world history, Christianity created a new form of social community, starting with church communities of individuals seeking salvation through the collective community of the church, became a blueprint for individual and collective organization in more secular, political, and economic formats. The community in Western tradition is often called voluntary association.

Individuals gather together to make decisions based on their personal views and responsibilities. Once the individual agrees to a set of collective rules and goals, then the person is bound to the group actions as long as the individual wishes to remain a member. For purposes of group effectiveness, some powers are delegated to elected leaders, and reviewed in discussion by the group. The corporate organization of present-day constitutional governments, economic corporations, and community associations follow in the path of the original Christian voluntary association.

Christian missions appealed to Indian nations to abandon kinship relations in favor of individual commitment to collective church participation and goals. Many Indigenous Peoples were not necessarily opposed to Christian teaching and its form of social and political organization. The Christian emphasis on abandoning kinship and other forms of local organization in favor of the individual commitment to a collective Christian community, was designed to introduce and induce Indians to take on Christian-Western forms of social and political organization, the voluntary association, and abandon tribal kinship and traditional ceremonial forms of organization.

Many Indigenous Peoples around the world have been influenced by Christian teachings and social community forms, and are often willing participants. Often, however, indigenous communities will participate in Christian individual and social relations, while at the same time continuing to participate in traditional kinship relations, as well as upholding ceremonial and traditional ways of understanding the world. Indigenous Peoples often will not deny their historical forms of social and religious relations, but will practice modified forms of Christian and indigenous social and ceremonial life.

Sometimes, as among the Christian Oneida and many California Indian nations, the kinship groups are not written into tribal bylaws or constitutions, nevertheless decision making is carried out by general councils composed of families and lineages that make the most important decisions for the nation through processes of negotiation, majority rule, and consensus formation. The present-day observation of multiplicity of indigenous worldviews and engagement in institutional relations is a reflection and extension of indigenous respect for cultural and social diversity.

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Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
Duane, I’m glad you brought this subject up. Although I was taught and live as a Traditional Cherokee, and part of those teachings was to respect the sacred paths of other people, as hard as I have tried, I have never been able to combine the two. Worshiping a Middle Eastern Prophet named Jesus and his teachings, bears no resemblance to understanding The Great Spirit. Perhaps on a non-sacred basis related to social organization some basis might exist to either combine the two or manage to work in both organizational ways. I can see no way to combine the sacred beliefs, or to believe in both. I always worry that I am missing something or have not risen to a level of combining both; but, I personally cannot see it. Perhaps further discussion can help to clarify this appearance of incongruity.