Native Village 
Youth and Education News

October, 2013

What is an Indigenous Nation?
Condensed by Native Village

Tipiziwin Young shares a vocabulary lesson with 3-year-olds in a Lakota language immersion program at Sitting Bull Community College on on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

“Nation” is not an indigenous word.  While most native communities have a word for their idea of a collective political or cultural group, their philosophy is not centered upon economic markets or democratic governments.

The difference between a tribal society and a contemporary nation is: Tribal societies are framed on kinship and local loyalties. These supersede national loyalties.

In tribal societies, kinship identity plays a central role. In contrast to a nation, clan organizations in tribal communities often take charge. Among the Cherokee and Iroquois, the clans managed justice. When a person was killed by a non-tribal member it was the clan, not the nation, that sought retribution.

Today, many tribal peoples maintain loyalties that are local and kinship based. Tribal communities in southern California are mostly family based. Their political and social loyalties to family, kin, and/or local groups are often stronger than any loyalty, obligation, or identification with a national group.  

Most contemporary Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux maintain local and kinship based identities and social obligations.

After colonial contact, some Indian peoples grouped together to strengthen their defenses against marginalization, assimilation, and incorporation. Some Indigenous Peoples formed national identities and institutions. These include the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and others.

The modern theory is that "national identity" is required to participate in market economies and democratic governments. This is not borne out by Indigenous Peoples. While tribal groups have access to market opportunities, they maintain their own collective control over tribal land and government. This enables tribal communities to better distribute resources equally while maintaining good government. 

While many Indigenous nations are still based on kinship, they remain part of the contemporary world and will do so indefinitely.  In the future, these kin-based nations will continue to surprise us by the innovative and successful ways they manage economic and political relations.

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