Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


One of the most interesting questions that can be asked about contemporary tribal government is, what is its source of authority and power? Unlike the federal government or any state governments, tribal governments in the United States do not have their foundations in the U.S. Constitution. Indigenous North American peoples had sociopolitical organizations that preceded the federal constitutions of both Canada and the United States and were not part of the people or political units that created these federal systems. Treaties in both nation-states provide one source for the ongoing relationships between these nation-states and the Indigenous governments, but these are not the only sources. Executive orders, national legislation, and court cases set further parameters on the interactions of Indigenous peoples with dominant states in North America; however, these are not the sources of tribal authority.

Current research from several directions in the United States and Canada concludes that the most successful tribal development occurs where traditional structures match the contemporary ones. This notion is intuitively satisfying, but it contradicts the historical policy behind the major pieces of legislation affecting the structure of tribal government in the twentieth century. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) created a centralized corporate model for tribal governments, assuming that traditional systems were inadequate to the demands of modern society. Similarly, the Indian Act in Canada (1876) created band councils. Decision making and development under these model governments has been uneven at best.

One successful fusion of traditional and contemporary governments is the Cheyennes'. Their prophet, Sweet Medicine, gave the Cheyennes their code of sacred laws, including organization of the council of forty-four chiefs for the ten bands of Cheyennes. The council consulted with warrior societies before making its political decisions. While contemporary Northern Cheyenne government is organized under the ira, traditional values maintain a strong influence. Tribal government is represented at the annual ceremonies, and ceremonial leaders receive tribal grants and, in some cases, a salary. This has the added benefit of continuity in the formal network between the Northern Cheyennes of Montana and the Southern Cheyennes of Oklahoma. Additionally, while the ira model centralizes decision making, the Northern Cheyennes use a referendum to allow the community a voice on major decisions.

In a different configuration, the basic political unit for the nomadic Lakota (Sioux) was groups of families, or tiyospayes, each governed by a wicasitancan, or chief. Through the leaders of fraternal societies the local unit became part of the band, then part of the larger Lakota Nation. A signal value for the Lakota was autonomy, and the critical level of allegiance was local, to the tiyospaye. Their political structure was designed to maximize and encourage this autonomy. In 1889 the United States forced the Sioux Nation to accept six separate reservations: Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Lower Brulé, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock. Those contemporary Lakota governments, later organized under the ira, emphasize tribal councils, centralized authorities with few mechanisms to include the community or traditional leadership in the decision- making process. Government decisions at the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations have been undermined by local and kinshipbased allegiances, as would be expected when the formal governing systems are seen as illegitimate by many in the community.

The influence of tribal values in tribal political approaches at the end of the twentieth century is illustrated in a contemporary interpretation of Treaty Number 7 as considered from the position of the Blackfoot Confederacy of southern Alberta. In the treaty the Blackfeet, Bloods, and other signatories promise to "maintain peace and good order." The clause broadly requires order between and among Indigenous people and with other Crown subjects at the time of the treaty (1877) and in the future. Such an agreement, it is argued, requires or implies the authority and power to implement the treaty terms by the Native nations. One avenue is to participate with the federal and provincial governments through guaranteed representation or comanagement.

Despite the amount of influence or interference from the United States and Canada and their efforts to transform, and even terminate, tribal polities, tribal governments persist. Even Indigenous nations that were forced to relocate several times, or those whose governments were repeatedly dissolved by external forces and whose populations were scattered, seem to find the most success when they draw their source of legitimate authority and power today from historic or traditional structures.

See also NATIVE AMERICANS: Blackfoot; Cheyennes; Sioux.

Roberta Haines University of California, Los Angeles

Champagne, Duane. American Indian Societies: Strategies and Condition of Political and Cultural Survival. Cultural Survival Report 32. Cambridge MA: Cultural Survival, Inc., 1989.

Cornell, Stephen, and Joseph P. Kalt. What Can Tribes Do? Strategies and Institutions in American Indian Economic Development. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, 1992.

Ladner, Kiera L. "Treaty Seven and Guaranteed Representation: How Treaty Rights Can Evolve into Parliamentary Seats." Great Plains Quarterly 17 (1997): 85–101.

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