Diversity and Division in American Indian Nations

By: Raymond Orr  

American Indian tribal power has typically expanded since the early 1960s. During this period, often referred to as the Self-determination Era, tribes have regained much of their earlier political centrality. As polities, tribes now wield considerable authority over their members and act as intermediaries between members and non-tribal governments. Despite such authority, scholars, leaders, and activists have identified multiple aspects of tribal authority that are imperfect or unduly limited. One rarely addressed limitation is that tribes as polities are “organizationally frozen” and mostly unable to break into smaller units while maintain recognition as legitimate. This essay identifies the inability of tribes to exercise what we call compositional flexibility and break apart to form new polities discrete of the previous tribe. We argue the absence of compositional flexibility is an important but under researched feature shaping politics. This is also odds with characteristics important to traditional forms of governance for many American Indian peoples. This essay examines how tribal division worked in previous periods and then considers how “freezing” tribes may impact political, economic and governance outcomes. It further looks at two instances in which one part of a tribe attempted to leave and be recognized as a new tribe: the Sacred Heart faction of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Ganienkeh faction of the Mohawk Nation. Though we are agnostic as to whether greater flexibility is an ultimately desirable political condition for tribes, the inability to divide is a central but less appreciated feature of contemporary American Indian politics.

Indigenous Peoples, Governance
Community Diversity and Governance
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Raymond Orr

Associate Professor, Native American Studies, The University of Oklahoma, United States
United States