July 30, 2011

Defining tribes by peoplehood

An excerpt from Steve Russell’s new book, Sequoyah Rising. Russell offers an answer to the questions posed in The Trap of Blood Quantum.A sovereign nation determines who qualifies for citizenship. If Indian tribes are indeed sovereign nations, nobody outside of an Indian tribe has any right to determine citizenship in that tribe. UCLA law professor Carole Goldberg has stated the most important question for those exercising tribal power when she asks, “if Indian nations want citizenship requirements to serve a particular set of values and purposes within their community, what kinds of citizenship provisions will most effectively achieve those ends?”And:While I would hesitate to liken it to property, tribal governments have the task of erecting legal barriers to the dilution of distinct cultures. All culture is learned. No exceptions. Language, religion, customs—all are learned. Leaving aside that the idea of inherited behavior is nonsense, it is dangerous because it leads to the conflation of Indian blood with Indian citizenship. It makes a “racial” classification out of a political classification.And:University of Arizona professor Tom Holm and his colleagues offer an analysis of Indian studies as an academic discipline that might inform debate on Carole Goldberg’s question regarding the “values and purposes” to be served by tribal citizenship criteria. They postulate a “peoplehood matrix” consisting of “four fundamental elements” “a sacred history; a well defined territory and environment; a distinct language; and a characteristic ceremonial cycle.” Most surviving American Indian tribes share these elements to some degree, and we all had them at one time.Comment:  Russell says a tribal citizenship test would be hard to administer, but I'm not sure how a tribe would apply these four "elements" to a prospective member. Sounds like candidates would have to pass something similar to a cultural test. They'd have to know something of a tribe's history and language, and would have to live close enough to participate in some ceremonies.

In any case, I haven't seen a good alternative to this kind of cultural test or standard. Eventually a blood-quantum requirement will extinguish a tribe, while a lineal-descent requirement will dilute it to the point of meaningless. Sooner or later, tribes will have little choice but to adopt a cultural standard like the "peoplehood" one.

For more on tribal identity, see Tribes Need Citizenship Tests and "Minimal Bloods" = Greedy White People?

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