a Tribe or not a Tribe?

by Annie Coombs

Present day tribal relationships with regard to family, community and membership have little similarity to tribal relationships prior to western engagement with the indigenous population in the United States. Where previously tribal membership was fluid and defined by community, today enrollment is defined by science and law. Today if you have Native American ancestry, you have membership to the tribe your ancestors belonged to at the time they engaged with non-natives (assuming you have the legally designated percentage of blood from that tribe to qualify as a member). You cannot move between tribes, where in the past you could do this through marriage or adoption by. Today, membership through marriage is allowed by a few tribes and not allowed by others. Previously the benefit of being part of a tribe was sharing communal resources (including food and shelter), building relationships through families, and safety provided by being part of a group, today those benefits are primarily provided by financial remuneration from the US government, ‘tribal’ governments who answer to and are financed by the US government, and ‘tribal’ police who have little authority on reservations and no authority with non-tribal members. When tribal membership shifted to legal status rather than community inclusion, claiming legal tribal membership became less about belonging to a group, and more defined by individual ownership, property and eligibility for remuneration from the US government. That is not to say there is no community on reservations, but rather a new legal definition of membership into tribal communities and its associated individual financial benefits, re-framed the traditional concept of tribal membership.

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Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Pow-Wow | Eagle Butte, SD | September 2015

At the turn of the century as physical boundaries and reservations were outlined, tribal membership suddenly gave an individual benefits such as trust land (land that was once  shared), free food, free education, and free housing. Enrollment in a federally recognized tribe was a way the government could track native non-citizens prior to full inclusion in the United States.  Most people native to the United States weren’t offered US citizenship until 1924. This US citizenship was a double edged sword, offering inclusion into US society but simultaneously forfeiting sovereignty for tribes. As traditional sources of food, such as the buffalo herds on the plains, rapidly disappeared, many had no choice but to ‘enroll’ with their tribe and accept new ways to sustain themselves through individual benefits for  ‘tribal members’ rather than through the traditional tribal community. While treaty arrangements between tribes and the US government justly provided financial and sustenance remunerations for lost land and a way of life, they also corrupted the communal notion of tribe, which was the fabric of Native American life.

A present day legal battle within the Chukchansi Tribe (This American Life, 491: Tribes, march 29, 2013) over membership illustrates a corruption of the traditional collective notion of tribe. The Chukchansi tribe in California is actively dis-enrolling members in an attempt to increase individual payouts from a local tribally owned Casino. With each member dis-enrolled the remaining members receive higher payouts from the casino’s income. In this case, membership in the tribe is no longer about community, but rather about individual entitlement to money and favoritism. The commodification of tribal membership through competition for benefits and limited resources, including Casino payouts, government financial payouts, food stamps, housing and land allocation fractures intratribal relationships. The Chukchansi example is extreme, but shows how in this case benefits rather than community are now defining membership to a tribe.

The corruption of tribal communities through their engagement with the west (or what many refer to as the white world) has left many Native Americans in limbo between a lost way of life in their community and an alien American culture to which they are also outsiders. When the US government created a legal designation needed for recognition of tribal membership it ultimately divided people rather than protected them by incentivizing self-interest over communal aspirations.

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