American Indian Politics and the American Political System

Feb 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 14-3: Your Heroes Are Not Our Heroes, Media Reviews

By David E. Wilkins
Rowman and Littlefield Inc., 2002
365 pages

Review by Greg Chester

American Indian Politics by David E. Wilkins is a long-awaited, comprehensive, insightful text on the indigenous systems of governance within the United States. It contains a strong and rare balance of narrative and illustrations to help the reader. He explains contemporary issues in historic context and with maps, timelines, charts, graphs, samples of treaties, indigenous nation constitutions, U.S. laws, and U.S. executive orders. The appendices provide a good starting point for research papers. Wilkins often lets the indigenous participants speak for themselves.

Wilkens covers numerous indigenous nations, communities, and pueblos, including both the indigenous selective democracies and the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) elective systems, giving the beginning student a good start. He explains the present day resilient, sophisticated, legislative process of the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy of Nations). With balanced insight, he explains the complex workings of the traditional and IRA governments on the Great Plains, as well as the unique systems of the Pueblo people of the Southwest. He also addresses international issues.

Several areas can be improved: his use of the term “tribe,” the use of past tense when discussing the Great Law of Peace, and the too narrow focus of the Pequot section. “Tribe” is an admittedly confusing term. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “tribe” as clan. In the United States, many people use tribe to refer to a nation, clan, band, community, confederation of nations, confederation of reservations and communities, and many other groups, thus making the term confusing to the point of being useless. To avoid confusion it is wise to only refer to a people as a tribe when the people describe themselves as a tribe; otherwise use the terms the people use to describe themselves. We authors need to respect a people’s view of themselves.

James Duane promoted much of this confusion in his 1784 letter to Gov. George Clinton of New York when he urged the governor to refer to the Six Nations Confederacy as “tribes.” Duane wanted to place the Six Nations below New York in the new U.S. government’s hierarchy. New York, Duane insinuated, could then claim the Six Nations’ lands as being part of New York instead of the other way around.

I would recommend describing the legislative system of the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations in the present tense, as they are functioning and strong today. The Mashantucket Pequot Nation case was well done as far as it went; however, the Pequot are more than a casino and dollars. They have a history, principles, and a vision as a people and as a nation..

David Wilkins’s book is a standard in its field. I hope it will inspire other authors to follow his lead, both in the indigenous American field and other fields of history and politics. This book would provide an excellent text for introductory survey courses on indigenous governance and other areas of indigenous studies. It fills a major void in this field.

Greg Chester is the director of the Leech Lake Tribal College Library in Cass Lake, MN. He has taught government, political science, history, and social science courses for over 18 years.


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