- Sequoyah Rising: Problems in Post-Colonial Tribal Governance
Steve Russell has given us a refreshing and provocative book that covers a lot of ground. It is refreshing in its honest appraisal of some current incarnations of tribal governance, and it is provocative in its combative style and its willingness to discuss the long-term prospects for the survival of American Indian nations. Intriguingly, it pays less attention to the role of federal policy in tribal survival than to the role of tribal attitudes and actions. In effect, it is a recognition of the fact that the Indigenous future lies as much in tribal as in federal hands. It also [End Page 473] is less an in-depth analysis of tribal governance than a passionate and personal essay that engages, as the title suggests and in rapidly shifting bursts of attention, a series of problems or issues facing American Indian nations.
The last few decades have seen those nations begin to reemerge from more than a century of external controls. While many of those controls continue, and some recent United States Supreme Court decisions—as Russell points out—have undermined tribal authority, since the 1970s Indian nations have been asserting and exercising a growing degree of governing power. Russell wonders if some nations are ready for what real power implies: both the burden of responsibility and the possibility of failure.
The responsibility is to govern well. Some nations do, others don't. But, he says, if any nation—Native or non-Native—wants other governments to respect it and to take its claims seriously, then it has not only to assert governing power but to exercise it in ways that win and deserve that respect. Russell worries here about opaque tribal financial operations, politically driven enrollment battles, the corruption and lack of accountability that characterize some tribal governments, and other forms of dysfunction that have led in some cases to the return of decision-making power to the Bureau of Indian Affairs or to damaging battles in federal courts. His book is in part a plea, directed at American Indian nations, to take seriously the challenges of sovereignty and governance, not least as a protection against those forces that would like to subordinate tribes to state controls or do away with them altogether.
Sovereignty, according to Russell, is "the ability to make one's own rules" (58). But those rules have to respect the interests of those that the nation wants to work with. The nation cannot simply decide to make and break rules willy-nilly without regard to the effects of such decisions, which may not only undermine tribal relationships with potential partners but also undermine respect for tribal sovereignty more generally among both Indians and non-Indians. Over the long run, those who take the responsibilities of sovereignty lightly will fail to realize their potential benefits.
Russell's concerns, however, run deeper than the behavior of those who govern. He is concerned as well with the bases of tribal citizenship. Russell argues that the allegiance of tribal citizens to their nation and their engagement in its affairs depend on two very different kinds of incentives: material and solidary. Material incentives are just what they sound like: the material benefits of citizenship, from per capita payments to social services. Solidary incentives are less tangible but may be at least as powerful: the felt sense of identity, kinship bonds, the communal practice of culture, and so on.
The distribution of these incentives is not uniform across Indian nations; some offer more material incentives than others do, and some do a better job of sustaining solidary incentives. But incentives are important. Most individuals—including [End Page 474] Indigenous ones—have choices about which communities they are involved with and how involved they are. Incentives are part of what holds a community together.
The danger Russell sees is that in some tribes, the glue that sustains community is shifting from one set of incentives to the other. Over time, shared economic interests are replacing the moral authority once...