American Indian Politics




The 567 federally acknowledged indigenous peoples inhabiting the United States occupy a unique political niche within the larger society. Recognized as original sovereigns, they enjoy an extra-constitutional relationship with the federal and state governments, having never been incorporated into the U.S. or state constitutions. Indigenous governments today retain their inherent sovereign status and small remnants of their lands, although their authority as governing bodies and proprietary landholders has been substantially diminished by federal and state statutes, presidential decrees, court cases, and administrative activities—chiefly within the Department of the Interior. Still, the nearly four hundred ratified treaties that were negotiated between 1778 and 1871 affirmed Native sovereignty and established a close, if uneven, enduring political relationship with the United States. Complicating this unique government-to-government arrangement is the reality that federal lawmakers have attempted at various times to forcibly assimilate Native individuals via boarding schools, individualization of tribal property, imposition of Western legal institutions and values, and Christian missionary activity.

Notwithstanding the longevity and legitimacy of indigenous peoples as self-governing communities, there is a dearth of literature by political scientists examining the political institutions and politics generated by or affecting Native peoples. Several explanations have been proffered to explain the absence of indigenous politics in the broader field of political science, including the pluralist paradigm, which has great difficulty coping with Native peoples or politics because of tribal nationalism, which is rooted in communalism, treaty rights, and sovereignty; the diverse demographic dimension—nearly 570 Native communities, but with a cumulative population of less than 2 percent of the overall US population; a research emphasis on states; a future-driven orientation that fails to heed to important historical events crucial for Native political development and underdevelopment; and a focus on liberal individualism that struggles to address Native nationalism.

While literature on indigenous politics in the United States is meager, there exists sufficient data to provide a sample of commentary in several critical areas, including studies that examine the absence of indigenous politics in the discipline, political activism, voting rights and political behavior, governmental reform and development, intergovernmental relations, and political identity.

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Copyright © 2017 Oxford University Press. This article first appeared in Oxford Bibliographies in Political Science.

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