Many Indians currently identify themselves as citizens of an Indian nation. Usually the term citizen is used in the same way as citizen is used for the United States. As tribal communities use the expressions of nation and citizen, they are using the language of contemporary nation states.
For purposes of getting the United States to recognize Indian nations, tribal governments, and Indians as citizens of Indian nations, Indian people have adopted the language of nation states. While U.S. Indian nations have made some progress toward political and legal recognition as self-governing nations, the international discourse on nation states does not describe the purposes and organization of most Indian nations.
A problem with borrowing the language of nation and citizen from international definitions of nation states, is that Western and international government is very different from the government, community, political identity, individual participation, and culture of most Indigenous nations. Western nation states, like the United States, are composed of individual citizens, and the definition of nation is a collection of individuals who agree to form a government through adopting a constitution.
In contrast, indigenous governments have existed from time immemorial and are often gifted to the people through creation teachings or related spiritual events. While there are individuals in indigenous nations, indigenous nations are composed of kinship groups, and local groups like villages and regions. Indigenous nations have spiritual goals and purposes, often set out in the creation teachings, and manage reciprocal relations with all forces in the cosmic universe through ceremonies and moral community relations.
Many U.S. Indian nations have adopted constitutional forms as governments, and most of the constitutional governments are designed to remove Indian governments from spiritual and kinship relations. Many Indian constitutional governments have the form of secular nation states with formal separation from kinship and spirituality. Traditional kinship and ceremonial activities continue to affect government actions, goals, and processes.
Within many Indian nations, even those with constitutional governments, spirituality and kinship form a shadow government that sometimes controls considerable social and political power. Encouraging Indian nations to adopt constitutional governments and individual tribal citizenship were ways for the United States to integrate Indian nations and individuals more closely into U.S. political forms of government. In many ways, even the Indian New Deal and the War Against Poverty were slow methods of assimilation and termination.
Currently Indian nations choose constitutional governments because they may offer better prospects for future economic and political development that will help preserve Indian land, culture and self-government. From an indigenous perspective, constitutional governments can be instruments for engaging in national and international government for the purposes of preserving and implementing indigenous values, goals, and interests. U.S. Indians continue to organize within a wide variety of constitutional and more traditional forms of government, but they often have the same goals of preserving land, self-government, and culture.
The contemporary tribal citizen is not the individualist of U.S. society, but someone who has commitment to the goals of the community, tribal government, culture, and kinship structure. Increasingly, tribal government needs citizens who are well trained in tribal language, culture, and are committed to preserving an indigenous nation, community, and culture.
Creating tribal citizens remains a difficult task, as the demands for tribal nations and citizens requires abilities and knowledge to implement not only traditional culture and worldview, but technical and leadership skills that will ensure sustainability and political and cultural autonomy for indigenous nations.
Tribal leadership increasingly wants to educate tribal children in the history, language, and culture of the tribal nation, but also needs tribal citizens with professional educations required to responsibly and effectively engage contemporary and future issues. Tribal citizens, along with tribal governments, have responsibilities to take up the challenge of supporting indigenous national, cultural, and self-government sustainability. The contemporary tribal citizen needs to make sustained commitments to uphold, inform, and serve indigenous government, cultural, national, and economic interests and strategies.