National American Indian Heritage Month - What Can I Do?

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, when people are encouraged to learn about the past, present, and future of American Indians and Indian tribes. The mission of CAIRNS is directly related to this effort: “to advance knowledge and understanding of American Indian communities and issues important to them.” 

Last week, the CAIRNS director Zoomed into Bellarmine University to deliver a virtual presentation on the fundamental aspects of American Indian tribes that differentiate them from racial, ethnic, cultural, and minority groups in the United States. Tribes are nations; racial groups, ethnic groups, cultural groups, and minority groups are not. Nations sign treaties with the United States; racial, ethnic, cultural, and minority groups do not. Nations have distinct land bases and borders; racial, ethnic, cultural, and minority groups in the United States do not. 

 You too can support tribal nationhood, beginning right now! Doing so does not require attending a rally, writing a check, or contacting elected officials. These efforts would take time and would ultimately depend on the actions of others to be effective. But you can support tribal nationhood immediately, by speaking of tribes with the same words you use to speak of all other nations. 

Here are seven examples of using your words to reinforce the fact that American Indian tribes are nations:

1. The persons who belong to a nation are called “citizens” of that nation. They are not “members” of that nation nor are they “enrolled” in that nation. “Members” refer to persons who belong to teams and clubs and groups; not to nations. Persons can “enroll” in college or insurance plans; not in a nation. Persons who belong to a tribal nation are citizens of that tribal nation.

2. Citizenship is unequivocal. A person is either a citizen or not. There are no “part” citizens. In tribal nations and the United States, one of the defining characteristics of a citizen is the right to vote. Citizens of a nation have the right to vote in their nation’s elections. Non-citizens do not have that right. There is no part-citizen of a tribal nation.

3. Every nation has the right and obligation to determine its citizenry. A citizen of the United States may have Irish ancestry, but that person is not necessarily a citizen of Ireland. Similarly, all persons with Oglala ancestry are not necessarily citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Ancestry is determined by biology, whereas citizenship is determined by nations. Having tribal ancestry is not the same status as being a citizen of a tribal nation.

4. Nations have capitals. Generally, the town or city where a nation’s administrative offices are located is that nation’s capital. Corporations and military operations have “headquarters.” Governmental departments have “agencies.” The town or city where a tribal nation’s administrative offices are located is its capital. 

5. Persons live “in” a nation, not “on” it. A person lives “in” Japan, or Mexico, or some other nation. No one lives, works, travels, or was born “on” a nation. When referring to the lands of a tribal nation, do so using the same prepositions as when referring to the lands of other nations.

6. Persons who live in a nation are “residents” of that nation; they are not necessarily “citizens” of that nation. The citizens of a nation can live anywhere in the world. Always differentiate between a tribal nation’s residents and its citizens.

7. Plurals are used when referring to the residents and citizens of a nation. When referring to more than one resident or citizen of a tribal nation, always use a plural form. 

The words you choose to use when talking about American Indian tribes will either support or undermine the legal fact that tribes are nations. Your words can be persuasive. Choose them carefully. 

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)