Political Science American Indian Politics
David E. Wilkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0206


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 US 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. One such attempt was passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, granting US citizenship with the goal of absorbing native individuals into the larger society. Interestingly, this action positioned Native individuals as rights holders in three polities: their tribal nation, their state of residence, and the United States. Even with treble citizenship, Native political, property, and cultural rights still lack fundamental protection from the federal government, despite ratified treaties and constitutional acknowledgment in the commerce clause. 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.

General Overviews

Despite the length of tenure of Native nations and their diverse governing arrangements, there has been a limited number of texts that broadly examine indigenous politics and governing systems. An early take on Native politics was Svennson 1973, which articulated the persistence and value of tribalism. O’Brien 1989 and Grinde 2002 employ a policy and case study approach that emphasizes the history and vitality of Native governments. Wilkins and Stark 2011 and Stubben 2006 are more expansive studies that describe and evaluate how Native politics is conducted internally and intergovernmentally. Rosier 2009 adds an important international dimension, while Russell 2010 provides one of the first heavy critiques of the manner in which Native governments have engaged, and sometimes violated, democratic principles.

  • Grinde, Donald A., Jr., ed. Native Americans. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2002.

    A collection of original works by an interdisciplinary set of scholars focusing on the alleged role that Native peoples played in the development of federal democratic principles, the evolution and tension between indigenous peoples and state governments, and the status of Native property rights. Useful primary source documents included.

  • O’Brien, Sharon. American Indian Tribal Governments. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

    An early contribution, written at the behest of the National Congress of American Indians, that provides an analysis of the contemporary status of five Native governments. Also contains an overview of federal Indian policies and a discussion about tribal-state relations.

  • Rosier, Paul C. Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    Presents an illuminating account of how Native nations and individuals articulate democracy and citizenship. Of note is an examination of expressed patriotism by Native peoples within their communities to the United States, particularly within the context of international developments—World Wars I and II, Vietnam, and in the wake of 9/11.

  • Russell, Steve. Sequoyah Rising: Problems in Post-colonial Tribal Governance. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2010.

    A provocative work by a former tribal judge arguing that many Native governments fail to exhibit the democratic traditions and values they claim as their heritage. Focuses on the multitude of problems bedeviling tribal nations, including split allegiances of tribal members.

  • Stubben, Jerry D. Native Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    Presents a broad overview of Native political participation within tribal society and in the US political system. The author also reviews interest group activity, lobbying, electoral politics, and Native office attainment at the state and national level.

  • Svennson, Frances E. The Ethnics in American Politics: American Indians. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess, 1973.

    Little-known but lively critical study that tackles the difficult question of Native definition before commencing to assess the broad ways the actions of federal policymakers directly impinge on native political and cultural autonomy. Political mobilization also examined.

  • Wilkins, David E., and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2011.

    The first comprehensive account written from a political science viewpoint to analyze and critique Native governments. Examines the intergovernmental relationship between these nations, as well as those they maintain with federal and state governments. Assesses the economics, ideologies, and interest group activities of these polities.

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