Traditional Indian Government: Of the People, by the People, for the People – Marie Smallface-Marule (1984)

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by Marie Smallface-Marule (Kainai Nation / Blood Tribe), 1984

Our strength as Indians derives from our tribal identity. The Canadian government, very deliberately and systematically, is seeking to undermine our tribal identity by imposing policies on Indians that emphasize individualism and materialism. This policy of ‘detribalization’ subverts our consensual political system, our kinship system, our communal ownership system, and our collective economic system. This policy represents the biggest problem in our efforts to revitalize our Indian societies and governments.

In traditional Indian societies, whether band or clan, authority was a collective right that could be temporarily delegated to a leader, under restrictive conditions, to carry out essential activities. But the responsibility and authority always remained with the people(1). In situations where the collectivity temporarily delegated authority to a leader, that person had to have the respect of the entire tribe, not merely the support of a majority of voters. Obedience to the leader derived from the respect that the people had for him. The coercive imposition by the Canadian government of an elected form of government on Indians is in direct conflict with traditional forms of government. The elective model is based on individual ownership of land and the delegation of authority from above, and it has created serious problems in our Indian communities. This is particularly true among the prairie tribes, where there has always been a strong tradition of decision-making by consensus rather than by individuals in authority.

I have had an opportunity to observe how the consensus approach to decision-making works in practice. In the mid-1970s when I worked for the executive council of the National Indian Brotherhood, they used this approach because they recognized a flaw in the system of majority rule. They saw that majority rule forces decisions on the minority, thereby creating divisions. The few times that the executive council attempted to use the majority-rule system of decision-making, it resulted in the abstention of those who didn’t agree with it. They would not directly oppose it, but they did not pay any attention to it either. Thus, it was possible to work together only on those things where they all agreed. On matters of disagreement, each was left to take his own approach.

It is not known to what degree the Canadian government has been successful in its efforts to eliminate traditional Indian attitudes and values. It is assumed by many that very little remains of traditional Indian ideology and philosophy because the traditional Indian life-style is no longer in evidence: that is, we don’t live in tepees anymore. This assumption holds that traditional values and beliefs changed when our life-styles changed. Implicit in this assumption, also, is the notion that Indian culture must remain static to remain Indian. But the history of our people is a history of successful adaptation to change while countering oppression and resisting imposition of undesired changes. A specific and important example of such resistance to imposed change can be observed in the Indians’ refusal to submit to pressures by the Canadian government to adopt its system of individualized land allotment.

Why is the issue of Indian government taking centre stage at the present time? The answer is to be found in the policy goals of the Canadian government. They want to revise the Indian Act to accelerate the detribalization of Indians. Their ultimate goal is the termination of Indian status and the complete assimilation of our people into Canadian society. The first major attempt by the Canadian government to advance this objective was made in 1969. The 1969 White Paper on Indian policy sought to terminate Indian status and rights within a five-year period. It was unsuccessful. Now the Canadian government sees an opportunity to use the Constitution to achieve the same end. Embodied in the Constitution as it now stands is the falsehood that international political and legal principle gives to the Canadian government the right to terminate our special status as Indians. But if they truly have this right, why do they bother to pacify us by throwing a few words on aboriginal rights into the Canadian Charter Of Rights and Freedoms? Why do they dangle the mirage of Indian government in front of us at this time? I say it is to divert our attention from their policy goals, which are in contravention of international political and legal principles.

When a delegation of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs went to the United Nations to address the under-secretary-general of Political Affairs, Decolonization, and Trusteeships(2), they said, ‘Look here! You are ignoring us. You have addressed the colonial situations in Africa and Asia, but you have ignored the Western Hemisphere. Why is it that you are allowing colonial situations to exist in the Western Hemisphere?’ Significantly, after the UBCIC brought this issue to the attention of the UN, the Canadian government suddenly became willing to negotiate changes to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adding protection for treaty and aboriginal rights along with traditional rights and freedoms. But this provision is not acceptable to the UBCIC because the charter contains no acceptable definitions of aboriginal and treaty rights. Furthermore, the provision governing Indian rights will be subject to the constitutional amending formula. This formula requires agreement by the provincial governments before any changes can be effected on Indian treaty and aboriginal rights.

It is no secret that the interests of the provincial governments are in direct conflict with Indian interests. This conflict of interest derives from Indian land claims. Currently, large parts of Canada are under tenancy by indigenous peoples. For example, 80 per cent of the population of northern Saskatchewan is native Indians: in northern Manitoba, it is 90 per cent. Now and historically, territories belonged to the indigenous people. Yet the consequence of the constitutional amending formula will be to leave Indians with whatever territories the provinces choose to surrender, which may be nothing. Some say that claiming these territories for Indians is a very idealistic and unrealistic position to take, a symbolic position. But that is not the position of the native people. The UBCIC rejected the proposed constitutional package, saying:

“As long as we have no involvement in amendments that affect Indian people, then what we are offered is nothing. It is not better than what it was before. We are better off with s.91(24) of the BNA Act and the interpretation that administration of the trust now reverts back to Britain upon the independence of Canada.”

To create division among Indians in their stand on the Constitution, the Canadian government decided to bait the Constitutional trap. It leaked information that it was about to pass ‘Indian-government’ legislation that would empower Indian band councils to assume the authority currently exercised by the minister of Indian Affairs. By leaking news of this ‘significant concession,’ the Canadian government sought to induce some Indians to support the constitutional package. Even if this proposed ‘concession’ turns out to be genuine, however, it offers Canadian Indians no more than what the United States gave to its Indians in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This is an act to institutionalize legal authority over Indians. For American Indians this act brought with it European concepts of authority and the associated structures, systems, and institutions. The Canadian Indian-government legislation is rumoured to have an ‘opting-in’ provision so that bands will not have to accept it if they do not want to. Ostensibly, bands will be allowed to opt into the Indian-government system when they are ‘ready’. But there is an underlying threat that, if a band refuses to opt in when the government deems it should, its funds can be cut off.

The tactic of cutting off funds in order to coerce us to surrender our authority and responsibility is not new. The Canadian government used it during the last century by withholding rations in times of famine and disaster. Today social assistance is being manipulated in the same manner to subordinate and intimidate Indians. How can Indian people take political control of their communities when 80 per cent of them are dependent on the Canadian government for social assistance? We cannot declare political independence so long as we are dependent on Canadian government welfare.

In my travels, particularly in Central and South America, I have seen Indian communities that most of us would say are poor, and it is true that materially they are poor. But those people have a remarkable strength: they are independent economically. They feed themselves. They are not part of the national or international economic system. They are not consumers; they are producers: they produce all they need for themselves. This is in stark contrast to our Indians in North America. We are locked into the non-lndian economic system. We are hooked on consumerism.

Indian communities that have worked to get rid of their dependence on the Canadian government have not found it easy, but some have done it. The Neskainlith Indian people of the Shuswap nation have said,

“We are going to do something about this dependency of ours. We are going to regain some degree of self-reliance. We are going to cut our dependency on money and on the Canadian government which controls every facet of our lives.”

They are struggling to this end, and it is truly marvelous to see the progress they are making. They are showing that dependence is a matter of attitude.

There is a belief among some of our Indian people that by replacing the white bureaucrats in the Indian Affairs Department with brown people we will remedy all that is wrong with our situation. The experience of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) shows that this approach offers no solution to Indian problems. Sixty per cent of BIA employees are of native descent, and sixteen of the top twenty-five administrative positions are currently held by native people. Yet the BIA continues to function as an ineffective, oppressive agency because of its structure, its systems, and its processes. Currently some of our provincial organizations are acting on the assumption that by organizing themselves along the lines of the Indian Affairs Department they will be able to do more for their people than Indian Affairs now does, This too is a fallacy; furthermore, it is a fatal mistake for us to assume that solutions to our problems can be found in Euro-Western structures, systems, and processes.

Let us now turn to consider workable alternatives available to us. We talk sovereignty and claim it for ourselves, but we have not yet to exploit the opportunities that are open to us to exercise it. British Columbia Indians have begun to take a leadership role in asserting their sovereignty. Why are British Columbia Indians more progressive than Alberta Indians in this regard? I have a personal theory about this: people living in poverty have less, individually, to lose and are more willing to risk what little they have to achieve their rights. In British Columbia, where there are smaller communities, a smaller land base, fewer resources, and less material wealth, Indians are willing to risk the consequences of confrontations with the Canadian government. In Alberta, where Indians have a larger land base, greater resources, and greater individual material wealth, they are acquiescing to the system that the Canadian government has imposed because they are afraid of losing what they have.

There exists in Alberta also a more entrenched Indian elite than one finds in British Columbia. This is because the benefits of economic development on Indian reserves tend to accrue to a privileged minority, and in Alberta there has been more economic development on Indian reserves. Emergence of an elite class in Alberta Indian communities has inhibited the development of traditional Indian government because elite interests are well served by the kind of political and economic system advocated by the Department Of Indian Affairs. Such a system enables the elite group to conduct band affairs in such a way as to maintain and advance its self-interests. This elite group of Indians does not want its people to regain authority over their own affairs because that would require leaders to be accountable to their people. In effect, the elite class of Indians is fronting for the Indian Affairs Branch by persuading the mass of members to accept what the Canadian government is pushing. The elite are telling Indian people that if the proposed Indian-government legislation is passed by the Canadian government, Indians will have what they want — self-determination. What they are not saying is that the systems, the institutions, the structures associated with legislated Indian government will be the same as those under the Indian Affairs Department.

In Indian communities elitism is sometimes promoted by people who go to university and return home believing they have the right, the authority, and the wisdom to tell people what they should do or what is best for them. They assume that they should hold a superior economic and social position in the community. Elitism is a European ideology and philosophy. It is completely contrary to our traditional philosophy and ideology, and it is very dangerous to the survival of Indian communities.

Reassertion of the peoples’ authority is a critical issue if Indian government is to have any real meaning. The Neskainlith Indians of the Shuswap nation, whom I mentioned earlier, are doing just that. These people are standing up and challenging their leaders, asking the fundamental question: ‘Who gave you your authority — the people, or the Canadian government?’ They are struggling to re-establish and revitalize traditional processes of decision-making, which eliminate the danger of elitism. Without revitalization of the traditional system of leadership and of leadership selection, I foresee that Indian society will evolve into a system of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’

An alternative model of government available to Indians is one that places the locus of authority in the smallest political unit. The larger, more encompassing political units would play only a delegated, co-ordinating function. Under such a model we would resurrect family-clan groups and communities. Each band would select its representatives to send to the tribal council. These representatives would get their direction from their band constituents. They would have specified responsibilities and limited authority. Thus, the tribal unit would function as it did traditionally, acting only in instances where the bands comprising the tribal unit had shared concerns, but ultimate authority would continue to rest within each band community.

The next step in building Indian government would be to resurrect and reactivate the tribal confederacies to act as encompassing units in matters of shared tribal concerns, such as commerce, trade, and political representation at a higher level. The confederacies, like the tribal units, would function in the traditional manner, that is, in the spirit of specified responsibilities, with limited authority. With such constraints a political unit is less vulnerable to rule by bureaucracy because the authority to build a ‘top-down’ bureaucracy is lacking. By vesting authority in the smallest political unit, the necessary administrative structures are kept as close as possible to the people. This increases the likelihood that they will be more sensitive and responsive to community needs than are the currently functioning oversized (Canadian and Indian) political-bureaucratic organizations to be found in Ottawa and the provincial capitals. An example of rebuilding Indian societies along the lines I have described can be in the Shuswap Nation in British Columbia. The Shuswap Nation comprises twenty-four bands united in a tribal confederation. The Shuswaps are related to other Salish groups, thus offering the potential to go on organizing into a confederation of Indian nations.

A model such as I am advocating would require a degree of communal sharing. Many people believe the concept of communal sharing is extinct in Indian communities, but I think it is very much alive. It merely hasn’t been allowed to function. It hasn’t had an opportunity to express itself in contemporary Indian society.

In all of this, I am detailing what I consider to be the best path to the development of an Indian political unit that can negotiate effectively with the government of Canada. We must have such a united political body because, if we try to negotiate on the basis of one Indian nation at a time, we are much less likely to succeed than if we do it as a united people. But in all of this we must be careful to honour an important traditional principle — that is, not to dictate to any Indian community how it should deal with its internal affairs. We as Indians hold many interests in common on which we can work together. We must work together on those commonalities but not involve ourselves in trying to force all our people into accepting the same solutions.

The model of government I have described offers potential advantages not only to Indians but to all Canadians. Canadians today are having serious problems with their political institutions. Consider, for example the municipal governments’ relationship to the provincial governments. These relationships are as paternalistic and bureaucratic as is the band council — Department of Indian Affairs relationship. They have similar problems of jurisdiction over resources, of indebtedness, dependence, and the alienation of people from central government. They also have the limitations that are inherent in a fragmented authority that is unable to deal effectively with the problems confronting it. Like band councils they are subject to a variety of uncoordinated small political units (hospital boards, school boards, and so on) all beholden to a central government and lacking the authority for integrated planning that could give a meaningful sense of community to the people. Yet this municipal-government structure is now being offered to Indians as an alternative, a better alternative, to our existing situation.

Frantz Fanon, in writing about the process of colonization and decolonization identifies several sequential stages and impacts upon individuals and society. While his account may be overly dramatic, I have found parallels between the stages and impacts he describes and what our people are experiencing, particularly our experience in the last two generations. Indians are in the stage, identified by Fanon, where we believe that we are an inferior people. This sense of inferiority is evident in the way we are negotiating the terms of Indian government with the Canadian government. There is an underlying attitude that we have nothing of value in our communities, that the good things are to be found outside of our communities, that we must have federal officials tell us what to do.

A specific example of our sense of inferiority can be observed in the prevailing assumption among our people that we have to go to university for knowledge. Yet we have our elders to give us guidance. They have no university education, but they have a lifetime of understanding and wisdom to offer us. Until about ten years ago we had very few Indians in universities, but we survived and achieved. When I worked with the National Indian Brotherhood, only two member of the executive council had any university training. Yet they were all very knowledgeable about the white man’s system — not only knowledgeable but wise about it, knowing all its traps and pitfalls.

I observe a sense of inferiority, also in our assumption that we need hospitals and doctors to have good health. Yet the evidence shows these have not contributed to our good health. They represent only an ineffective curative, not a preventative approach. Indians had far better health under the traditional system than we have today.

If we really want help ourselves, we must revitalize our institutions. We must turn to our own traditional structures, systems, and processes. This does not mean that we have to return to the way we were two or three hundred years ago. Given our experience and knowledge about the failures of the European institutional structures, systems, and processes, why should we repeat their mistakes? Why, for example, should we adopt an educational system that not only fails to meet the needs of its students but also alienates them in the process? Yet we are currently on a course of introducing that type of educational system into our Indian communities. I we are uncritically adopting European-Western institutional approaches because of our sense of inferiority. We are doing it because we do not have confidence in our ability to build something that will be workable, more appropriate to our needs, and more effective. I am convinced that Indians can find in their traditional philosophies and ideologies better and more meaningful approaches than those offered by the Canadian government. We have something to offer that even other Canadians can look to as a better alternative to their existing institutions.

I know it is difficult to change institutions once they are established. This is where Indians are fortunate. We have not fully accepted the Canadian model of political, economic and social administration and management as our own model on the reserves. We still have a chance to shape our institutions so they will conform to our traditional philosophies and ideologies and to adapt these to contemporary times so they will be as useful as they were previously to our community. But it is essential that Indians insist on traditional institutions, systems, and processes as the framework for any discussion of Indian government. Our traditional philosophies and ideologies are absolutely vital to our future. They must be clarified to give our people a real alternative.

My proposed approach to Indian government is not an easy route. Most things worthwhile are not easy to obtain. It will require much thought and planning. Without careful deliberation our ‘solutions’ will only multiply our problems. In this process of thinking and planning, we must beware of the traitors in our midst — those of our people who have already accepted elitism, materialism and individualism, who are trying to convince us that the Canadian way is the only way. Yes, it may be inevitable that our greatest enemies are within our own ranks.


1. Under this principle all members of the community had to be involved in decision-making. The elders were involved as wise men. They counselled the younger generations. Children, too, were included in the decision-making process.

2. This section of the UN has a committee called the Committee of 24 which has been dealing with colonial, decolonization and trusteeship matters. It has been talking as though its work is almost finished, despite the fact that Indians in many parts of the world are still colonized.

marie university
Athabasca University

See also:

Another Wave of Anti-Colonialism: The Origins of Indigenous Internationalism, by Jonathan Crossen (contains background info on Marie Smallface Marule’s organizing work)

Marie Smallface-Marule (Windspeaker profile, 2015)

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