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Democracy is Indigenous: Cultivating a Present and Historical Lens to Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement

November 23, 2021 Chelsea Reid Boston University

This blog post is a special collaboration between the Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Knowledge Community and the Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community. Chelsea Reid serves as the Regional Representative Liaison for the IPKC.


In discussions, can you truly articulate democracy or speak on the civic and democratic process, without the context and history of Indigenous peoples?  This blog post will provide some historical context and information about the current state of civic learning and democratic engagement, through the lens of indigeneity.

As those committed to the work of higher education and student affairs, we as practitioners hold a responsibility to acknowledge, and understand that there could be no American Democratic Process, without the original stewards of Turtle Island, and the Native and Indigenous peoples of these lands. We hold this truth in direct historical context and the majority of the lived (and living) experiences of those who until 1970 had not gained the right to vote. When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came about with its many amendments, Native and Indigenous folx were still being met with major restrictions and systemic oppression, the echoes of which still linger in the ongoing fight for recognition, acknowledgement, treaties and territory. It is important to remember through this reading that Native and Indigenous peoples are not a monolith; and the positionality of this post is simply rooted in one lineage and perspective.

Historical Context
While the ability and “right” to vote came about at a much later time for Indigenous peoples, tribal and clan democracy has been a long standing and persistent traditional structure. To be a pachem, chief, or chieftess is to be a Head of State; and should be treated as such. It’s important to understand that while the Western hierarchy, and the positions in government, are crafted and rooted in different understandings of “power,” the Indigenous tribe and clan leaders of these people hold momentous power and respect. It is this understanding that highlights the gravity of the political harm that has been committed against Indigenous peoples, by way of broken treaties and stolen land.

Tribal processes are still upheld by Indigenous peoples, and the overlap of non-tribal and traditional democracies continues to grow as more pachems, chiefs, leaders and tribal members are asserting themselves within the Western political sphere, and the higher education landscape.

Indigenous Socio-Political Movements
Social and political movements are a cornerstone in Western Democracy and Indigenous peoples have and continue to put forth massive efforts and labors towards sovereignty, justice and human rights. From Mauna Kea, and the ongoing fight to prevent that destruction to the sacred mountain of creation and genealogy for our Native Hawaiian relatives to pipeline 3, and the oil pipeline working and polluting the life and waters of the Anishinaabe; Indigenous peoples have been on the forefront of the fight for the longevity and protection of their homes, communities and livelihoods. To know the history of this place: the lands that we all live, work and learn on; is to follow the movements and the people that have put themselves on the front lines, and have stood and spoke for those who cannot. More examples of these peoples and groups can be found below:

  • International Indian Treaty Council: “The International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) is an organization of Indigenous Peoples from North, Central, South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific working for the Sovereignty and Self Determination of Indigenous Peoples and the recognition and protection of Indigenous Rights, Treaties, Traditional Cultures and Sacred Lands.
  • National Congress of American Indians: “The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities."
  • National Indian Youth Council: “The National Indian Youth Council manifests the influence of the civil rights movement of the period of its founding and has used tactics of demonstration and confrontation. The National Indian Youth Council and the National Congress of American Indians both predate the American Indian Movement (AIM) and share its focus on a national unity that respects tribal sovereignty.”
  • Native American Rights Fund: “The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has provided legal assistance to Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide who might otherwise have gone without adequate representation.”

Present Day Engagement and Campaigns
Take a look at your institution and the current landscape, and critically examine how it serves the Indigenous communities and Native student bodies. What are the ways in which higher education and student affairs practitioners can further these programs of engagement and change? Consider implementation with the examples of some present-day campaigns below, and ask, how can I further allyship and change?

Democracy is Indigenous Campaign: The Center for Native American Youth; Aspen Institute
The campaign that gave this guest post its name. “In partnership with the National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC), the Center for Native American Youth launched the 2020 Democracy is Indigenous campaign. This campaign works to mobilize youth leaders ages 18-24 across the nation who will focus on getting out the Native vote in local, state, and federal elections. Organizers receive custom training, a national platform to elevate their work, and microgrant funding to develop Community Action Projects.”

This campaign provides participants with:

  • Work in community to uplift the importance of participating in both tribal and non-tribal democracy
  • Receive custom training and professional development to create, implement and report their Action project
  • Receive custom training that explores the historical implications of democracy on tribal communities 
  • Change the narrative through strengths-based media pieces in local and national platforms

Western Native Voice
“A non-profit and civic engagement program that emphasizes the need for everyone to fulfill their civic duty at all levels, from school boards to county and statewide positions.” Western Native Voice provides training and support to Native and Indigenous folx on:

  • Local and national history of Native voting rights
  • Impacts of recent Native Vote accomplishments
  • National political landscape
  • Field training
  • Get Out the Vote (GOTV) strategies
  • Voter registration strategies
  • Engagement strategies
  • Power of the personal narrative
  • Election analysis
  • Mobilizing with social media
  • Medicaid expansion impacts in Native communities
  • Public policy impacts in on Native communities

Four Directions
“Four Directions, Inc., believes voting is within our sacred circle when it comes to preserving our way of life. We are committed to full enfranchisement as a crucial way to navigate a stronger future for our Native communities; ...to extend equal access to the ballot box across Indian Country. Four main priorities anchor the Four Directions approach: Native voting rights, voter empowerment, voter protection, and voter engagement.”

Indigenous and Native peoples are adaptive and thriving given the current climate, but that doesn’t mean that these communities don’t deal with fundamental challenges. Faced with odds like increased mental health needs with minimal resources, lasting systemic poverty, and a lack of recognition for Indigenous humanistic rights and sovereignty. The continued legacy and support of civic engagement and democracy can be found in many current efforts and campaigns, run and founded by (and for) Indigenous peoples.  As practitioners, it is our duty to continue to uplift and support these communities, as we would our own.

The Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community is comprised of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who seek to: 1) increase understanding of, and institutional commitment toward, Indigenous peoples in higher education; 2) advance equity-grounded approaches and socially just practices and policies that support and increase the participation of Indigenous peoples in higher education; 3) produce professional development opportunities, scholarship, and research that complicates and re-imagines the profession; and 4) engage across difference and intersecting identities to further explore trends and interpret issues relative to the experiences of Indigenous peoples on campuses.

For more information, please visit our linktree: https://linktr.ee/naspa_ipkc