Stephen Cornell: Creating Citizens: A Fundamental Nation-Rebuilding Challenge

William Mitchell College of Law in conjunction with the Bush Foundation

NNI Faculty Associate Stephen Cornell discusses how colonial policies have distorted and corrupted Native nations' conceptions of identity, citizenship and nationhood, and stresses the need for Native nations to forge a strategic vision of their long-term futures and then work to create among their people "citizens' committed to and capable of creating those futures.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Resource Type

Cornell, Stephen. "Creating Citizens: A Fundamental Nation-Rebuilding Challenge." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

"Well, thank you all for being here. And I want in particular to thank the Bush Foundation and the School of Law, the Mitchell School of Law for putting this together and also acknowledge the first peoples of this piece of country, this piece of this magnificent continent. [I see I'm not yet quite there.]

I have found the discussion we've had already very interesting and I think it's unfortunate what's happened to this discussion of citizenship. And I think Bethany [Berger] did a really nice job of showing us the intrusion of outsiders' ideas of what citizenship should be and mean and the way that that has come to dominate the discussion of citizenship so that you -- whose citizenship and lives are at stake -- end up talking about blood quantum and other criteria which I don't think were ever -- as John [Borrows] has really shown -- were ever part of the way you thought about who you are. But that now dominates the discussion and the intrusion of the notion of boundaries. Gee, you either are or you aren't part of a people. How do we know? Because I went to court and the judge said. Is that really the way things should be? And then the counter to that intrusion and that transformation, that demand that you think about who you are in a particular way, then John presented a very different notion of citizenship as an expression of who you are as a people, of what kind of people you want to be. Not just what kind of people you were, what do you want to be? And that's a very different discussion, and I think it's unfortunate that a lot of the discussion of citizenship now is really bogged down in that first set of ideas and it needs to move to that second set that John really articulated for us. That said, my job, I was asked to...I want to do a couple of things here. I want to say something about what's happening across Indian Country in this area, and that's going to be just exactly the sort of criteria that have unfortunately come to dominate this discussion. And I want to say a little bit about some of the issues to think about as you wrestle with those criteria, but then I want to...I want to come back to what I think is important and that's something I'll talk about called 'creating citizens.'

So I'm going to give you some data. And unfortunately, this podium is beautifully placed so that half of you can't even see this and probably the other half can't read it because it's too small. But this is some of the citizenship criteria in Native nations. Now it turns out it's not easy to get a comprehensive view, maybe Matthew Fletcher or someone else knows of a place where you can find out all of these criteria. The best source I've come across was actually work done by Keith Richotte back in about 2007, when he went through a lot of tribal constitutions to track what they say about citizenship and how that's changed as constitutions changed. Tracked really some of the processes that you all are involved in and the point of this chart is really just to show you that today it's incredibly diverse out there from various kinds of blood quantum and what I've done is give you the criteria on the left and some examples of nations within the U.S. who are using those criteria or some version of them. And that list down the left, which matters much more than the examples begins -- for those of you who can't quite see it -- blood quantum; lineal descent from a base tribal roll; lineal descent and blood quantum in some sort of combination. We've got lineal descent and residency, that is, you have to show lineal descent and either your or your parents had to be a resident; a minimum percent of tribal or Indian descent–Bay Mills sets a percentage and says this is what you need to be a citizen; patrilineal descent; matrilineal descent; parental tribal residence at birth, that you don't see as much anymore, but there's still some nations that use that; participation in tribal affairs. I actually thought that was kind of an interesting one. Colville: you want to be a citizen, you better be involved, be engaged. Council discretion: Hey, we'll make up our minds, decide whether you are or not. General council discretion: open to a much larger body of already recognized citizens to decide. Comanche has special rules for minors. Nez Perce, Warm Springs allowing for adoption and naturalization.

In other words, there's a very diverse set of criteria currently existing out there. Which ones are the most common? Well, most include descent from a tribal member or citizen. Some include no further requirement. About 25 percent of tribes according to what Keith Richotte, Carole Goldberg, Ian Record, and others have been able to come up with, about 25 percent of tribes in the U.S. require descent from a tribal member, period. Parental tribal residence at birth still is a fairly large number, about 20 percent. One-quarter blood quantum is over 20 percent. One-half blood quantum less than 10 percent today. A quarter-blood quantum plus parental residence at birth less than five percent. One-eighth blood quantum, one sixteenth -- there are other criteria involved but the percentages get much, much less. They are getting rare. So while there's enormous diversity out there, there are dominate patterns and these are the things you see. What's the pattern of change, emerging trends? Reducing blood quantum, everyone's wrestling with the intermarriage question. If my nation requires one-half blood quantum, it's not going to take more than a generation or two before my children -- unless I marry someone else who is also a citizen of my nation by that criterion, or ideally someone who's full blood -- before I can't enroll in my own children in my nation.

I was talking to an Apache...a citizen of one of the Apache nations the other day and he was saying, 'My children are Apache, but I married outside the White Mountain Apache Tribe.' I can't remember whether it was Jicarilla or San Carlos Apache or who, married another Apache but not of that tribe, and as a result, he said, 'My kids can't be enrolled in my nation. They're as Apache as I am.' That's the result of this intrusion, this creation of boundaries that slashed their way right across peoples and said, 'Okay, you've got to set some criteria and then you've got to abide by them,' and now a lot of tribes are reducing blood quantum because as the generations pass they're starting to disappear so you've got to reduce the blood quantum in order to keep people within the boundary. Replacing blood quantum with lineal descent -- that's happening at a lot of places. From tribal blood to Indian blood, that is, we require Indian blood but not necessarily tribal blood. Growing attention to off-reservation representation and how you keep people not only as citizens, but engaged as citizens off reservation.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Citizen Potawatomi Nation's council. They recently redid their constitution. Any citizen, enrolled Citizen Potawatomi citizen, can participate in tribal affairs whether you live in Los Angeles or in Shawnee, Oklahoma where the tribal headquarters are. Their constitution, they have I think it's a 16-seat legislature. Eight members of that legislature have to be resident in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma and the other eight can be resident anywhere in the United States. So they do their council meetings with video screens on the wall so that the councilor in Los Angeles -- where they have an office and who was elected to the council -- can participate real-time in the debates, vote, etc. And their argument is, 'We want to keep our people part of the nation, not just by saying yes, you're a citizen, by actually engaging you in what it means to be part of the nation.'

Dual citizenship: we're also seeing some tribes saying, 'No dual citizenship.' I don't know where that one is going. Unique sets of citizenship rules, that is, Grand Traverse is breaking away from some of the general patterns and creating its own rules. And of course we're seeing some of this extremely controversial and I think extremely dangerous phenomenon of disenrollment. What we're beginning to see now in California is people who've been disenrolled demanding that the federal government step in. That's the last thing tribes need is the federal government stepping in and saying, 'Okay, we'll decide who's a citizen.' But that's what's going to happen if it keeps on because there's going to be a large enough group of disenfranchised people saying, 'Who else are we going to appeal to? We'll appeal to the feds,' and there goes some of your sovereignty because the feds say, 'Okay, we'll take over this issue.'

So those are some of the things that are going on out there. As I say, the work that Keith Richotte did is about six years old. Carole Goldberg at UCLA has done some work on this a little more recently, but it's actually very difficult to find out exactly what's happening across the country, but I think this gives you some idea of some of the things that are going on. These things have real-world effects. When you change these things, and I think this is what...for some nations, I think the move to wrestle with citizenship criteria comes from some crisis. Either we get people demanding, 'I want my children enrolled,' so okay, we better fiddle with the citizenship criteria. Or there's a court case or there's a settlement and there's fighting over the benefits of the settlement or something like that. And very often, councils are under pressure to launch some kind of rethink of citizenship criteria without really sitting down and saying, 'What are the consequences of this action across the board?' And of course, some of these things are obvious. I think there's a consequence on numbers, that's perhaps the most obvious one.

As you loosen criteria, the numbers potentially increase; as you tighten them, the numbers potentially decrease. Does that matter to you? It's certainly got impacts on things like tribal capacities. Excluding someone is excluding a body of knowledge, a body of experience. Incorporating someone is bringing in knowledge and experience. What impact does the change in citizenship criteria have on your nation's capacity to do the things it wants to do? Political influence may be affected by this and not just by numbers, but in a sense you' you're viewed by outsiders may be affected by changes that you make in citizenship. The defense of sovereignty -- that's part of the disenrollment issue. What impact is this likely to have if we spin out the consequences of action? What impact is this going to have down the road on our ability to control what may be one of the most important aspects of nationhood, defining who we are? That should always be in your hands, not in someone else's, but you may take actions that make it harder to defend that sovereignty.

Compliance with federal regulations: there are federal programs, for example, including programs on which some of your citizens may depend to get through the winter, to survive, to meet the needs of their kids, where the federal government imposes regulations that your citizenship criteria may come into conflict with. On the unity and social cohesion of your people, on culture, and I think on self concepts, rigid technical and legalistic criteria versus the sense in the community of what it means to be a citizen, of those things that John just talked about. And I actually think that may be the most important of all these effects: What is the impact of the decisions you make about citizenship on your people's sense of what it means to be a citizen?

John mentioned some of what's happening in New Zealand. In August, I was teaching a course at a tribal college in New Zealand and for a group of Maori working tribal professionals who are working for their tribes in New Zealand. And I was struck by the fact that a couple of people were talking about their, who I would think of as the citizens of their tribes, as beneficiaries. They were beneficiaries of settlements; settlements over land claims and claims to fish into the four shores of New Zealand. And I asked them, 'Do you all really talk about your people as beneficiaries?' And they said, 'Well, that's kind of how the New Zealand government talks about them.' And we ended up talking about, what does it mean to be part of a tribe if you think of yourself as a beneficiary? I get something. It's like listening to radio station WIIFM, What's In It For Me? I'm a beneficiary. That's a limited conception of what it means to be part of a people, and I thought a really unfortunate conception of that. We need to find a balance somewhere between citizenship as rights and benefits and about me as an individual and citizenship as obligation and contribution and participation and as an expression of this collective consciousness, this collective understanding of who you are as a people. And what you do in citizenship is going to affect both ends of that continuum, but when I heard that term 'beneficiary,' I thought, 'Well, I know where at least those few people are. They're way over at that end.' Bad place to be for the future of a people.

And I don't know how many of you know Oren Lyons. I had an interesting conversation with Oren Lyons about seven or eight years ago. Oren is a traditional faith keeper of the Onondaga and a remarkable man, one of the architects of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, and we were talking about this term member and Oren, I thought...He said to me, 'Tell me something.' He said, 'Are you a member of the United States? Are you a member of the State of Arizona?' He said, 'At Onondaga we're not a club. We don't have members. We're a nation. We have citizens.' And I thought that's an important change in how you think. To be a member of something, what do I get? I get the magazine, I get a discount at the store, I get all these goodies because I'm a member. But if I'm a citizen, that raises questions about what do I give, what am I part of? It's about the thing itself, the nation, rather than about this flow of benefits to me.

I think the biggest challenge is not deciding eligibility criteria. You're having to do that, you live in a political and legal context where that's demanded of you. So you have to do it and you have to be smart about it and you have to think very carefully about what the consequences are of your decisions. But I think there's a much bigger challenge in this whole area of citizenship and I call it 'creating citizens.' Do you think about what it's going to take to create the kind of citizens that your nation needs? And I think that's really a strategic question. It has to do with what kind of community or nation do you want to be 25 years from now, 50 years, seven generations, whatever the time horizon is that makes sense to your people? What kind of community do you want your grandchildren to grow up in? What kind of citizens do you want your grandchildren to be? So when I talk about creating citizens, I'm not talking about adding to the roles or increasing your numbers. I'm talking about creating that future by creating people who can live it. If you know what kind of future you want, what kind of citizens will that require? Do you know? Have you thought about that and about how you'll create those citizens? And I think of that as something that...

In the work that I, and some of my colleagues, have done, we talk a lot about nation building, or as Oren Lyons says, 'nation rebuilding,' and I actually think this business of creating citizens is a fundamental part of it and it raises this question of, do you have a plan for creating citizens? And that would include things like language, culture, ceremony. The Cherokees investing...scavenging money from tribal programs so they can get their kids into immersion classrooms where they will learn their language and creating a school system where the teaching will all be in Cherokee. That's part of creating citizens.

History: I'll use the Cherokees again because I think this was another creative thing they did. Every employee of the Cherokee Nation -- whether you're a citizen or not -- has to take a history course on the Cherokee Nation's history and the chief of the nation -- the Cherokee, they call the top guy the 'chief' -- the chief of the nation said, 'We do this because we want to be sure everyone understands what's at stake here, what we've been through, what we lost, what we kept. When you work for us, what grand purpose are you serving? So we teach our history.' That's part of creating citizens.

Tribal civics: some of you know Frank Ettawageshik from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa, and Frank talks about tribal civics. He says, 'My kids know the capitol of this state, they can tell you the major rivers in the state, but they don't know anything about tribal government. They don't know what it's about because none of our schools teach any of that stuff.' He says, 'We need a tribal civics course that teaches you why we have a government, what it does, what nationhood means. That ought to be in our school system.' That's creating citizens. What's the role of elders in creating citizens, of youth, of tribal leadership in creating citizens? And do your citizens know what citizenship actually means? Maybe that's a discussion -- which, as you go through some of these processes of rethinking citizenship -- maybe it needs to be a community discussion not about legal criteria or technical details, but about what citizenship means or what you hope it will mean 50 years down the road.

I was reminded...I was chatting with a good friend who's from one of the more traditional Pueblos in New Mexico last week and we were talking about...I had mentioned that I was going to be at this discussion of citizenship and we were actually talking about the fact that this Pueblo still practices banishment. It happens very rarely. In fact, he told me it hadn't happened in probably a dozen years but I thought it was interesting, banishment means excluding someone from the Pueblo, and I guess the legal version of it in some places today would be disenrollment, but what I thought was interesting was the discussion about what happens. Banishment doesn't have anything to do with whether you're descended from the tribal roll, it doesn't have anything to do with blood quantum in this Pueblo, it doesn't have anything to do with any of that. He said, 'The question is, can you live as a responsible citizen of our nation.' And he said, 'We have some people who engage in behavior that is unacceptable among our people and we have a process...' It's not written down. This is a nation with no written constitution, it governs in a very old way. He said, 'We have a process. You correct the person. You sit them down, you talk to them, you say, "You are not behaving the way we expect of our people," and you give them a chance to correct that. And if they continue to show that they can't do it, you do it again. You do it with elders, you do it with their relatives. You do it three times and if after three times they still demonstrate that they cannot live as a responsible part of our community, then they have to go because they're a destructive force in the community.' And he said two things I thought were interesting about that. He said, 'We can't think of a more extreme punishment because what you're saying to them is, "You can't come home again, ever." But it's not about blood quantum, it's not about descent. It's about, 'Can you participate fully and responsibly in our notion of what it means to be a citizen?' And maybe that's more the discussion that we need to be having when we talk about citizenship. Thank you very much." 

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