Decolonizing Indigenous Governments

Much of the “history” of the Indigenous peoples of North America, especially primary source accounts, were written by European settlers. These settlers brought with them their own biases and preconceived ideas about social structures, hierarchies, and governance. They interpreted events through their own eyes, and not through the eyes of the people they were studying and interacting with. By making the popular interpretations of historical events those recorded by colonial powers only, this process colonizes the past. One of the primary goals of this project is to attempt to decolonize history and reveal that the past is complex and events have more than one side to them.

When European settlers described Native American social organizations, they compared these entities to the forms of government that they were familiar with. Words like “tribe” and “chief” were not terms that the Indigenous people would have used to describe themselves. To the settlers the system of regional Indigenous governments looked like a political hierarchy ruled over by an authoritarian leader, like a King or Queen. This was the way that towns, cities, and countries in Europe functioned and the settlers projected their own experiences and assumptions onto the structure of Indigenous governance. While observing  interactions between different indigenous groups and attempting to fit these interactions into a hierarchal framework the settlers created a colonized system of classification to describe local Indigenous populations. This colonized approach, however, did not accurately describe the actual governance of native groups. The Abenaki(Aln8bak) People, for example, lived primarily in semi-nomadic family groups, held together in small bands by relationships between elders of the group and the group members. Their mobile lifestyle did not really require complex hierarchies or governments. When European settlers made treaties, trades, and land deals with these groups, they believed they were actually dealing with regional governments. In reality they were communicating with small extended family groups that may have only occupied that particular area for a short period of time, such as few weeks or months out of the year. As a result, these treaties and deals weren’t representative of the Abenaki people as a whole and in the eyes of some were more or less meaningless. When another group would move into the area they would often come into conflict with the settlers because their particular group had not agreed to the treaties established by other groups. Unfortunately the ideas of Chiefdoms and tribal governments created by settlers and colonists persist to this day and contribute to inaccurate stereotypes about what life for Indigenous groups was really like.    

Works Cited

Pouliot, Paul. “History- Abenaki Governance.” Alnoback News 98, Issue 2 (April 1998): 12-13.


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