William & Mary Law Review


Seth Davis

Article Title

Tribalism and Democracy


Americans have long talked about “tribalism” as a way of talking about their democracy. In recent years, for example, commentators have pointed to “political tribalism” as what ails American democracy. According to this commentary, tribalism is incompatible with democracy. Some commentators have cited Indian Tribes as evidence to support this incompatibility thesis, and the thesis has surfaced within federal Indian law and policy in various guises up to the present day with disastrous consequences for Indian Tribes. Yet much of the talk about tribalism and democracy—within federal Indian law, and also without it—has had little to do with actual tribes. Looking at the histories and practices of Indian Tribes calls the premises of the incompatibility thesis into question. Indeed, many examples of Indian Tribalism reflect the democratic practices that critics of “political tribalism” praise. First, Indian Tribal self-government safeguards democracy by ensuring that Indians not only are governed (by the federal and state governments), but also have the opportunity to govern. Second, Indian Tribal governance is compatible with democracy because it depends in no small measure upon discourse and negotiation, not upon coercion and zero-sum gaming. And third, the persistence of Indian Tribes in the face of the coercion and violence of colonialism challenges Americans to honor the democratic ideal of consent of the governed. In all three ways, Indian Tribalism and American democracy are compatible.