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5.3: Core Concepts and Theories

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    • Melissa Leal & Tamara Cheshire
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    Concepts and Theories in American Indian/Native American Studies

    And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.

    -Black Elk

    The following are important core concepts and theories in American Indian/Native American Studies.


    Sovereignty is a political concept that refers to dominant power or supreme authority. In modern democracies, sovereign power rests with the people and is exercised through representative bodies such as Congress or Parliament. A sovereign tribe would exercise power without limitation and work on behalf of their people without external interference by the federal government. The term also carries implications of autonomy; to have sovereign power is to be beyond the power of others to interfere.

    Native people have a unique legal history with the U.S. federal court system that centers on sovereignty between Native nations and the United States. In Felix Cohen’s (1941) Handbook of Federal Indian Law, the principles of tribal sovereignty are expressed as:

    adherence to three fundamental principles: (1) An Indian tribe possesses, in the first instance, all the powers of any sovereign state. (2) Congress renders the tribe subject to the legislative power of the United States and, in substance, terminates the external powers of sovereignty of the tribe. . . . (3) Those powers are subject to qualification by treaties and by express legislation by Congress, but save as thus expressly qualified, full powers of internal sovereignty are vested in the Indian tribes and in their duly constituted organs of government (pp. 122-123).

    Native scholars argue that because of the unique legal status of Native peoples in the United States, Native American Studies should focus primarily on the defense of Native sovereignty. According to Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, “The major reason for the development of Native American Studies as a discipline was to defend indigenous nationhood” (1997, p. 11). Cook-Lynn’s illustration of Native Studies is one of a unique discipline that focuses on Native people’s lived experiences, geographies and languages which is different from an etic, so called "scientifically objective" perspective filled with implicit biases and colonial judgment more commonly found in other disciplines like history, anthropology and sociology.

    Understanding Native Sovereignty movements, like the Red Power movement, is vital, but it is also important to note that these movements were informed by other social justice movements including the Civil Rights and Black Power movements (see Chapter 11, page 11.3: U.S. Civil Rights and Liberatory Movements). As these movements coincided, informed, and affirmed each other, the exchange between them allowed for greater insight into the oppression each had experienced including the impact of settler colonialism. Vine Deloria Jr. in his (1970) work, We Talk, You Listen, argued that sovereignty could be used as a critical framework for any group seeking liberation (p. 118), and in so being, political power and coalition building between diverse groups could be used to dismantle settler colonialism. We are stronger together and this is where power lies, in our ability to be allies and co-conspirators.


    Self-determination refers to the social movements, legislation, and beliefs by which Native American tribes in the United States exercise self-governance and decision making on issues that affect their own people. Self-determination is an integral piece of sovereignty and the right of a people to decide upon its own form of government, without outside influence and relates to the freedom and free will of the people of a given area to determine their own political status and independence. Self-determination includes tribal self-governance and intellectual self-determination (Teves et al., 2015). When tribes institute their own court systems, have their own tribal police, develop their own K-12 tribal schools and/or tribal colleges, these are acts of self-determination and sovereignty.


    Colonization is the process of using power and assuming control through war, force, genocide, slavery, and intimidation of someone else’s territory, resources, culture and identity; and forcing one’s own culture, systems of law, government, and religion upon the remaining Indigenous group survivors. According to Ward Churchill (2003), “If rape is violence…then so too is the interculture analogue of rape: colonial domination” (pg. 244). The invaders from Europe colonized the Americas as well as other areas of the world including Africa, India, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

    Often it is mentioned as an "excuse" for colonization happening in the first place that "everyone" or all cultures "colonize," employing Conflict Theory. There is an assumption by the colonizers that tribes in the Americas also "colonized" other tribes, but this is not the case. Colonization did not take place amongst tribes or in the Americas, not until Europe invaded in the 15th century.


    Colonialism is the power and practice fueled by a rapist mentality (Churchill, 2003) of one country or group of people to subjugate and enslave other people and their sovereign nations through establishing colonies with the goal of economic dominance, taken by force or through deception, the land and resources from Indigenous peoples.

    The process of colonization often includes forced assimilation or the imposition of religion, language, economic systems, and other cultural practices from the colonizing group. According to Churchill (2003), “so long as Native North America remains internally colonized, subject to racial codes, unindemnified for the genocide and massive expropriations we've suffered—and continue to suffer—genocide, colonialism, racism and wholesale theft will remain the signal attributes of American mentality and behavior” (pg. xiv). Churchill’s (2003) point about the continuation of genocide and land theft is well taken.

    Tribes continuously have to fight the federal government to make sure they honor treaties in order to maintain their homelands and the limited resources on those lands, including rights to clean water. Within the last ten years, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, a movement which began in early 2016, joined in solidarity against the proposed route of the more than 1,000 mile Dakota Access Pipeline, just north of the Standing Rock reservation. In February of 2022, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, “withdrew as a cooperating agency from the U.S Federal government's ongoing environmental assessment of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), citing lack of transparency by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers” (Sutherland, 2022). The reason for the withdrawal was due to the concerns raised about an inadequate emergency response plan in case a large spill occurred affecting the tribe’s water supply.

    Settler Colonialism, also known as Anti-Indigenous Settler Colonialism Theory

    Settler Colonialism refers to an invasive group or culture that actively occupies and attempts to destroy through genocidal acts to replace/erase Native peoples and cultures (Wolfe, 1999; Wolfe, 2006), often appropriating parts of the Indigenous cultures during that process. This theft also includes the power to re-identify the Indigenous population and subsume an important piece of their identity as being the "rightful" inhabitants of this land, thereby reinforcing racist nativism.

    There are three important points to Settler Colonialism:

    Settler Colonialism which “destroys to replace” (Itsuji Saranillio, in Teves, Smith & Raheja, 2015) adopts and promotes the same rapist genocidal mentality as colonialism, should actually be termed "invader colonialism" because to use the term "settler" seems to be innocuous and implies that the land and the people needed to be "settled" because it was/they were "wild" and "out of control" at the time of the invasion. This is directly related to Brian Baker’s (2011) work which will be covered in more detail later on in this chapter on stereotypes of Native people as "wildly roaming the land," somehow unaware of the productivity inherent within the soil itself and therefore "undeserving" of the right of occupancy or "ownership."

    The fact is that Native people lived sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years in the Americas prior to the European invasion. When Europeans arrived in North America in the late 15th century, they believed that the land was "untouched" by human hands and unoccupied because of how clean and clear the water was and how the soil was so rich, providing for abundant resources. This was not by chance, but because of sustained, managed work by Native peoples who learned how to live within the environment without depleting resources or causing permanent environmental damage.

    Racist Nativism

    This term is not what it seems to be in that it is based in white supremacy and how white Americans consider themselves to be "Native" to the United States, due to their forced take over of the land and genocidal acts against the original Native inhabitants. One could argue that Racist Nativism is rooted in the genocide and assimilation of the original Native inhabitants of North America who remained, and the subsuming of Native identity by white America. White America then positions itself as the Native rather than the "‘foreigner" and uses this power to identify and oppose the "non-white foreigner", which “creates the defense and protection of a nationalistic identity, where the foreigner becomes a perceived threat to the nationalistic identity” (Perez Huber, 2010, p. 80). Racist Nativism is used to connect white supremacy, power and ownership to U.S. soil (Perez Huber, et. al. 2008); and institute who is "suitable" to be an "American".

    United Nations Definition of Genocide

    As established at the U.N. convention of 1948, any one of five acts is considered genocide if “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”:

    The term “genocide” is often incorrectly used to describe extreme examples of mass murder, the death of vast numbers of people. Genocide can be an "act in progress." Genocide does not have to be complete to be considered genocide. By identifying government policies that are created to enact (the process of) genocide, we can prevent the end result. American Indian Studies/Native American Studies scholars consider that genocide has been and continues to be committed against Native people.

    Political not Racial

    Native nations have their own names for themselves and their people, from their own languages, but Native people also occupy, “a liminal space that accounts for both the political and racialized natures of their identities” (Brayboy, 2006, pp. 429). This was established in the 1974 Supreme Court ruling that federal relationships with tribes are political, not racial, in nature. In Morton v. Mancari, the Supreme Court held that the federal government's special treatment of Indians is political and non-racial when it "can be tied rationally to the fulfillment of Congress' unique obligation toward the Indians" (Morton V. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535 [1974]). The federal government itself has a unique "trust" relationship with tribes in that the relationship is based on treaties.

    Tribal Critical Race Theory

    Tribal Critical Race Theory (TribalCRT) is a framework that allows for the analysis of programs and problems experienced by Native Americans or American Indians within systems or institutions (Brayboy, 2006). TribalCRT addresses the legal, social and political aspects of the relationship between the United States federal government and American Indians (Brayboy, 2006), which is very complex because tribes have sovereignty, a domestic dependent nation status and treaty rights that guarantee resources until the end of time. TribalCRT is related but distinct from Critical Race Theory.

    According to Brayboy (2006), the nine tenets of Tribal Critical Race Theory address how colonization is “endemic” and how all federal U.S. policies are “rooted in imperialism, white supremacy and a desire for material gain” (p. 429). Establishing this country on this premise automatically creates a racist governmental system that is meant to "other," disenfranchise and take advantage of all people of color. In addition, governmental and educational policies toward Native peoples are intimately linked to assimilation (Brayboy, 2006).

    Nine Tenets of Tribal Critical Race Theory (Brayboy, 2006)

    1. colonization is endemic;
    2. U.S. policies pertaining to Indigenous peoples are rooted in imperialism, White supremacy, and a desire for material gain;
    3. Indigenous peoples occupy a liminal space that accounts for both the political and racialized natures of their identities;
    4. Indigenous peoples have a desire to obtain and forge tribal sovereignty, tribal autonomy, self-determination, and self-identification;
    5. the concepts of culture, knowledge, and power take on new meaning when examined through an Indigenous lens;
    6. governmental and educational policies toward Indigenous peoples are intimately linked around the problematic goal of assimilation;
    7. tribal philosophies, beliefs, customs, traditions, and visions for the future are central to understanding the lived realities of Indigenous peoples, but they also illustrate the differences and adaptability among individuals and groups;
    8. stories are not separate from theory; they make up theory and are therefore real and legitimate sources of data and ways of being;
    9. theory and practice are connected in deep and explicit ways such that scholars must work towards social change (pp. 429-430).

    Brayboy (2006) identified three types of knowledge that coexist: cultural knowledge, the knowledge of survival, and academic knowledge. To review, cultural knowledge (also known as cultural capital) encompasses everything a person knows as a member of a particular cultural group, specifically what individuals know as members of tribal nations. Knowledge of survival or resistance capital/survivance incorporates adaptation strategies that have been learned as well as the personal choice made with the community to change and adapt in order to survive. Knowledge of survival promotes resilience, another significant factor added to the theoretical framework. It is important to combine multiple forms of knowledge in order to manifest the power for change. Brayboy (2006) explained that “power is rooted in a group‘s ability to define themselves, their place in the world, and their traditions” (p. 435). Power is essential and equates to inherent sovereignty. Because power is based in the community, it is shared (Brayboy, 2006). What follows is the ability to meet the needs of the people through the rights to self-identify, self-govern, and self-educate.

    Another fundamental aspect of TribalCRT is recognizing that governmental policies toward Native people have promoted and reinforced assimilation (Brayboy, 2006). Early treaties guaranteed federal resources for Natives (Klug & Whitfield, 2003), but the interpretation and implementation of resources was left to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA’s perspective promoted assimilation and the abandonment of tribal culture and language (Brayboy, 2006; Klug & Whitfield, 2003). However, attempts at complete assimilation have failed (Brayboy, 2006).

    The ultimate goal of TribalCRT is social change (Brayboy, 2006; Williams, 1997). Scholars who adopt TribalCRT as a working philosophy confront inequity and assimilation practices. Researchers strive to create systems or make change in organizations that will address the needs of Indigenous people and their communities (Burkhart, 2004).

    Tribal Critical Race Theory at its core challenges the notion that institutions “serve as bastions of objectivity, meritocracy, color blindness, race neutrality, and equal opportunity” (Ramirez, 2011, p. 46). These frameworks expose color blindness and race neutrality for what they really are, a strategy to avoid addressing oppression, discrimination, and inequity within the system to maintain power and privilege for the dominant groups in American society (Calmore, 1992; Delgado, 1989; Villalpando, 2004).

    Blood Quantum

    American Indians have been racialized, but our identity is a political one. Blood quantum was introduced, “in 1705 by the Colony of Virginia, which adopted the ‘Indian Blood law’ [used] to reduce the civil rights of Indigenous people with ½ or greater blood quantum” (Livermont, Blood Quantum Blues, WERNATIVE). It is important to note that Tribal Nations did not use blood quantum to determine membership until it was adopted and imposed by the U.S. federal government to trace race between generations of Native people in order for the U.S. federal government to not have to fulfill their treaty obligations to tribes. If there are no Native people, then there can be no Native tribes.

    Details within text
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Blood Quantum: Hey wait a minute, we're disappearing! 2003. (CC BY-NC 4.0; Marty Two Bulls)

    Image 4.3.1 is a cartoon of two students looking at each other after they have written on a chalk board how blood quantum is making them disappear with the caption beneath stating, "Hey wait a minute, we're disappearing!" This image represents how blood quantum is making our tribes disappear one person at a time.

    According to the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an American Indian or Alaska Native is a person, “who has blood degree from and is recognized as such by a federally recognized tribe or village (as an enrolled tribal member) and/or the United States” (BIA, 2017, p. 1). According to Pevar (2012), “Congress has the authority to limit tribal sovereignty over membership determination, but unless Congress acts, each tribe enjoys the exclusive right to determine tribal membership for tribal purposes'' (p. 90). The fact that the U.S. government has taken control of identifying Native people in the first place through treaties and laws reveals that racism exists within the structure of the federal government which opposes tribal sovereignty and self-determination of Native nations, impacting Indian identity.

    The U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issues certification of degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood (CDIB) to tribal members. The CDIB recognizes the individual’s relationship to an enrolled member or members of a federally recognized tribe and states the person’s name, tribe, "blood quantum" of the individual, and birth date. American Indian or Alaska Native peoples are the only group in the United States that the federal government continues to demand calculated lineal ancestry to acknowledge formal belonging because of their economic ties through treaties to sovereign tribal nations. The U.S. Federal government, through treaty responsibility, is required to provide housing, food, jobs and education to federally recognized tribes; so the fewer recognized tribal members, the more likely a tribe will no longer exist and the federal government will no longer be required to fulfill their treaty obligations.

    The only comparable example in U.S. history is the "one drop rule" of African American blood which states that if a person has a “single drop” of "Black blood," that person will be identified as Black. This rule is also known as the "one Black ancestor rule" and some courts have called it the "traceable amount rule." For American Indians, the rule is the opposite. The federal government wants Native people to "blood quantum out" in order to not be considered Native. In this way the federal government is systematically "assimilating" Native people into becoming "non-Native" so that tribes cannot count these people as tribal citizens. This means that the federal government will not have to fulfill their treaty obligations to tribes because there will be no more tribes due to there being no tribal citizens.

    Blood quantum is determined through a formula that reduces by half each generation that is intermarried with someone other than a member of that same tribe going back to enrollees who were originally counted on Census rolls created by the federal government. There are many issues with blood quantum including self-determination, or the sovereign right of tribes to determine their own citizenship vs. the federal government imposing this requirement.

    The way blood quantum works is that for each generation that does not marry someone who is a tribal member of the same tribe, with at least the same amount of blood quantum, the percentage of Native blood reduces by half. For example if someone is 100% Lakota, has a child with someone who is 100% non-Native, then the child would be 50% or half Lakota and 50% or half non-Native. Now if both parents are from different tribes then the child is 50% or half one tribe and 50% or half the other, but the tricky part is that the child can’t be an enrolled member of both tribes based on the federal government’s regulations; they can only be enrolled in one tribe. If that child grows up and has a child with someone who is not from either tribe, then their child’s blood quantum reduces by half again or to 25% or one-quarter Native, which is often the threshold for enrollment. It only takes intermarrying (having a child with someone who is not the same tribe as you) of 3 generations to "blood quantum out" of tribal enrollment, where a child is not necessarily considered Native American/American Indian anymore and cannot be enrolled in any of their tribes.

    Some tribes have opted to use heritage, documented descendancy or lineal descent from enrolled members as a qualification for tribal membership in addition to possessing a minimum fraction of Native blood (there are many tribes that don’t use blood quantum at all). The most common requirement is one-fourth but some tribes require as little as one-thirty-second. As you can imagine, this also has many issues including but not limited to access to birth records, if they exist, death records, if they exist, and problems with the initial lists the federal government created where people often changed or altered Native names when translating them into English.

    Because tribes are self determined, sovereign nations, blood quantum is not the only means by which a person can be considered American Indian/Alaska Native. As stated earlier, lineal descent is one way, but other factors include, “a person’s knowledge of [their] tribe’s culture, history, language, religion, familial kinship, and how strongly a person identifies as American Indian or Alaska Native” (BIA, 2017, p. 1). To make this even more complicated, the U.S. federal government determines which sovereign tribal nations are federally recognized. This in turn affects who can legally claim to identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

    Eligibility criteria for tribal enrollment (or membership) will differ from tribe to tribe. It is important to note that tribes have inherent authority to determine membership qualifications. The Supreme Court recognizes that tribes have the right, “to define [their] own membership for tribal purposes has long been recognized as central to its existence as an independent political community” (Reclaim Justice as Key to Self-Governance, Indian Country Today, 12/6/2006). Enrollment eligibility criteria is listed in the tribe’s constitution. A person cannot be enrolled in more than one tribe and tribes also have rights to disenroll and adopt persons into the tribe (Pevar, 2012).

    Federal Recognition, Treaties and Trust

    A federally recognized tribe is one that has an established, ratified treaty through the U.S. Congress. Federal recognition was established by the federal government in order to make land deals or treaties with tribes. Through recognizing tribal sovereignty, the federal government could establish bills of sale, and develop a “trust” relationship with tribes. A “trust”relationship also known as the ‘doctrine of trust responsibility’, refers to the fact that the federal government has “power over and responsibility” to tribes at the same time, specifically in regard to “promises enshrined in treaties” (Day, 2019). Treaties are considered the “supreme law of the land” (Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution), in effect forever and therefore equivalent to federal laws. However, the outcome of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock held that Congress has authority to change the stipulations of treaties based on Due Process and Just Compensation (Pevar, 2012). This has resulted in an untenable relationship between tribes and the federal government. For example, the federal government can terminate federal recognition at any time, which effectively ends the obligations of the federal government towards the tribe, thereby breaking treaties made with that tribe. Every treaty ever made between the federal government and Native tribes has been broken by the federal government.

    Every treaty ever made between the federal government and Native nations (over 500) consists of three important points:

    1. Native tribes being recognized as sovereign nations with land;
    2. Native tribes being forced or coerced to “give up” land;
    3. in exchange for being provided the same or similar resources for all time to continue the tribe’s existence.

    New borders and behavior of tribal members were also negotiated. Remember, every treaty has been broken by the U.S. federal government. The rights, protections, and services provided by the United States to individual American Indians and Alaska Natives come from their enrollment in a federally recognized tribe. Federally recognized tribes have a government-to- government relationship with the U.S. The "trust relationship" has certain legally enforceable obligations and responsibilities from the U.S. federal government to enrolled tribal members.

    California - 18 Unratified Treaties

    While the history of the Federal-Indian relationship in California shares some common characteristics with that of Native people elsewhere in the United States, it is different in many aspects. It includes the unprecedented magnitude of non-native migration into California after the discovery of gold in 1848, nine days before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; the Senate’s refusal to ratify the 18 treaties negotiated with California tribes during 1851-52; and the lawless nature of California’s settlement after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, including State sanctioned efforts to “exterminate” the indigenous population.

    Under pressure from the California Congressional delegation, the United States Senate not only refused to sign the 18 treaties that had been negotiated, but they also took extraordinary steps to place the treaties in hiding. Between the un-ratified treaties and the Land Claims Act of 1851 (established to determine the validity of prior Spanish and Mexican land grants), most California Indians became homeless.

    Major shifts in federal Indian policy at the national level during the late 19th century exacerbated what the federal government had deemed "Indian problems" in California. Passage of the General Allotment Act in 1887 opened part of the limited lands in California to non-Indian settlement. In 1905 the public was finally advised of the 18 unratified treaties. Citizens sympathetic to the economic and physical distress of California Indians encouraged Congress to pass legislation to acquire isolated parcels of land for homeless California Indians. Between 1906 and 1910 a series of appropriations were passed that provided funds to purchase small tracts of land in central and northern California for landless Indians of those areas. The land acquisitions resulted in what has been referred to as the Rancheria System in California.

    In 1934, with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), the reconstituting of tribal governments included the Bureau of Indian Affair’s supervision of elections among California tribes, including most of the Rancheria groups. Although many tribes accepted the provisions of the IRA, few California tribes benefited economically from the IRA because of the continuing inequities in funding of Federal Indian programs.

    Beginning in 1944, forces within the BIA began to propose partial liquidation of the Rancheria system. Even the limited efforts to address the needs of California Indians at the turn of the century and again through passage of the IRA were halted by the federal government when it adopted the policy of termination. California became a primary target of this policy when Congress slated forty-one California Rancherias for termination pursuant to the Rancheria Act of 1958. During the past quarter century, judicial decisions and settlements have restored 27 of the 38 Rancherias that were terminated under the original Rancheria Act. Additional tribes have since then been restored as a result of Acts of Congress.” United States Department of the Interior, Indian Affairs (Schneider, Leal, 2019).

    This page titled 5.3: Core Concepts and Theories is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Leal & Tamara Cheshire (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .