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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Tribal Constitutions: Constructing Power by Developing Structure & Self-Governance

Northwestern Professor of Law Erin Delaney and Northwestern Assistant Professor of Sociology Beth Redbird will join forces to study the power processes that have shaped tribal constitutions with the support of an almost $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The initiative will result in one of the largest collections of tribal constitutions and amendments ever assembled: more than 1,000 records from 304 tribes that span 150 years.

Constitutions represent how people see themselves–what they see as important, what they care about protecting, and how they see the role of citizens in their societies. Tribal constitutions are a snapshot of the tension between what Native Americans value and the level of autonomy and self-determination they’ve secured in practice. The records Delaney and Redbird are collecting will shed signficant new light on the origins of tribal constitutions, citizenship, rights and legislative power in the continental United States. 

Delaney and Redbird first connected during a Northwestern Buffett Idea Dialogue, which convene faculty from across disciplines for informal conversations designed to spark connections and ideas for collaborative research projects related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  The “Citizenship and Rights” Idea Dialogue, organized by Redbird and attended by Delaney, examined questions of who qualifies as a citizen within what type of governmental structures and how citizenship relates to individual rights and responsibilities. As Delaney remembered the event, “Beth’s explanation of the complexities of tribal membership and the way in which membership was constructed and contested was fascinating, and I left the Idea Dialogue with a reading list and a firm intention to learn more from this brilliant woman.”  Recognizing key points of convergence in their work, Delaney and Redbird met up after the Idea Dialogue and began formulating what would eventually become their NSF project: “Tribal Constitutions: Constructing Power by Developing Structures of Self-Governance.”

Although there are 345 federally recognized tribes within the continental United States, tribal sovereignty remains a contested and complicated topic. This is a result of the historical trajectories and power processes that have shaped tribal constitutions and tribal claims to self-governance in the shadow of empire, and “Erin is pioneering this area of understanding colonial constitutions and what it means to generate a constitution in a colonial context," said Redbird.    

The database Delaney and Redbird are constructing will be publicly available through Northwestern University’s Arch database, allowing other researchers to map how the process of constitutional development and tribal self-determination has evolved over time. The database will also provide insight into how tribal constitutions could enable the development of political infrastructure that enhances the wellbeing and autonomy of Indigenous peoples. The hope is that the project will eventually serve as an important reference point for on-the-ground tribal constitutional development efforts.