Northwestern’s Tribal Constitution Project to Catalog Indigenous Records
Beth Redbird turned to sociology wanting to improve societies. Working in the fields of affordable housing development and anti-poverty programs, Redbird has learned the power of data. Now Redbird, an Oglala Lakota and Oklahoma Choctaw, is focused on showing the world the data contained in tribal constitutions.
As co-director of the Tribal Constitution Project, Assistant Professor Redbird of Northwestern University focuses on collecting, analyzing, and cataloging hundreds of Native North American tribal constitutions adopted from 1934 to 2020. Examining the self-governing structures between nations, Redbird focuses on the development of tribal sovereignty and the influences that have shaped constitutions in United States history.
Redbird is participating in this National Science Foundation-funded trip with co-director Erin Delaney, a Northwestern law professor. The project has partnered with the New York University-Yale American Indian Sovereignty Project, where volunteer law students trained in Indigenous law grade the contents of each tribal document.
“Constitutions are one of the most important elements of tribal sovereignty,” she said. “For better or for worse, they determine the structure of tribal government. They allow access to self-determination. But it is also one of the primary means by which a tribe asserts its sovereignty. These constitutions are a direct indication of how nations seek to control their own affairs, and they express how a tribe sees itself as a people and as a nation.
According to Redbird, the collection of tribal constitutions began in 2018 at NU’s Institute for Policy Research when the Summer Fellowship Program helped launch an archival mission to uncover all constitutions enacted by a recognized tribe. at the federal level in the continental United States. Over the next four years, more than 10 undergraduate students helped collect, cleanse, and catalog more than 1,200 constitutional documents by researching dozens of law libraries and legal repositories, contacting tribal nations, and with the help from librarians and archivists.
The project shows the origins, citizenship and rights of constitutions in the United States. Redbird said the goals of the initiative are to create a tool for tribal courts and lawyers to use to assert sovereignty, claim treaty rights, reclaim land and engage in advocacy. assertion of sovereignty; for use by researchers for policy analysis; and for educational purposes for teachers and students.
“Indigenous studies are vastly undertaught in public schools, and most schools completely omit discussions of tribes as a nation and modern tribal issues,” Redbird said. “It not only omits all of America’s history with Indigenous peoples, but it also omits Indigenous peoples’ contributions to modern American society and the world. One of the goals of the draft constitution is to help people understand that tribal governments still exist. And they are dynamic, diverse, interesting and innovative. And they are important, and they contribute.
Dorene Wiese, executive director of the American Indian Association of Illinois, an urban-based nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming American Indian education into an experience grounded in culture, language, and history, says the project is important because the Native American population is still fighting for civil rights.
“The legal documents… keep us alive,” she said. “We have treaties and constitutions that have been approved by the federal government. We all look at them, they’re going to say the tribe is a corporation, and the members really don’t have a lot of power in terms of governing the tribe itself. Tribes have always had things they had to do for their people and their land to survive. The government has always interfered in this and tried to control everything about the Indians – religion, music, dance. These constitutions were written to appease the federal government, not in the best interests of our own people.
Plans are underway to create a public web portal containing history and facts about tribal governments, as well as information about the contents of constitutions. The portal will also serve as a mechanism for tribes to contextualize their own constitutions as narrators of their own stories. According to Redbird, allowing tribes to tell their own stories and describe their governments in their own voices is not only vital to the concept of sovereignty, but important to an accurate knowledge of what is actually contained in the documents.
“These documents do something really important,” Redbird said. “They express how a tribe asserts its sovereignty. They represent the structure of a tribe on the ground, as seen in federal politics. It’s not the be-all and end-all of how tribes govern, but what it is, it’s a phrase that is read by the courts and the federal government to decide tribal rights, tribal sovereignty, tribal affairs. It is also a statement by the tribe about the things over which they officially wish to claim sovereignty.
“Sovereignty is not unique. Tribes make strategic decisions, to use their autonomy in very specific ways to benefit their members. What these constitutions do is provide a snapshot of how the tribes see themselves, how they view their future as nations, and how they assert their sovereignty today. One of the questions that (we) seek to answer is what influence the federal government had in the adoption of these constitutions.