There were numerous tribal governments in America when the earliest settlers arrived, but there were no institutions resembling that to which the settlers were accustomed, so they believed that no governments existed. In fact, the Iroquois had a very advanced governmental structure, which later served as a model for the American colonies.
One of the primary societal differences at the time of early contact was that tribes typically had oral societies, reducing nothing to writing, while Anglo societies relied on the written word. Why wouldn’t tribes have written societies? In many cases, tribes were nomadic. It would be difficult to haul file cabinets full of documents with them when they moved from one encampment to another.
Ancient systems of government were disrupted as tribes were removed to western lands and placed on reservations. The federal government took over most of the decision-making and internal control of tribes. Only a few tribes, including New Mexico pueblos, escaped this fate. In some cases, the federal government placed groups of Indians together on single reservations, even sometimes groups who were enemies, because they shared a common language, even though they were from distinct political groups.
As you previously learned, the goal of federal policy during the allotment era was to assimilate Indians and destroy tribal governments in a single generation. By the 1920s, very little was left of traditional tribal structures. The Indian Reorganization Act strengthened tribal government, but not in the traditional sense. Tribal governments were strengthened and encouraged, but only so far as they adopted the Anglo model distributed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The model, as you saw earlier, required Secretary of Interior approval of most activities, including enrollment. The BIA used this approval to control tribal affairs. It was not uncommon for BIA representatives to regularly attend tribal government meetings.
Tribes that organized pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) have standard constitutions and are governed by a General Council, consisting of all adult members of the tribe, and a Tribal Council, which is elected. The powers given to the Tribal Council vary from tribe to tribe. Many California tribes, who did not adopt the IRA, have an IRA governmental structure, but they do not have a constitution or bylaws. These tribes are governed by custom and tradition. The Tribal Council in this type of government retains only those powers delegated by the General Council. Since there is no constitution, these powers can change either by ballot or at any duly called meeting of the General Council. It is therefore much easier to change the delegation of power when a tribe is following customs and tradition, than one that has adopted a constitution.
Not all tribes have IRA or IRA-like governments. For example, the Mississippi Choctaw Tribe is governed by a chief who reports to an elected tribal council on a quarterly basis.
There have been significant changes in tribal governments in the past 200 years. Traditionally, the role of government was to adjudicate disputes. Tribal governments have now become more bureaucratic, with some tribes using powers of taxation and regulation of various matters that affect the tribe. Tribal governments more closely resemble state and federal governments, than traditional governmental structures; however, tribal bureaucracy has not risen to the level of state and federal bureaucracy, partially because their constituency is much smaller.
In many tribes, tribal leaders work full-time jobs and are not compensated for their positions on the tribal council. It is still uncommon to find college-educated tribal council members. Although some tribes are now developing junior colleges on their reservations, for many tribes the closest college is located some distance from the reservation. Even if an individual is willing to leave his or her home to attend school, what will happen after graduation? Job opportunities on many reservations are very limited so there are often no jobs, and no prospects, at home to which the graduate can return. The choice then has to be made whether to leave one’s culture to pursue a career, or forego the career and stay close to the culture.