What Is Native Nation Building?

What is Native nation building?

Native nation building is the process by which a Native nation strengthens its own capacity for effective and culturally relevant self-government and for self-determined and sustainable community development.

Nation building involves building institutions of self-government that are culturally appropriate to the nation and that are effective in addressing the nation’s challenges. It involves developing the nation's capacity to make timely, strategically informed decisions about its affairs and to implement those decisions. It involves a comprehensive effort to rebuild societies that work. In other words, a nation-building approach understands that tribes are not merely interest groups, but governing nations confronting classic problems of human societies.

Five Core Principles of Native Nation Rebuilding

The Native Nations Institute’s understanding of Indigenous nation building emerges from 30 years of research by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (founded in 1986) and NNI (founded in 2001). Our research efforts have sought to understand the conditions under which sustained development can be successful in Indigenous nations. The results indicate that five elements are particularly important:


The nation makes the major decisions:

Native nations that have been willing and able to assert self-governing power have significantly increased their chances of sustainable economic development.


The nation backs up authority with competence:

The chances of sustainable development rise as Indigenous nations put in place effective, non-politicized dispute-resolution mechanisms and build capable bureaucracies.


Governing institutions match community beliefs about how authority should be organized:

Institutions that build and innovate upon Indigenous conceptions of governing responsibilities fare better than those whose form departs from such conceptions.


Decisions are made with long-term priorities in mind:

Successful Native nations tend to approach development not as a quick fix for poverty but as a means of building a society that works.


Individuals who recognize the need for fundamental change and can engage with community to make that happen:

In successful Indian nations, there is typically a group of individuals who recognize the need for fundamental change in the way things are done and can bring the community along with them in building that future.

Indigenous nations are engaging in Native nation building as they work to embrace and apply these principles.

Native nations are governing:

Nation Building_Cheif Oren Lyons

  • with sound financial management when administering programs on behalf of other governments, while achieving their own objectives in interaction with those governments;
  • with environmental and natural resource management while fulfilling their unique responsibilities as stewards of ancestral lands and waters;
  • with the preservation of language and traditions while balancing change with cultural continuity;
  • with inventing programs to address particular social, economic, and environmental problems while becoming consistent and effective problem-solvers;
  • by finding and training leaders and deciding how to govern and how to implement sovereign, capable, and culturally appropriate systems of governance;
  • by developing vigorous reservation economies and raising living standards while building successful societies; and
  • by improving community life and preserving their distinctive nationhood.

These challenges are foundational, and they require a foundational response. As Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga says, the task is “to rebuild our nations.”

Download the "What is Native Nation Building" flyer

Resources on Native Nation Building are available on the Indigenous Governance Database and courses are offered through the Indigenous Governance Program.

Share this