Indigenous Resilience

The story of federal Indian law is the story of Indian tribal survival in the face of perpetual challenges to their legal and cultural existence, both in law and policy. These assaults have come from every quarter: federal, state, and private actors, as well as from the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. Tribes have often lost key contests challenging their rights and status. Among other challenges, they have overcome disease, starvation, and colonialism. Theirs is a story of striking resilience. Resilience theorists study institutions, systems, and individuals to understand how they withstand, or why they succumb to, significant disruption. Resilience theory has traditionally informed law and policy in a wide range of areas from disaster response to ecology to healthcare strategies. But to date, legal and resilience theorists have largely ignored the indigenous strategies and principles that have enabled the improbable legal and cultural survival of tribes as peoples and self-governing institutions.

Thus, the story of indigenous resilience provides a rich—but previously untapped—resource for understanding how institutions prepare for and adapt to disruption, not only for resilience theorists, but also for all those interested in preparing for and responding to potential threats to peoples and institutions. This Article fills this critical gap in resilience theory and practice by looking to the tribes, particularly through the lens of Haudenosaunee principles, to better understand resilience strategies. In particular, this Article identifies a set of principles of indigenous resilience that have enabled American Indian and Alaska Native tribes to adapt and maintain their core identities in the face of unimaginable assaults. The Article then suggests how these indigenous resilience principles might assist leaders and policymakers, both within and outside the tribal context, to prepare for such looming challenges as climate change, epistemic crises in civil governance, and care for the vulnerable.