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What is Nation Building?

Governance in the Big House.

Nation Building is an approach to Indigenous development that emerged out of the research of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Although there are different ways to describe the Nation Building approach, it commonly touches on five elements:

  • The assertion of decision-making power;

  • Building effective governance institutions;

  • Ensuring cultural match;

  • Making strategic decisions; and,

  • Leaders acting as nation builders.

Over my career I’ve have come to agree with this approach. It resonates with my experiences, and is proven to be successful for Indigenous Nations in Canada and Tribes in the U.S.

The Nation Building approach is not a new idea. The assertion of decision-making power for example is the underlying premise for the expressions of nationhood and sovereignty that our ancestors made on our behalf. That’s why people sometimes like to rebrand the concept as “Nation RE-Building” as a nod to the strength and sophistication of Indigenous governments before the genocide of colonization. Whichever way you prefer to describe it, the uniqueness of the Nation Building approach is that it makes explicit the connection between effective governance and sustained social and economic success of First Nations. It’s strength is its simplicity – there are only five elements. And yet across Turtle Island, there are as many unique ways to realize the Nation Building approach as there are Indigenous Nations.

If you want to learn more about the Nation Building approach pick up a copy of Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development edited by Miriam Jorgensen and published by the University of Arizona Press. Enjoy the read.


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