A continuing commitment to self-government

Letter to the Editor
12/31/09

Indigenous communities throughout the world are looking for greater political and cultural autonomy within their surrounding nation-states. The language and meaning of greater autonomy generally is similar everywhere. Political autonomy is the capability of indigenous communities to make decisions about their needs, interests, and futures. Cultural autonomy is a request that nation-states respect the values of indigenous communities.

Indigenous political and social processes generally are consensual. Indigenous communities want more consensual relations with nation-states, and want to have the capacity and freedom to develop solutions to contemporary political and economic issues that are informed by their own cultures, traditions, communities, goals and interests.

American Indians have governments, hold territory, and maintain cultures that are non-Western and very different socially, culturally and politically from the United States. Often kinship relations, ceremonial organization, and political relations are tightly interrelated among Indian communities, so social, cultural and political actions and relations are one and the same.

Tribal governments predate the formation of the United States government. Similarly, indigenous communities with their own forms of often decentralized government predate the formation of most contemporary nation-states. Primarily, in the United States and Canada is there a history of treaties that recognize nation-to-nation relations. Most indigenous peoples prefer their own forms of community and government, and most have not consented to become citizens of surrounding nation-states. Except for a new nations, most nation-states in the world do not formally or legally recognize indigenous government, territorial claims, or cultural autonomy.

Most indigenous peoples are happy to join nation-states as citizens, but also want to enjoy the rights and privileges of indigenous peoples and nations. They prefer to live on their land, maintain considerable capability to make political, economic, and cultural decisions about issues that affect their interests, and future. Whenever indigenous communities are ignored by the central government authorities, they tend to maintain their cultures, social and political organization in an underground way that is hidden from the state system.

For many tribal communities, decisions and actions are the result of consensus building, and they expect relations with nation-states to follow the same processes. Nation-states are more centralized politically and bureaucratically, and often rely on delegated executive and legislative powers, in ways that are alien to the more decentralized indigenous social and political organization.

The centralized character of nation-states has encouraged pan-indigenous organizations to lobby and take action on the regional, national and international levels. Nevertheless, indigenous peoples tend to see pan-indigenous organizations as a means to gain recognition and increase capability for collective action, but not as substitutes or replacements for local decentralized and consensual political communities. Self-government is about preserving the political autonomy and rights of culturally distinct, indigenous communities that have existed for thousands of years.

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