21st century Indian policy

Letter to the Editor
2/26/10

What should Indian policy in the 21st century look like? Around the world, indigenous peoples have generally similar views and expression of their needs. Indigenous peoples want greater cultural and political autonomy from the nation states that surround them. Most indigenous communities do not want to reject or destabilize nation states, but rather establish more consensual or democratic relations that enable tribal communities to govern, make economic decisions, practice culture and language.

Indigenous communities want the capability and options to face the future and the contemporary world from a point of view that is informed by their own histories, cultures and interests. While most indigenous peoples are granted citizenship within their surrounding nation states, indigenous peoples want to remain members of their tribal communities and exercise political processes that are informed of their own traditions. Indigenous peoples do not reject the privilege of nation state citizenship, but object to the suppression of indigenous political identities and local powers that are ignored and superimposed upon by nation states.

Indigenous peoples want greater cultural and political autonomy from the nation states that surround them.

To make progress, nation states need to recognize the cultural, institutional and often territorial basis of indigenous communities and aspirations. Indigenous peoples will only be free in an environment where they are supported and enabled to express their culture, values and live in ways that conform to their worldviews. The worldviews and values of nation states are in conflict with indigenous cultures and institutions.

The pathways of assimilation, with its overt coercion and suppression of indigenous cultures, leads to sustained underground resistance and the absence of common cause within relations between nation states and indigenous peoples. Since indigenous peoples and nation states do not share common ground rules for social, economic and political processes, new policies must take the disparate views to heart, and work to understand both points of view. From an indigenous perspective, nation states have their own way of managing social and political relations, and that is respected, but indigenous people want their ways of living, territorial, political and cultural rights respected.

Nation states need to recognize that indigenous peoples are neither ethnic nor racial groups, nor consenting citizens. Indigenous rights existed prior to and outside the consensual agreements that establish democratic nation states. Indigenous communities are social and cultural formations that are alien to nation state institutions, and therefore need to be addressed on their own grounds and terms. The extension of civil rights, economic and political inclusion, are welcomed by indigenous peoples, but they also want to retain their own ways of managing local social, cultural and political relations.

The diverse social and cultural communities of indigenous nations will resist non-consensual relations with nation states, which constitute a form of political and cultural coercion that should not be part of a contemporary or modern democratic state. In this process, democracy will be extended and redefined to include indigenous peoples on their own grounds, whereas now they are marginalized or ignored.

A pathway out of the current economic, political and cultural marginalization of indigenous peoples is for nation states to seek to extend the consensual basis of the nation state to indigenous peoples. Nation states and indigenous peoples need to engage in discussions about relations of political, cultural and economic autonomy. Only when indigenous communities are recognized by nation states as social, cultural and political entities, then new mechanisms of consensual agreement and inclusion can be created.

The pathways of individual economic inclusion and the extension of civil rights, only go so far for indigenous peoples. Nation states need to turn indigenous communities into consenting citizens, but at the same time maintain democratic and respectful relations with indigenous political, social and cultural communities. When indigenous peoples gain recognition, consensual relations with and within nation states, and support to pursue their economic, cultural and political futures based on their own traditions and interests; then tribal communities will be better positioned to participate in nation states, and work toward re-establishing healthy and self-sustaining communities and cultures that will benefit themselves and supportive nation states.

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