Indigenous histories

Letter to the Editor
1/7/11

The interpretation of human social development is widely characterized in evolutionary and modernist terms of improvements in economic well-being, cultural secularization, and/or formation of nation-states. Indigenous peoples, however, do not see history as a movement toward greater political or economic control, but rather as a process of increasing moral development and order with the rest of the universe.

Despite many centuries of colonial and nation state contact, many indigenous communities maintain commitments to traditional worldviews, economies and political relations. Indigenous peoples are open to change and adaptation, but prefer to accept change that is compatible with their own cultural and community values and goals.

History, from an indigenous view, can be divided into three periods: The time before colonial contact, the colonial period, and the nation state period. Indigenous cultural, community, and political relations originated before the colonial and nation state periods. To a large extent indigenous peoples are not consensual participants in either colonial or nation state societies. Indigenous peoples always were engaged in trade, economy and political relations, and most indigenous nations had their own creation teachings that supported their territorial, cultural, economic and political autonomy. Colonial regimes usually strove to incorporate indigenous peoples into transnational markets as laborers or traders, and sought to culturally and politically bring indigenous peoples under colonial rule.

The development of nation states is very different than colonial regimes, although many of the exploitive features of colonialism can continue under nation-state rule. Nation states are relatively recent historical entities. The United States is the first liberal democracy modern nation state.

The French Revolution, in the 1790s, took some examples from the new U.S. republic, and some consensual and democratic themes from indigenous people in the new world. The development of contemporary nation states arises from this period, now not more than 250 years ago.

During the early decades of the 1800s, countries all through Latin and South American rebelled against Spain and Portugal, and asserted independence. Thereafter in North and South America, the former colonies formed themselves into nation states. The colonial period lasts well into the 20th century, only after World War II did many countries, particularly in Africa, form nation states and gain independence from direct European colonial rule. Most countries in the world today are formed by nation state organizations with constitutions, and some type of democracy.

Nation states were formed from strong nationalist, market and modernist orientations. Indigenous nations were seen as outmoded forms of social organization and culture that were doomed to disappear. Modernization views suggested that indigenous peoples would ultimately be incorporated as citizens, and indigenous peoples would abandon their identities and social organization. Assimilationist nation state views about indigenous peoples are prevalent throughout much of the world, and generally indigenous local government, culture, or economy is not recognized or fostered by nation state governments.

For indigenous peoples, nation states are recent historical developments that do not supersede indigenous forms of government, land holding, or culture. An emphasis on greater cultural pluralism and civil rights within nation states goes only a limited way to address indigenous issues. Indigenous peoples usually do not separate land, community and self-government from culture. Indigenous origin teachings bestow culture, government, and land, and are continuous political and cultural forces for indigenous peoples, and often command greater commitments than nation states.

Indigenous peoples are willing to recognize nation states and participate as citizens in nation states, but not at the expense of abandoning their ties and rights to indigenous land, government and culture. For indigenous peoples, nation states are powerful political and economic entities that need to be respected and negotiated with. Indigenous peoples do not see themselves as upholding disappearing forms of social and political organization. Rather they see themselves as having religious mandates to continue to uphold their cultures, communities, lands and governments into the indefinite future. Contemporary human political organization is many times more diverse and complicated than the present-day theory of nation states allows and is capable of recognizing.

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