Indigenous rights must become a priority
Since the beginning of civilization, indigenous peoples have faced
incursions, aggression and even genocide in the form of organized
aggression from civilized centers. Civilizations were probably founded in
situations of economic distress. By about 10,000 years ago, people were
organized in groups of perhaps 500 people occupying about 300 square miles
moving from camp to camp, following the food supply through the seasons.
But a time came for some when there was not enough food, and there was no
place to go without entering into other peoples' territory and starting a
conflict. Some people began to do something interesting: They took control
of their own food supply by planting seeds. They didn't plant their
favorite foods. They planted the foods that would grow for them. Soon they
had need for the kind of social organization that could store food until
the next harvest, and protect the food they had, and organize irrigation,
and make up a religion. That's essentially how civilization was born.
Almost immediately upon success civilizations found they needed more than
food, they needed trade. So they looked beyond their territories for other
places they could send people to take over so they could obtain things:
Wood, ores, croplands. The military they had created to protect themselves
was useful in organized armed aggression, and such aggression is always for
the purpose of plunder. Civilizations attack and usurp the riches of others
in a process that is thousands of years old, is ongoing, and has an
elaborate system of rationales. It is also one of the major obstacles to
world peace, since indigenous peoples occupy the world's last forested
areas, are found on much of the world's oil reserves, and occupy the
pristine areas of every continent except Antarctica.
Indigenous rights, a subject that has about a 50-year history of
conversation on the world stage, has as its foundation a strong moral
argument. Any child will agree that a people should not take another
peoples' property simply because they have the strength to do so. This is a
crime of theft, and a crime against humanity. It's a simple thing, but the
fact that indigenous rights have been so controversial is testimony to the
discouraging moral failings of our species. Civilized peoples assert they
have an entitlement to the world's riches and can take what they want and
need because of the noble project of civilization itself. In short, theft
is justified because the thief is noble.
Three cases in the Americas currently illuminate the problem. First, there
are the Mapuche Indians of Chile. They claim that vast areas of their
territory have been encroached upon by the Chilean state and are now in the
hands of multinational corporations and large landowners who have planted
trees as a crop. They have demanded their land rights and have, in some
instances, moved against their antagonists even to the point of destroying
property. Since their movement has become more aggressive, it has declined
in popularity among ordinary Chileans, but it must be said that even with
some popularity they were making minimal progress in gaining redress from
what they allege were acts of theft, fraud, and illegal dispossession.
In the United States, the most glaring instance of this kind in the lower
48 involves the Western Shoshone. According to the United States, the
Shoshone lost their lands because white Americans gradually encroached on
their country, leaving them very little of their acknowledged Aboriginal
territory. The logic, at its foundation, is that the thief is entitled to
keep the land because he stole it in the first place. President Bush, urged
by corporate interests in Nevada, signed on to this line of thought.
Earlier an Organization of American States court found that the U.S.
treatment of the Western Shoshone was unfair and stated that they wished to
review other instances of U.S. violation of Indian rights. The U.S.
indicated it wasn't going to comply.
In British Columbia over the past century-and-a-half Anglo settlers have
encroached on indigenous lands with little acknowledgment of the nations
who owned them or those nations' rights. As a result, bitter court battles
have ensued and difficult negotiations have been undertaken, but many of
the First Nations people there feel their rights have not been recognized.
Recently, a group has taken Canada to court at the World Trade Organization
complaining that the way that timber rights were granted was a violation of
international trade agreements because the taking of the wood from the
Indians without adequate compensation amounted to a subsidy by the
government, and such a subsidy is illegal. The WTO court is considering the
Some 30 years ago, some North American Indians, including the American
Indian Movement and the Six Nations Confederacy, concluded that these
nation states would never abide by any reasonable standard of justice
regarding indigenous rights and determined to press for new and better
standards under international law. Prospects in that process have been
mixed but many Indian nations and indigenous peoples throughout the world
have joined this movement and have been demanding better treatment. The
idea that indigenous peoples' rights should be protected is quite widely
accepted in the international community. Canada, which projects an image as
a champion of civilized behavior in the world, has often vigorously opposed
principles of indigenous rights. The United States appears, for the moment,
to have turned its back on the principles of international law except when
these are convenient to its interests.
Indian nations today, especially those in the U.S., are far more
influential and affluent than they were in 1977 when the current initiative
for indigenous rights began, but given what is at stake there has been a
discouragingly low level of interest and support in recent years for
principles supporting the right to a continued existence as distinct
peoples and all that implies. Non-Indians interested in supporting
indigenous rights against the kinds of land confiscations and encroachments
that have drawn attention recently would do well to support the development
of international law standards. The Indian nations should consider active
and material support for those initiatives as a priority. Without
universally-recognized standards, indigenous rights are a house of cards,
and for all the arguments that such ambitions are the will-o-the-wisp, it
is the most practical idea in the age of terror.
American Indians tend to be far too provincial for their own good. Far too
many view with detached interest the plight of indigenous peoples in
distant lands as something that does not reach their homeland. They are
wrong about that. When peoples are abused anywhere in the world, the way
that abuse is viewed is of crucial importance to people in similar
circumstances everywhere. History, it is said, is written in patterns not
unlike the illuminations of a searchlight, and indigenous nations occupy
center stage usually at times of peril. That other indigenous peoples care
little and do nothing is not only discouraging, it is more than a little
self-defeating. If a people do not know where their interests lie, who
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.