U.N. Rights Pamphlet: 'Indigenous Peoples' Means Dominated, Oppressed

Steven Newcomb

In the foreword to Walter Echohawk’s book In the Light of Justice (Fulcrum 2013), S. James Anaya—United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples—says that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “represents an acknowledgment of the ongoing human rights problems faced by indigenous peoples today across the globe.” Those problems, says Anaya, are rooted in widespread wrongs derived from” patterns “of domination….” He thereby identifies domination as a past and ongoing problem for those peoples and nations commonly termed “Indigenous.”

A United Nations pamphlet, The Rights of Indigenous Peoples, focuses our attention on “those who inhabited a country or geographic region at [and prior to] the time when peoples of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived.” The “new arrivals,” says the pamphlet, eventually became “dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.” (emphasis added) The contrast between the dominant (or dominating) and those under dominance or being dominated is key to the central and idealized image of what it means to be “Indigenous” in the context of the UN system. For this reason, at the end of WWII the terms “indigenous peoples” and “colonial peoples” were used interchangeably, but since that time the term “colonial peoples” has been gradually phased out.

In any case, the descendants of those initially forced under domination are the ones who are today being characterized as “indigenous.” (The pamphlet states that Indigenous peoples “are the descendants—according to one definition--...”) The original peoples’ descendants, who were born into the context and aftermath of domination, are the ones now called “Indigenous.” The UN pamphlet provides a list of those dealing with the context and aftermath and context of domination: “the Indians of the Americas, the Inuit and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Sami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia, and the Maori of New Zealand.”

The UN pamphlet characterizes such peoples as having “retained social, culture, economic and political characteristics which are clearly distinct from those of the other segments of the national population.” (emphasis added). This is the first use of the term “national” in the pamphlet, and it is strategically placed to frame the peoples termed “indigenous” as being merely one of many “segments” of “the national population,” and presumably an integral part of the body politic of the state system, as a result of the initial domination of the ancestors of present day Indigenous nations and peoples.

A later sentence of the pamphlet is designed to create the very same sense, for it says: “The threats to indigenous peoples’ cultures and lands, to their status and other legal rights as distinct groups and as citizens, do not always take the same forms as in previous times.” (emphasis added) The phrase “and as citizens” is politically designed to create the impression that “indigenous peoples” are “citizens” of one of the states of the international system of states called the United Nations. There is a reason why this is significant: Such wording draws the reader’s mind away from the distinct nationhood of our original nations and peoples.

The pamphlet’s wording enables us to see that being conceptualized as “indigenous” means being conceptualized as having been born into the aftermath of the domination forcibly imposed on our free and independent ancestors. The term “indigenous” refers to the descendants of entirely free and independent nations and peoples, whose existence and territories were overrun by invading foreigners. So, where and when do we see Indigenous Peoples? As the UN pamphlet states, we see them wherever and “whenever dominant neighboring peoples have expanded their territories or settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force.” Such an explanation once again places peoples termed “indigenous” in a context of dominance or domination. Use of the word “neighboring” seems deftly designed to soften the effect of the phrase “by force.”

What is implied is just as important as what is explicitly stated. When the pamphlet says, for example, that “neighboring peoples” having “expanded their territories” (emphasis added) they have done so by claiming and appropriating other peoples’ territories as their own, specifically by claiming and overrunning the territories of those peoples under a claim of dominance. Evidence that the pamphlet is not written from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective is found in the phrase “settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force.” (Emphasis added.) Instead of directly saying that “the settlers” have invaded forcibly overrun Indigenous peoples’ lands by forcibly overtaking them, the Indigenous peoples’ lands are referred to as “new” lands. However, the Indigenous peoples’ lands are merely “new” to “the settlers” who, by means of invasion, force, or other techniques of domination have claimed those lands, which the pamphlet terms “acquired.”

Another working definition of Indigenous Peoples also pinpoints the domination framework. It was issued by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples (UN Doc. No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add. 4, para. 379): “Indigenous communities, Peoples and Nations are those which have a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies…” The terms “pre-invasion” and “pre-colonial” refer to the original free and independent existence of nations and peoples, prior to the onset of domination through invasion, colonialism, and so forth.

The terms implicitly refer to an original context and existence, before (“pre”) domination” and before colonization, or, in other words, to an original free existence. Those characterized as being “indigenous,” says the definition, “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing…” (emphasis added). The definition tells us that those peoples termed “Indigenous” “form at present non-dominant sectors of [the prevailing] society…” Words such as “invasion,” “colonial,” “prevailing,” and “non-dominant” serve as carriers of a paradigm of domination.

The phrase “societies now prevailing” leads us directly to the domination framework, for the word “prevail” means “to gain ascendency; win mastery; triumph;--often with over or against.” The term “ascendancy” leads us to “governing or controlling influence; domination.” This tells us that the phrase “indigenous peoples” as used by the UN is accurately interpreted as, “peoples under dominance or domination.”

Accordingly, the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” is accurately understood as The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peoples Under Domination.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008, Fulcrum), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation

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Anonymous's picture
Does this mean that we are becoming homogenous or one big melting pot under domination?
curtj's picture
what is just as obvious, is our so called leaders are cowards and uneducated to the history of this continent and to the policies of colonialism. They are content to have state and federal governments run over them and their people. They refuse to point out the policies that enabled the illegal European immigrant aliens to steal and murder their way across this lands are the same policies that result in terrorist attacks against America. Cowards! Uneducated and corrupted cowards at that!
Anonymous's picture
curtj's picture
The so called Indigenous leaders refuse to educate themselves on the history of this country from when syphillis afflicted slaver, rapist and mass murderer Columbus stumbled on this hemisphere, instead subserviently and meekly submitting to whatever the descendants of the illegal European immigrant aliens dishes out to them. The so called leaders refuse to point out the policies of colonialism are nothing but theft and murder. That for centuries the Europeans, and then Americans have invaded other countries to allow their freebooters, thieves, murderers and corporations to steal their natural resources and lands for colonization. America has 750-900 military bases in 125-235 countries, depending if Ron Paul or Jesse Ventura is talking, all manned by the neo conservative owned and run CIA, military intelligence and hired foreign mercenaries masquerading around with the label of "contractors". The American government spends trillions to invade countries and to destabilize governments, to manipulate assassinations of foreign leaders and coups. Our government sets up and props up despot 2 bit dictatorships, bribed to allow the theft of their countries resources and lands. They are bribed to subjugate their people with intimidation, terror, rapes, kidnappings and murder to allow the theft of their resources by the likes of Shell, Exxon, Chevron and BP, look at Iraq and what America did for the likes of the neo con parasites and leeches who's profits depend on how much resources they can steal. The military industrial complex profits off the sale of their wares of destruction, pain, suffering and death. After their profits come the foreign owned transglobal oil, energy and mining conglomerates to collect their blood money profits off the stolen resources. America spends trillions to realize million and billion dollar profits for these white collar thieves and murderers and their bribed and bought off Washington political prostitutes. They get the profits and America gets the trillion dollar bill and resulting terrorist attacks from people incensed at seeing their people subjugated terrorized and murdered so foreigners and the reigning dictatorships, their families and fellow cronies can profit off resources meant for the populations of that particular country. It's called colonialism and its nothing but theft and murder, and our so called leaders refuse to call the President. Congress and the thieves in the Department of Interior on it. They absolutely refuse to talk about it. Are they just as bribed as the American government or just plain stupid?
piqua's picture
In response to the first Anonymous: What is commonly called 'the system' is 'the system of domination,' It operates on the basis of a coded language that is cloaked by a great variety of euphemisms that are designed to disguise its true nature. This is what I have tried to reveal in my analysis in this column. The melting pot is a metaphorical cauldron in which everyone is subjected (from the Latin subjectum, 'to throw under' domination or dominance). Our experience as the original and rightfully free nations and peoples of Great Turtle Island been forced under a wrongful domination enables us to pull away the veil and show everyone the true nature of the domination system, which is otherwise known as colonialism and colonization. In response to 'curtj': I agree with most of your analysis but fail to see what purpose it serves to use terms of condemnation that are guaranteed to shut down any possibility of communication. It is important to provide leadership in Indian Country with information that will make enable them to be more effective. Besides, suppose you find a cadre of Indian leaders who are able to match your ideal standard, and end up with all the information you have provided here, that still does not explain how such information will make them more effective. The invective doesn't help in my view. And, finally, to the second anonymous: Pilamiya.
nokomis's picture
Good critical thinking article. Keep on writing so that society and Indian Country can begin to decolonize their thinking and can begin to think analytically.