Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the bill granting Indians full citizenship.

Indigenous and 21st Century Nationalisms

Duane Champagne

Indigenous Peoples live within the boundaries of nation-states but usually do not conform to the cultural, political, economic institutions and identities of their host states. Most contemporary democratic nation states are created by agreement through adoption of a constitution, which spells out fundamental laws and values.

The social and cultural orders of Indigenous Peoples existed for thousands of years before the formation of contemporary states. Usually Indigenous Peoples are not participants in the formation of nation states, and declared citizens by acts of government, not consent. Nation states uphold equality for all citizens and progress is measured by civil rights and human rights advances. Contemporary nation states strive to create and protect equality among all minority, ethnic, cultural, and racial groups. One measure of improved democracy is greater inclusion of disadvantaged groups into the political and economic protection.

Democratic states are better designed to manage individualistic citizen issues of inequality than to address indigenous issues. Nation states and international instruments, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), provide protections for citizens within group and individual human rights platforms, but do not directly address indigenous rights.

Part of the reason Indigenous Peoples do not conform to nation state understandings is that Indigenous Peoples do not believe they are, or should be reduced to, citizen, racial, ethnic, cultural, or minority group status. In contemporary language, Indigenous Peoples are nations, with rights to territory, cultural and political autonomy. While the term “nation” is taken from contemporary usage, the expression nation usually does not have the same meaning for Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous governments included relations with the cosmic order and beings, such as plants, animals, other human nations, and beings that had power to move and change form, such as water to ice. Government was not only management of people, and relations with other human nations, but included managing relations with power beings within the cosmic order.


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davidche-weilee's picture
Submitted by davidche-weilee on
Dear Duane, Thank you for your explicit essay. You have made a cogent ontological statement of the differences of human rights, Indigenous rights, and civil rights, between Indigenous Peoples and non-indigenous nation-states (their citizens). Your argument is an unarguable ontology, that is, the nature of reality of Indigenous Peoples (i.e., indigenous languages, histories, territories, so forth), which already exists for millennia before any invasions, regardless of being in certain forms and at various levels. Rigorously speaking, unless the host states' governments are sincerely willing and able to understand this ontology (the nature of Indigenous reality), recognize it, and conform to government-to-government relations (e.g., treaty rights or trust relations), the goal/ideal of a peaceful symbiotic relationship will not achieve easily. In many cases, the I would argue that this ontology is a fundamental premise of ways of knowing, doing, seeing, and being when dealing with Indigenous affairs now and in the future. If we can respect indigenous ontology authentically, then the righteous axiology (i.e., the nature of ethical behavior) will come along with its healthy premise. I sincerely hope that the contemporary states' governments can really recognize and value this positive symbiotic relationship. Because a sound symbiotic relationship will promote our reciprocal knowing, mutual learning, and transforming under the condition of mutual fair and equal status. Sincerely, Che-Wei Lee