UN Photo/Yubi Hoffmann
Participants at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, held at the UN Headquarters September 22 and 23, 2014.

Increasing Indigenous Diversity: Classifying Is Oversimplifying

Duane Champagne

A major trend for modernizing nation states is to homogenize the cultures, governments, and communities of indigenous nations. While extending greater inclusion and citizenship, Indigenous Peoples are asked to de-emphasize or abandon their own forms of political government, cultures, languages, and identities. Contemporary international policies and national policies focus on bringing Indigenous Peoples into human and civil rights protection. In the process of including Indigenous Peoples into nation culture and community, Indigenous Peoples re-constructed into social groups that make more sense within modernizing nation state language and group understandings.

Indigenous nationalities are not widely understood among the general public. Many contemporary academic studies and the U.S. Census classify Indigenous Peoples as racial, marginalized, or ethnic groups, thereby putting all Indigenous Peoples into one category, sometimes the residual category of “other.” The classification of indigenous people to a political, racial, or culturally homogenous category greatly oversimplifies the diversity of Indigenous Peoples cultures, government forms, identities, relation to the land, and cosmic relations.

The oversimplified classifications carry certain assumptions about Indigenous Peoples’ possibilities, rights, and social-cultural action in the contemporary world. Classifying Indigenous Peoples as economically marginalized, implies that all Indigenous Peoples are poor, from the point of view of mainstream understandings. The policy emphasis implied in the marginalization category is that indigenous issues are primarily economic, and that Indigenous Peoples need economic development as a means to solve most of their issues or problems. If Indigenous Peoples are classified as a racial or ethnic group then their issues and future resolutions are classified as civil rights issues. Most classifications of Indigenous Peoples result in avoidance of indigenous rights, and hence do not address the issues—land, self-governance, and cultural autonomy— that are most central to Indigenous Peoples.

The classifications of American Indian, Native American or Pan-Indigenous are ethnic classifications that suggest that Indigenous Peoples are ethnically, culturally, politically, and racially homogenous. Indigenous Peoples, however, do not form a common ethnic, political, or cultural group. Pan-Indigenous groups are coalitions of many indigenous nations that are politically, culturally, and territorially independent. The expression “indigenous” does not, and should not, refer to a common ethnic orientation, but rather refers to the collection of nations, usually located within nation states, that retain commitments to historical political organization, land, and culture that existed long before the formation of contemporary nation states. There is no indigenous nation, ethnic group, race, or minority group that encompasses the whole of a unified indigenous identity. A unified indigenous identity is a social construction. Rather than homogenous, indigenous identities are gathered from many cultures, identities, governments, lands, and worldviews.

Indigenous Peoples are diverse, and their diversity existed long before nation states. The nation building of contemporary nation states has tried to suppress indigenous diversities and invited Indigenous Peoples and individuals to accept the political, economic, cultural and citizenship of contemporary nation states. The inclusion of Indigenous Peoples into present-day nation states continues to exact a heavy cost from indigenous identity and tradition.

Indigenous Peoples, however, have retained many core aspects of indigenous political, cultural, and territorial identity. The diverse cultural and political ways of Indigenous Peoples are reflected in the many ways by which Indigenous Peoples have sought to preserve themselves.

Contemporary globalized markets, nation-state policies, and globalized cultural diversity, has created many opportunities and constraints on Indigenous Peoples who preserved their unique cultural, political and territorial organization with responses varied specific responses to modernization and colonization. The forces of homogenization have been countered by the indigenous forces of specific culture, language, government, and land holding. Many indigenous nations and persons have made choices for engaging in the contemporary world, but at the same time retain core understandings of culture, government and land rights. Traditional indigenous diversities form the basis of increased indigenous political, cultural, and territorial diversification in the contemporary world.

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