Radicalism Between States and Tribes

Duane Champagne

Do indigenous nations want to reorganize nation states? In general, the answer to this question is no. Then what is the relation between tribes and nation states? There are some well-known academic positions about the relations between nation states and tribes. Decolonization and neomarxist points of view envision Indigenous Peoples are relegated to economic and political marginalization. In this view, Indigenous Peoples are reduced to victims of history and they have few alternatives but to join the other victims of the market system, and national and international political policy to secure equality or healthy livelihoods and opportunities.

A problem with the marginalization theories is that they do not ask Indigenous Peoples what they want and how they want government and economy. For Western nations, the world is a war of all against all. Political, economic, and cultural relations are competitive and result in winners and losers. Under such a political understanding, Indigenous Peoples are losers to more powerful political forces. Despite the legal and political domination of nation states, Indigenous Peoples do not see themselves as losers, but rather temporarily oppressed by self-centered, monocultural, nation states.

Most nation states do not respect or value indigenous cultures and therefore try to transform Indigenous Peoples into citizens, and assimilate them by devaluing their cultures and ways of life. In the holistic worldviews of most indigenous nations, there are many nations, many cultures, and many political systems, all of which should be respected by other nations.  Indigenous Peoples want to respect the governments and cultures of nation states, but at the same time maintain their own unique languages and cultures.

While nation states want to transform the governments, economies, and cultures of Indigenous Peoples, do Indigenous Peoples want to transform nation states? Indigenous Peoples do not want to reorganize nation states, but want nation states to treat Indigenous Peoples with respect and mutual support. This means that nation states need to gain consent from Indigenous Peoples for nation state programs that foster cultural, economic, and political change.

Indigenous Peoples want to participate and engage with nation states as citizens and indigenous nations. At the same time, Indigenous Peoples hold that they have the right to their own economies, governments, cultures, and strategies for change. In this way, Indigenous Peoples do not want nation states to exercise unilateral political, legal, and cultural decision-making powers over Indigenous Peoples.

Decisions at the legal, national, regional, local, and cultural levels needs consent and engaged decision-making, where Indigenous Peoples have veto power. This is the long-standing political process of consensus formation, which is alien to the delegated powers of most contemporary nation states. Veto power over government decisions of indigenous issues would be considered a special right by most nation states, while it is an inherent right for Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples want consensual, reciprocal, and respectful relations with nation states, but that involves an inherent right to veto decisions by nation states.

So do Indigenous Peoples want to change nation states? No, but they do want nation states to conform to indigenous expectations and understandings of autonomy and respect for the actions and rights of indigenous nations. Both indigenous nations and nation states have differing worldviews of expected and acceptable cultural and political actions. Indigenous Peoples don’t want to change nation states, but do expect nation state respect for inherent rights of political autonomy and cultural diversity.

While nation states and Indigenous Peoples want to cooperate, they both hold positions that are not agreeable to each other. Indigenous Peoples see nation state rules as oppressive, while nation states see indigenous positions as extra-constitutional and often politically and culturally radical. Both sides are protecting deep commitments to differing ways to manage government and cultural relations. While both sides have strong commitments to their own traditions, each side wants the other to change by conforming to the political rules and expectations of the other.

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