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Indigenous Power: Indigenous Rights Go Global

Indigenous peoples are asserting their moral right to live as distinct communities and reminding us of the power of cooperation with nature.
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Representatives of indigenous peoples of South America at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, seek support for efforts to protect their homes and ancestral lands from mining, ranching, and violent efforts to remove them from their land. Photo by Sarah van Gelder

When the Spanish first arrived in the Caribbean over 500 years ago, the idea that indigenous peoples might possess rights was given scant attention. The conquistadores approached many of the indigenous communities with a priest who read a document called the Requiremento, a demand that the people come forth with their bodies and souls and all their property and offer these to the service of the Spanish crown or the Spanish would attack. It was read in Latin as prelude to an orgy of rape, plunder, and genocide.

It wasn't until the middle of the 16th century that a bishop, Bartolome de Las Casas, championed the idea of some rights of the Indians before the Council of the Indies. Although that body agreed in principle that indigenous peoples should not be abused, the conquest continued unabated.

Fairness and reciprocity

The Europeans who first landed here in the Americas saw their problems very differently than indigenous peoples did and still do. In Europe, the biggest problem was that the people couldn't produce enough food. They were hungry, and there was always the threat of famine. When they got to the Americas they found a first-rate edible landscape. But bring a bunch of sheep and cows and cut down all the trees for a couple of hundred years, and you don't have an edible landscape anymore.

European wanted to battle, to outsmart nature —that's what all their technology is about; that's what biotechnology particularly is about.

But for the Indians, the question was not how to make war on nature, but how to cooperate with nature. When the Europeans came, the Indians were taking care of the land, so there was grass to feed the deer. The deer and the buffalo were our domesticated animals. The Indians had a very sophisticated system of food management based on cooperation with nature.

The Indians asked questions about fairness, not only human to human, but human to land, human to animal, human to everything. And they tried to get Europeans to see that. The thinking in Indian country was one of respect. The Indians were constantly imploring the Europeans to rethink their relationship with nature. “You've got it wrong,” we said. “You've got to be fair.”

Taking it to the global stage

Beginning in the early 1950s, some indigenous peoples began urging the international community to recognize their inherent rights to continue to exist as distinct peoples.

The idea was given a significant boost in 1977 when the non-governmental organizations of the United Nations organized a meeting in Geneva to discuss the creation of indigenous rights under international law. In 1982, indigenous representatives were invited to Geneva to witness the development of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

This was an important step because, until that time, indigenous peoples had been relegated to the most extreme margins of international affairs.

At first, the nation-states were cautious and occasionally hostile to the idea of indigenous rights and to the movement representing it. As recently as  1999 the Organization of American States (OAS) was essentially closed to indigenous peoples, but the OAS was presented with a mandate from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and indigenous peoples insisted on a presence in those proceedings. Today, indigenous representatives attend the annual meetings of the 34 member states of the OAS. They are greeted with dignity, and their issues are extended respectful attention.

In fact, many states have now begun to acknowledge the rights of groups to a continued existence as distinct peoples, and this movement has spread rapidly over the past 15 years to Europe, Australia, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. Today there are young Indian lawyers working on protecting indigenous peoples under principles which only a few short years ago were unimaginable. The OAS, the World Bank, the IMF, and other international institutions now have policies to protect indigenous peoples.

Indigenous people bring a unique argument to the world stage. We don't have armies or navies, we don't have national currencies, we don't have many of the attributes that Western nations think make up nationhood.

And yet we propose that we have a moral right to continue to live as a distinct community and in the manner we have for millennia. And in many ways, it is the indigenous cultures' relationship to the earth that represents the only real hope for the long term survival of people on any scale in the world.


John Mohawk wrote this article for 10 Most Hopeful Trends, the Spring 2006 issue of YES! Magazine. John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor at the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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