Aboriginal peoples learning from each other


As our lead editorial and front page article in this edition make clear, the situation of Indian bands in Canada is at once generally similar and uniquely different from that of nations and tribes in the United States. The same, in somewhat broader terms, can be said if we compare and contrast the situations of indigenous peoples of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico ? North America. In fact, throughout the whole Western Hemisphere, indigenous peoples share and relate to similar issues, even as their particular histories and situations are always distinct.

American Indian nations, Native or indigenous nations, share bottom line principles. These include aboriginality; intense cultural and spiritual identification in the land; inhabitation over centuries and often millennia; intense natural knowledge and specific uses for special aboriginal territories. Contrary to some popular opinions, aboriginal America actually included a full sense of proprietary right to defined lands belonging to and/or managed by extended family structures and nations. All Native peoples developed cultures and languages shared and shaped with and by the ecological foundations of place, their indigenous geography. In the context of the universal rights of humanity, indigenous nations of the Western Hemisphere certainly enjoyed the better measure of national sovereignty and thorough self-governance prior to contact and conquest by European nations, colonial governments and settlers.

All American indigenous nations, from the Cree of Northern Canada and the Inuit of Alaska to the Mapuche of Chile's Tierra del Fuego (Land of the Fire) find in their existence those fundamental elements. Today, they all exist in relation to a nation-state, and are influenced and must respond to and within the national societal currents of their particular nation-state. This is very seldom a desired reality, but is a universal reality nonetheless.

Among the shared currents of the nation-states have been colonization and dispossession of Native territories by right of "discovery" and legalized and institutionalized attempts to eradicate Native culture and lifeways from the Native population. From the Canadian boarding schools to the "Carlisles" of the U.S., to the numerous missions that sometimes assisted but mostly accosted Native peoples throughout Latin America, these policies of acculturation, as handmaidens of ethnocide, have been an experience shared by Native peoples throughout the Hemisphere.

All indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere have been confronted with the Doctrine of Discovery, that now-you-are, now-you-are-not cleverness that passes for the basis of international law. All must relate to some degree of "trusteeship" or worse under nation-state governments. All are struggling over territorial, economic, political and cultural ground with their nation-state ? over self-governance issues, jurisdictional sovereignties, and issues of land tenure and land use, hunting and fishing rights.

In Mexico, it is via the ejidos, and a system of laws to protect Indian land-holding communities that dates back to the period after the Mexican Revolution (1920s); in the U.S., it involves mention twice in the U.S. Constitution, a huge range of court cases and executive action and the record of treaty making, which has been the basis of much legal definition. Canada shares the treaty history as well, but is mired more deeply in a single set of all-embracing laws that became "The Indian Act."

All must deal with some degree of what is known in the U.S. as the "Plenary Power Doctrine," which basically makes the nation-state, if it deems it necessary to intercede, always the ultimate arbiter of Indian reality. Most importantly, all Native nations share the superb survival ability of Indian lifeways and culture and the willingness to defend against such self-anointed absolute power by the nation-states.

Unavoidably, there are many areas where Native people can learn from each other and help each other. Legalistically, by historical fact, all are situated within a nation-state. Realistically, however, nation-state boundaries are but one more intrusion among relatives, one increasingly overcome by a superior idea of common past and common destiny. Native peoples throughout the hemisphere enter the communications era. It is a great opportunity to learn from each other.

We encourage all those who seek common hemispheric understandings among Native peoples. We believe that what happens in Canada, in Chile, in Colombia or Venezuela, in Peru or Guatemala can have impact or lessons for our own communities, and vice versa. Common strategies are needed to confront a coming century of conflict and danger with our own imperatives for survival and the quest for political and economic freedom with which to rebuild our own socially healthy and economically viable communities.