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Ending Our Self-Deception Regarding the Term ‘Indigenous’

Given that the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is about to convene in New York for its 14th session, it seems fitting to once again revisit the term “indigenous” in the context of the United Nations. In his amazing book A Poetic for Sociology (1977), Richard H. Brown say that “the ‘thing itself’ is emergent in the process of its being named.” (p. 148). We might say that we became “emergent” as “indigenous” when others began to apply that word to us, and especially when we made the decision to begin applying the word “indigenous” to ourselves.

Interpretative implications followed when we “became emergent” as “indigenous,” for it is not possible to use a word without also using the interpretations that accompany that word in different contexts and for different purposes. In the context of the U.N. the word “indigenous” means “colonized.” And the phrase “indigenous peoples” means, peoples that have been colonized (forced under domination) and never decolonized.

What is typically called decolonization is partly a mental process which involves becoming highly conscious of the way in which dominating colonizers have used their language and their meanings to dominate us. Given that our nations and peoples have been metaphorically “woven” into a deceptive language “web” of domination, there is much to be gained by examining each linguistic strand, along with the metaphor “indigenous” in the context of the United Nations.

Becoming highly conscious requires ending self-deception wherever it exists. We need to become hyper conscious of when and the extent to which we have named ourselves with words that benefit the colonizers, while maintaining the processes and patterns of domination. The word “Indigenous” is an example of how using dominating words to name ourselves can serve to reinforce rather than end the colonization and domination of our nations and our lives.

The United Nations Human Rights Centre (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland has published a series of what it has called “Human Rights Facts Sheets.” The “sheets,” the UNHRC tells us, “are intended to assist an ever-wider audience in better understanding basic human rights” and to better understand “what the United Nations is doing to promote and protect” those rights.

That probably sounds great to the average person. But what if it turns out that the very idea of “human rights” in the context of the U.N. is one of the phrases that actually serves to reinforce rather than end colonization and domination for our nations and peoples? How? By framing our existence on the basis of human “individuals” and thereby drawing attention from our identity as original nations of Great Turtle Island. And by failing, due to that individualized focus, to challenge the assumption of “State” domination over our originally and still rightfully free nations. The United Nations considers “human rights” to be “rights” of individual humans under or beneath the presumed authority, control, and domination of “the state.”

What if the phrase “Indigenous peoples” is also being used to keep our originally and still rightfully free nations down and under the presumed domination of the states? After all, the states of the U.N. system tend to presume that our nations are validly under the dominating “thumb” of both the states and the international state system.

The “fact sheets,” so we are told, have also been published to enable people to better understand “the international machinery available to help realize those rights.” The use of a machinery metaphor indicates that the entire subject is being thought of against the cultural backdrop of an industrial and mechanistic worldview generally associated with the French philosopher René Decartes.

“The Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Fact Sheet No. 9, provides us with the UN Human Rights Centre explanation of the term “indigenous peoples.” It explains how the phrase “human rights” is to be interpreted in relation to peoples termed as “indigenous.” The context itself is revealed by focusing on the dominating peoples who are also considered to be the “non-indigenous” peoples.

How does the fact sheet pamphlet characterize the non-indigenous peoples? Here are some of the phrases used for that purpose: they are “peoples of different cultures or ethnic origins [who] arrived” to the place where the original peoples were living, and “the new arrivals later becoming dominant.” How did they become dominant? “[T]hrough conquest, settlement or other means.” They became dominant, in other words, through various means and techniques of domination such as “conquest” and “settlement.”

Other clarifying phrases in the pamphlet include: “whenever dominant neighbouring [sic] peoples have expanded their territories.” How did these “dominant” (dominating) peoples expand their territories? By “settlers from far away” acquiring “new lands by force.” The lands of the peoples deemed to be “indigenous” are being called “new” lands. How did the invading dominating peoples acquire the lands the UN pamphlet calls “new?” By seizing or assuming a right of domination over the territories of those nations and peoples already existing in the places the invaders desired to acquire and take by force.

Thus, the terms invading, force, dominant, settlers, expand their territories, and conquest are indicators of the Domination System within which individual “human rights” are being conceptualized. Those who are considered to be in need of “human” rights are those peoples that the invaders deemed non-human or subhuman at the time of the invasion of the lands and territories of the original peoples. The peoples of today are considered in need of “human” rights because of the invaders engaged in both domination and dehumanization.

But here the key point: The concept of “rights” called “human” in the UN does not posit a need to end the state system of domination that was initially imposed on the original pre-invasion, pre-domination, pre-dehumanized peoples. The system of domination created by states is considered the bedrock that is to be maintained because that system of domination is considered to be a matter of “national security” for the system of state domination.

Moreover, the “human” rights of peoples termed “indigenous” are not considered to include a right to maintain a form of nationhood and territoriality that is able to contradict the domination system of the state that the UN Human Rights Centre says has been dominating original nations and peoples.

The UN high-level plenary meeting that was erroneously known as a “World Conference on Indigenous Peoples” produced an Outcome Document that some have praised as noteworthy. However, that document does not even purport to begin addressing let alone ending the state system of domination that has been imposed on our nations and peoples. We need something more than the typical view of rights called “human” to end the conceptual and behavioral system of state domination that has been and continues to be used against our nations and peoples.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.