Indigenous Peoples live within the boundaries of nation-states but usually do not conform to the cultural, political, economic institutions and identities of their host states. Most contemporary democratic nation states are created by agreement through adoption of a constitution, which spells out fundamental laws and values.
The social and cultural orders of Indigenous Peoples existed for thousands of years before the formation of contemporary states. Usually Indigenous Peoples are not participants in the formation of nation states, and declared citizens by acts of government, not consent. Nation states uphold equality for all citizens and progress is measured by civil rights and human rights advances. Contemporary nation states strive to create and protect equality among all minority, ethnic, cultural, and racial groups. One measure of improved democracy is greater inclusion of disadvantaged groups into the political and economic protection.
Democratic states are better designed to manage individualistic citizen issues of inequality than to address indigenous issues. Nation states and international instruments, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), provide protections for citizens within group and individual human rights platforms, but do not directly address indigenous rights.
Part of the reason Indigenous Peoples do not conform to nation state understandings is that Indigenous Peoples do not believe they are, or should be reduced to, citizen, racial, ethnic, cultural, or minority group status. In contemporary language, Indigenous Peoples are nations, with rights to territory, cultural and political autonomy. While the term “nation” is taken from contemporary usage, the expression nation usually does not have the same meaning for Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous governments included relations with the cosmic order and beings, such as plants, animals, other human nations, and beings that had power to move and change form, such as water to ice. Government was not only management of people, and relations with other human nations, but included managing relations with power beings within the cosmic order.
The goal for indigenous political management was to achieve reciprocal, respectful, and balanced relations with all nations of power beings, including the human nations. In some sense the indigenous vision of nation was like a separate species of animals, or distinct patterns of phenomena that have repeated and recognized personalities and effects. Humans are not the center of the universe, but are one of many power beings who have a role to play within the cosmic order and future unfolding of life and history.
Indigenous institutions are overlapping, interrelated, and holistic composites of spiritual, political, kinship, economic, and community relations. Political relations are not separable from economic, spiritual, or kinship issues. Western secular democratic nation states compartmentalize and separate government, religion, economy, community, and individuality. The worldviews and organization of Indigenous Peoples significantly interferes with assimilation and acceptance of nation state citizenship and government.
While many Indigenous Peoples participate as individual citizens in the nation state, Indigenous Peoples do not want to give up their own forms of government, territory, and interrelated worldviews and institutional relations. While nation states prefer to recognize only individual citizens, Indigenous Peoples want to be recognized as the holistic nations with powers of self-government and territorial rights.
United Nation diplomats suggest and hope that the 21st century will be characterized by increasing development of multicultural and multi-national states. Such developments would suggest progress over single culture nation states. However, many Indigenous Peoples will continue to resist even the new multicultural and multi-national state formations, because most indigenous nations in practice do not separate culture, government, land, and economy. Multi-national and multi-cultural nation states assume individual citizens will accept the rules of the secular nation state, but that is exactly what many Indigenous Peoples refuse to do entirely and continue to defend their own forms of self-government, cultures, and territories.
The absence of shared understandings of government, land, culture, institutional relations, and associated identities will ensure continued contested relations between Indigenous Peoples and nation states.