Indigenous Cultures and Nation States


Indigenous peoples and nation states do not share many fundamental concepts about government, land and economy. A main reason for the absence of agreement is that indigenous peoples have different cultures, social structures and worldviews than those who support liberal democratic nation states. Nation states try to deal with the absence of shared institutional foundations with indigenous peoples by assuming that cultural differences are a matter of group or personal preference. Certainly it is true that in the contemporary world, individuals and groups are exposed to many cultures from around the world. There are many new group and individual choices about how to live, govern, and participate in economy. One of the key points of cultural and political sovereignty is that indigenous peoples can make choices according to their cultures or interests.

A current view among United Nations diplomats is that the 21st century will see the extension of democracy and human rights through development of nation-states that are capable of including cultural pluralism. During the 20th century, nation states focused too much on assimilation and intolerance of cultural diversity. Certainly, the indigenous experience around the world echoes these sentiments. Nation states have focused too much on insisting that indigenous peoples give up their own cultures and accept the culture of the nation state.

The idea of culturally pluralistic nations states may work in some places, but not others. It is an optimistic view that culture and politics can be separated and national citizens can agree on the political foundations of government. Like the U.S. Constitution and government, church and state, or in the new culturally pluralistic nation states, culture and government, would be separated—the hope and idea being that within nation states there would be greater cultural freedom, and greater political stability. Culture and government would each be more autonomous, and freed from issues that might generate unreconcilable conflicts. The U.N. diplomats are trying to imagine a more peaceful world, with greater stability and political consensus within nation states, and a world with greater support and understanding of cultural diversity.

The vision of a world with more culturally pluralistic nations states is an improvement over nation states with mono-cultural national communities. The concept of pluralistic nation states, however, does not fully include the ways in which indigenous peoples live. Indigenous communities have tight relations between economy, kinship, government and culture. The separation of identity, self-government, land, and culture would strike at the heart of the indigenous vision of the world. Indigenous peoples are not alone in the matter. Many other ethnic and national communities around the world have strong relations between culture, identity and peoplehood.

The vision of greater national cultural pluralism is a progressive concept, but it does not fully accommodate the diversity of cultural and political orders among the peoples of the world. There are about 370 million indigenous individuals in the world, living in about 5,000 communities, most of which want to keep their self-government, land, cultures, and identities. The strong interrelations between culture, government, land and community among indigenous communities will make the transition to national cultural pluralism difficult. Nation states and UN diplomats need to have a greater appreciation for the diversity and holism of indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples do not see culture as a bundle of rights, or a bundle of preferences, that can be exchanged according to need and situation. Immigrant groups often have made the decision to accept the political and economic rule and institutions of their adopted homelands. Indigenous peoples remain attached to their homelands, governments, and identities. A major test for the establishment of greater democracy in the 21st century will depend on whether nation states can offer indigenous peoples consensual citizenship that preserves the choice of retaining indigenous cultural and political orders intact.