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Indigenous Nations of the World

Indigenous Peoples are part of thousands of repressed political systems around the world.

The contemporary world is much more politically complex than present political theory or thought suggests. Indigenous Peoples around the world are comprised of thousands of political forms and processes that are ignored, if not deliberately repressed. The political complexity of the world, like diverse cultures and languages, should be embraced rather than discouraged.

According to the United Nations there are at least 5,000 indigenous communities and over 350 million indigenous individuals in the contemporary world. Most, if not all, of the indigenous communities believe they have the right to exist and have governed themselves since time immemorial. Nation states do not recognize Indigenous Peoples as political entities, and do not regard them as a contemporary form of political organization or government.

For nation states, the only contemporary governments are other nation states. Some say origin of modern nation states emerged from agreements and treaties at Westphalia in 1648. It is said that the contemporary concept of state sovereignty was born among European governments at that time. Indigenous nations were not parties to the Westphalia treaties and agreements, and indigenous nations were not included among the sovereign nation states of the world.

Nevertheless, in North America, indigenous nations were recognized by the French, English, Swedes, and Dutch as nations with distinct governments, territories, and cultures, and as players in international trade, diplomatic, and government-to-government relations. The early colonial treaties were negotiated as treaties of friendship and indigenous protocols prevailed in the discussions. The treaties often memorialized the cultural and political differences between the colonists and tribal peoples. While the peoples were different they would work together in trade and political relations while respecting the rights of tribal and European nations to pursue their own separate cultural and political paths.

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The North American colonists recognized the political power, self-government, and territories of indigenous nations. Early Spanish observations also recognized the national, political, and territorial boundaries of indigenous nations. The Spanish subordinated indigenous nations and governments under their empire, although many if not most resisted by carrying on indigenous government, language, cultures, and identity despite efforts by the empire and later nation states to suppress them.

Nevertheless the critical events for indigenous nations were not statehood agreements at Westphalia, but rather the emergence of modernizing nation states modeled after the United States and the French Revolution starting in the first decades of the 1800s. With support from the United States and the fall of the Spanish Empire during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, modernizing states emerged that placed great emphasis on citizenship, political equality, and market economies. Indigenous Peoples throughout Latin and South America were declared or regarded as national citizens without recognition of their indigenous identities, political forms, or territories.

Nation states throughout the world have invited Indigenous Peoples to participate in nation state governments, but at the price of giving up their indigenous political forms and commitments. Most Indigenous Peoples, however, have not been willing to trade their traditional political and cultural institutions and identities for exclusive political commitments to nation states. Tribal political forms and commitments remain intact many places throughout the contemporary world. Current theories of race, evolution, modernism, modern states, ethnicity, and multi-culturalism do not account for the continuity and persistence of indigenous cultures and commitments to their own political forms.

Modernizing nation states see the world as comprised of only nation states. Such an interpretation greatly oversimplifies human history, especially over the past several centuries. Recognizing the continuity of the thousands of indigenous community-political forms in the contemporary world suggest a much more complex and accurate interpretation of human history and political diversity. While nation states have and continue to ignore tribal governments, indigenous political communities will not disappear anytime soon, and will continue to assert their rights and commitments to their own political institutions and political identities. The diversity and complexity of cultures is a central feature of human groups, and will not be surrendered to nation states. We should celebrate and respect the contemporary diversity of human political groups.