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Indigenous position considers past and future

Back in the 1970s the acclaimed international journal on indigenous peoples, Akwesasne Notes, was widely read and presented a vision of Indian activism and revitalization. Tribal leaders were looking for ways to reclaim cultural communities and escape from decades of unfriendly Indian policies and accommodate a world of increasing market, cultural and political globalization.

The editors of Akwesasne Notes often expressed two primary positions. One position advocated recovery and return to tribal cultures and lifeways, while the second position was a critique of colonial relations that marginalized and constrained tribal communities, governments and worldviews. The two positions, one might call traditional nationalism and colonial critique, existed in an uneasy intellectual alliance.

Theories of colonial critique are about the predatory actions of colonial systems, and do not conceptualize or focus on indigenous communities or aspirations. An indigenous position should focus on indigenous traditions, history, culture, and have capabilities for conceptualizing both the past and the future. Indigenous peoples are not embedded in past traditions, but will carry their traditions into the future in ways that will inform their actions and goals.

An indigenous position should focus on indigenous traditions, history, culture, and have capabilities for conceptualizing both the past and the future.

A great many people in the contemporary world are believers of some form of modernization, a belief that the world will evolve toward greater individual freedoms, democratic national freedoms, and greater material well-being based on open market relations. At one time modernization was the basis of many efforts to assimilate indigenous peoples into nation-states as citizens, as was the case with termination policy during the 1950s. Modernization saw the world’s nations and cultures as converging to one common culture. Many cultures around the world, including indigenous peoples, were highly suspect of modernization arguments, since there was no place for them as indigenous or cultural communities within the modernization viewpoint.

The critiques of modernization views led to new viewpoints that have advocates in intellectual circles, but relatively few among everyday life. Post-modern, post-colonial, and other positions tried to move beyond the pitfalls of colonial and modernization views.

Nevertheless, most indigenous peoples find themselves stranded within nation-states with which they have subordinate colonial or modernization positions, neither of which have the policy or intellectual tools to fully comprehend or visualize an indigenous viewpoint. Some have tried to move beyond indigenous nationalist positions to understand indigenous relations in international or transnational relations. In many ways contemporary indigenous activities are manifested in international relations, as indigenous peoples have sought recognition and human rights through the United Nations and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Nevertheless, the movement toward human rights for indigenous peoples was about protecting the rights of tribal communities. The central focus was about the freedom of each unique indigenous community to have the right to realize its own values, community, economic and cultural goals without undue interference from nation-states, economic corporations, and communities with different cultural views.

The intellectual roots of an indigenous viewpoint should come from the cultures and traditions of the indigenous communities. Indigenous viewpoints of respect for other traditions and nations, holistic views of balanced relations with all beings in the universe, and strong commitments to local and tightly interrelated cultural, political, kinship and economic relations go a long way toward framing indigenism in local, national, international and cosmological contexts.

The wisdom of ancient indigenous knowledge and viewpoints are a sacred gift to indigenous peoples, and are a vital gift to the contemporary world, where intellectual and everyday viewpoints appear increasingly to lead to environmental resource over-exploitation, loss of spiritual community, and secular political and economic competition and warfare.