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Into a new era for indigenous rights

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Over the past 30 years, indigenous peoples around the world have expressed greater public self-consciousness of their needs for recognition of land, resources and greater political and cultural autonomy. While indigenous peoples have always sought to protect their cultures throughout colonial history, the last three decades mark a dramatic increase in the recognition of indigenous rights and self-expression in local, national and global contexts.

Indigenous peoples are surrounded by nation-states as well as regional and local governments that often do not fully honor or recognize indigenous land, or cultural and political rights. Implementation of the indigenous peoples; movement's recent achievement, the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, will make it difficult for world governments to ignore indigenous rights.

The movement toward greater recognition of indigenous rights did not arise from government programs or policy planners. Indigenous peoples pressed nation-states and the international community for greater recognition of indigenous rights through activism and diplomatic argument, and - with great patience and restraint - have made significant progress. The mobilization of indigenous peoples around the world is related to the activity of American Indians against termination policy in the United States, and later the development of self-determination policies.

The Six Nations Cayuga chief Deskaheh approached the League of Nations in 1923 to protest the Canadian government's policies of replacing traditional indigenous governments with municipal-style band governments that were more compatible with and funded by the Canadian government. Deskaheh was denied an audience with the League of Nations because of British and Canadian diplomatic opposition. Similarly, Maori religious leader T.W. Ratana traveled to the League of Nations in 1925 and was also denied a hearing.

Throughout the world, indigenous peoples share similar issues: marginalization, oppression, the exploitation of land, peoples and resources. Indigenous rights were largely ignored, although many indigenous peoples continued to speak their languages, managed their community affairs according to their own customs, and tried to work around the power and control of their host nation-states.

The defeat of termination policy in the United States by the late 1950s led to a greater consciousness to defend, define and advocate for indigenous rights. The success of the anti-termination movement and greater consciousness generated by the Red Power movement of the 1970s, the official government rejection of termination policy suggested by President Nixon at the start of that decade and the recognition of treaties as the basis of U.S. and Indian government-to-government relations formed the basis of self-determination policy.

While U.S. policies were more supportive of Indian issues during the 1970s, many American Indians were not satisfied and sought faster and greater recognition of indigenous rights in the international arena. Beginning in the 1970s, conferences held at Geneva, Switzerland, and other international locations were attended by international agencies and increasingly by indigenous peoples from many places around the world. Many indigenous groups formed nongovernmental organizations that gave them more access to the emerging international civil society, which is the collection of politically active international organizations and institutions.

The indigenous peoples' movement is not necessarily an effort to challenge nation-states or to introduce major cultural or political change outside of what is required to honor and respect indigenous rights. Indigenous peoples do not form a common ethnicity, nation, culture or race. The histories, cultures and colonial experiences of indigenous peoples vary considerably, even within a single country (like the United States). The world indigenous peoples' movement is bound together by common cause borne from similar circumstances.

Indigenous peoples organize at regional, national and international levels to collectively negotiate and assert similar rights that defend community-specific cultural, self-government, territorial and resource rights. Nation-states and the international community most likely will not agree to all the cultural, political and territorial rights extended by indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples will need to actively and continuously stand firm with nation-states, but practice diplomacy to find common ground and mutual respect for their rights.