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Moving From Sovereignty to Autonomy

Few would argue that the 21st century has proven to be a major turning point in the global indigenous rights movement with the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Even its original opponents have officially signed on to the declaration (if conditionally) and terms and concepts that were once considered radical or unacceptable (such as “peoples” and “self-determination”) are at least tacitly endorsed by nation states. Intellectual space has been created to talk about multinational states, in political terms that expand beyond the assimilationist multicultural state.

The multinational state recognizes pre-existing nations and peoples within its borders. It acknowledges their rights to exist and flourish without the interference of unilaterally imposed state structures and legal systems. It does this by allowing a process of mutual engagement where governments are perceived as equals without one being subordinate to another. It does so because it ensures an inherently more politically stable, cohesive state.

Decolonization for indigenous peoples in settler states means a lot of different things but politically it manifests as a realigning of relationships between governments, indigenous and settler. For states it signals movement toward a more self-conscious multinational state and for indigenous nations it means a greater recognition of their right to self-determination.

Article 3 of UNDRIP recognizes that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Article 4 guarantees that “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal or local affairs as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”

The concept of self-determination contained in UNDRIP has of course been highly contested with the United States among the most opposed to it. Some argue that it is limited to the exercise of “internal” self-determination, i.e. within the constraints of a domestic federal system (this is how the United States views it) while a more expansive exercise of “external” self-determination would allow for the possibility of secession from the state. Experts have pointed out repeatedly that indigenous nations virtually never speak in terms of independence in the form of statehood (i.e. secession) and that they instead stress the interdependent nature of their relationships with states.

The relationship between self-determination and autonomy, and self-government has also been thoroughly debated, and opinions exist along a spectrum. A conservative, restrictive view is that autonomy and self-government are the goals of self-determination or simply components of self-determination. An expansive (and perhaps more accurate) interpretation holds that self-determination, autonomy and self-government are all separate rights. However, to limit autonomy to internal autonomy and local self-government, it is argued, in and of itself implies a denial of the right of self-determination as it is understood in international law.

Autonomy (or an autonomy regime) in international law is characterized principally by ethnic/cultural distinctiveness, attachment to the state and self-government of the people of an autonomous region. It derives from the internal constitution or legislation of the state and the existence of bilateral treaties, still in force. Though to my knowledge it has never been legally argued that the U.S. constitutional recognition of Indian nations or its massive body of legislation regarding them constitutes an autonomy regime, I believe an argument can be made that under international law the territories of indigenous nations (i.e. reservations) in the United States can be considered autonomous regions.

To adopt the language of autonomy represents a necessary conceptual shift in the way indigenous peoples in the United States are viewed, and is consistent with international legal regimes based on UNDRIP and others. The shift is a move away from the language of “sovereignty,” especially as it is used by the federal government, language that favors subordination, and the ongoing structural paternalism of the U.S. government. In case there is any doubt that paternalism still exists, all you need do is read about a recent court decision where the BIA was ordered to decide who can be a member of one California tribe and how the tribal government should be organized.

To bring it all together, part of implementing UNDRIP is the recognition that the declaration officially “internationalized” the relationships between indigenous nations and their state governments, enabling the possibility for them to be elevated from the limitations of colonial domestic law. This requires new language in order to reframe those relationships to fit the new paradigm. In the United States (and arguably other settler states) it opens the door for the state to be seen as a truly multinational state, while Indian nations are not just internally self-determining but autonomous peoples in the international sense. 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.