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Recovering indigenous sovereignty

The idea of sovereignty comes from the laws and diplomacy of the system of contemporary nation states. Some say the contemporary use of the idea of sovereignty originates from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, a settlement among European nations, not including indigenous peoples. While many Indian people and leaders use the expression of sovereignty, the word and political forms that are expressed by it do not originate within indigenous nations.

That is not to say that indigenous nations do not have political organization and express political space. They do, but in different ways than nation-states. The legal and political language of nations, sovereignty, law and states is very useful to indigenous peoples, largely because most government business in the present world is carried out within the framework of nation states and international law. Nation states have asked indigenous peoples to recognize the power of nation states and become citizens. While indigenous peoples often welcome the invitation to citizenship, they often do not want to trade indigenous political communities for national citizenship.

To be indigenous is to engage the world and the future in ways that are respectful, responsible, sharing and enduring.

Rather, many indigenous peoples want to enjoy national citizenship, but at the same time preserve their own government, territorial and cultural ways. In general, nation states are not well-positioned politically and philosophically to grant or support the dual citizenship and government autonomy that indigenous peoples work to retain and build. Indigenous peoples find themselves in positions of contention with nation states over territory, powers of government, cultural interpretations, and the rights and obligations of national citizenship.

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Indigenous rights for indigenous peoples do not come from powers granted by nation-states or international bodies, or documents like treaties. Indigenous peoples hold an inherent right to self-government, land, resources, culture, and specific forms of social and political organization. Each indigenous nation is unique politically and culturally. While there is much diversity among indigenous peoples, many are politically decentralized with political power belonging to villages, lineages, bands, or tribes. Often the smaller groups form coalitions with other like groups for ceremonial, trade, inter-marriage, and social and political alliances and relations. Nevertheless, the political organization of many indigenous nations is given in creation and migration teachings, and is often seen as a gift from the creator, or from the creator through intermediaries, such as trickster figures. In general, however, most indigenous peoples believe they have a direct path to the gifts of the creator. There is no political government between the people and the creator, and there is no higher political authority than the given indigenous political leadership and government. Consequently, indigenous peoples believe they are autonomous groups and individuals who are responsible to the creator and the creator’s laws and future purposes for the universe.

Government among indigenous peoples includes relations not only with other human groups, including nowadays nation states, but also with all the animate beings and powers of the universe. Indigenous views of survival, inter-cosmological relations, were aimed at securing daily individual and collective well-being, which depended on diplomatic and respectful relations with other peoples and animate powers. Ceremonies and treaties helped correct imbalances and sustain good relations.

Because of the sacred origins of indigenous political organization and political processes, and the interrelatedness of land, community, government and ceremonial ways, indigenous peoples are reluctant to change their ways, and give up their governments and indigenous political identities. Indigenous peoples can change, especially under conditions of external powers and cultural influences, and because all human groups in a process of constant change and renegotiation of culture and identity. Nevertheless, increasingly, with knowledge of the past, and greater international openness to cultural diversity, contemporary indigenous governments and nations are in a position to reclaim their cultural and political identities, and use them to inform the ways for engaging the contemporary world of nation-states, markets and cultural pluralism.

To be indigenous is to engage the world and the future in ways that are respectful, responsible, sharing and enduring.