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Spanish Colonists Expected the Assimilation of Native Americans

Missionaries expected the assimilation of Native Americans, who they wanted to adopt Catholicism as well as nation state social, political and cultural life.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) suggests that Indigenous Peoples have the right to form local governments. The form of local government encouraged is a municipal government where Indigenous Peoples can retain their own laws, forms of justice, norms of political process, some control over land, and limited self-government. Departmental and central government laws, decisions, administration, and leadership, however, will prevail over and direct the governments of Indigenous Peoples. This form of incorporation of indigenous government into the nation state government is considered part of the processes of establishing and maintaining political relations within contemporary democratic nation states, which have attempted the full assimilation of Native Americans. Theories of melting pots, expanding political inclusion of genders, ethnic, and racial minorities are the model for inclusion of Indigenous Peoples.

In UNDRIP, the process of general inclusion is extended to Indigenous Peoples. Nation states made the concession that Indigenous Peoples could be collectively included by means of indigenous control over local municipal governments where they had their own leadership, cultures and communities. Nation state administration and laws would maintain national order, while Indigenous Peoples would have some capacity to exercise their own ways of social and political processes, as long as their actions did not conflict with nation state directives, laws or policies.


The policies offered by UNDRIP are amazingly close not only to the contemporary views of how to manage race, ethnic, and other minority populations, but are also to a large extent to Spanish colonial policies. The process of the assimilation of Native Americans was called secularization. The plan consisted of missionaries making contact with Indigenous Peoples of a given area. All the Indigenous Peoples, regardless of their specific culture or political order, were encouraged to join missions, which were managed by Catholic padres. The plan was not for the mission to last for more than a decade or so. The Indigenous Peoples were expected to quickly convert to Christianity and thereafter more willingly participate in Christian social community and recognize Christian political leadership. Many Indigenous Peoples accepted considerable aspects of Christian teachings. However, while honoring and respecting Catholic or Christian life, indigenous individuals and communities also participated in and respected traditional non-Christian forms of life, ceremony, land ownership, community relations and political leadership.

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The Spanish colonial plan expected converts to quickly take up Spanish Catholicism or contemporary nation state social, political and cultural life. After converting the Indigenous Peoples within the mission, the mission was to be transformed into a municipal government. The padres would become parish priests, while the mission lands would be transferred to individual indigenous families. Sometimes the government promised to protect indigenous lands within the new municipal government. The Indigenous Peoples would reorganize within the municipalities and vote for municipal leaders. The indigenous communities thereafter were subject to the departmental administration and national governments of the colony or nation state. While many Indigenous Peoples accepted municipal governments, many continued to manage their own affairs according to their traditional political histories and their own norms and law. However, if municipal laws conflicted with departmental or federal laws, then federal or departmental decisions prevailed. In this way, Indigenous Peoples were to be incorporated into colonial society or into nation states.

UNDRIP’s plan for incorporating Indigenous Peoples into nation states is a modern version of Spanish secularization law. It lacks national government-to-government relations, where Indigenous Peoples and governments are recognized directly by federal governments. In the United States such municipal to state government relations exist in Maine, but to some extent also in Public Law 280 states, where justice is managed by counties and states. The municipal government form is like having the state of California and the individual California county governments manage administration and government over tribal entities. UNDRIP on self-government is an extension of Spanish colonial policy, and is far from the traditions and requirements of most Indigenous Peoples.

This story was originally published January 6, 2017.