Sustaining indigeneity, navigating citizenship


Indigenous peoples are not parties to the formation of nation-states, like the United States and Canada, and generally are not citizens of nation-states at the time of their creation. When, for example, the United States and Canada were formed, very few Native inhabitants were considered citizens. Although Indian people were given opportunities during the late 1800s to become citizens voluntarily, by becoming self-sufficient farmers and abandoning tribal identification, very few were willing to join as full citizens of the United States or Canada.

In 1870, the Indian Act laid out procedures for Indians to become enfranchised in the Canadian system. Indian women who married Canadian citizens automatically became Canadian citizens, and so did the children of such unions. Similarly, when a female Canadian citizen married a status Indian, she became an Indian, lost Canadian citizenship, and the children were status Indians, who were not Canadian citizens.

The Indian Act encouraged enfranchisement among Indians, but the price of citizenship was to give up Indian political status.

In the United States, most Indians became citizens by the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, or as it is known, the Snyder Act. While some Indian national organizations petitioned Congress for citizenship, which was awarded in part because of American Indian service during World War I, many American Indians did not give their consent to American citizenship.

One perspective of indigenous peoples is that they are not voluntary citizens of their surrounding nation-states. In North America, some Indians became subjects of the British Crown without consent. For a brief time, the British were in control of most of the present-day territory east of the Mississippi River. Indians were subjects of the king, and all lands were declared under the control of the king. Similar proclamations for much of Latin and South America, declaring Indians as royal subjects, were made by the Spanish kings after the fall of the Aztec and Inca governments.

While the War of Independence broke the British king;s power over eastern American Indians, the new U.S. government re-established equivalent claims to American Indian territory and to the political status of American Indians. Indians were not considered citizens, but wards of the government. According to U.S. law, Indians do not collectively own land; they live on the land at the discretion of the federal government and have the right to sell the land to the government. In Canada, the assignment of British subject status and ''wardship'' status continued to the Indian Act; to this day, land lived on by Indian peoples is regarded as Crown land.

In many Latin and South American countries, indigenous peoples have been granted citizenship, and accordingly enjoy equal political rights. The granting of citizenship, however, enables the governments to ignore collective land rights, self-government and different cultural values.

The granting of citizenship without consent by indigenous peoples is a form of legislative assimilation and gives only formally equal access, while cultural, economic and political differences between nation-states and indigenous peoples often inhibits free and active participation in the nation-state. The act of granting citizenship must include the willingness and consent of the new citizens. Without such agreement, the new citizens are captives of the national body politic. Democracy and indigenous rights cannot flourish in such political environments.

Although there are historical elements of forced coercion leading to citizenship, many American Indians and First Nations people have come to accept citizenship, but only on the grounds that they do not surrender indigenous rights. Many, but certainly not all, Indians living in the U.S. and Canada want to participate in the political institutions of the nation-state as fully as possible, while at the same time pursuing the continuity of indigenous rights of self-government, land and cultural autonomy.

What has emerged for indigenous peoples is a form of dual citizenship in their indigenous nation and within the nation-state, including various points of continuing political, legal, cultural and territorial contention. In many parts of the world, however, indigenous peoples are asked to become citizens of nation-states, but must surrender indigenous rights. While often powerless, many indigenous peoples are not willing to accept citizenship that forces them to abandon their own ways of government, political culture and territories.