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U.N. Rights Pamphlet: 'Indigenous Peoples' Means Dominated, Oppressed

In the foreword to Walter Echohawk’s book In the Light of Justice (Fulcrum 2013), S. James Anaya—United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples—says that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “represents an acknowledgment of the ongoing human rights problems faced by indigenous peoples today across the globe.” Those problems, says Anaya, are rooted in widespread wrongs derived from” patterns “of domination….” He thereby identifies domination as a past and ongoing problem for those peoples and nations commonly termed “Indigenous.”

A United Nations pamphlet, The Rights of Indigenous Peoples, focuses our attention on “those who inhabited a country or geographic region at [and prior to] the time when peoples of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived.” The “new arrivals,” says the pamphlet, eventually became “dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.” (emphasis added) The contrast between the dominant (or dominating) and those under dominance or being dominated is key to the central and idealized image of what it means to be “Indigenous” in the context of the UN system. For this reason, at the end of WWII the terms “indigenous peoples” and “colonial peoples” were used interchangeably, but since that time the term “colonial peoples” has been gradually phased out.

In any case, the descendants of those initially forced under domination are the ones who are today being characterized as “indigenous.” (The pamphlet states that Indigenous peoples “are the descendants—according to one definition--...”) The original peoples’ descendants, who were born into the context and aftermath of domination, are the ones now called “Indigenous.” The UN pamphlet provides a list of those dealing with the context and aftermath and context of domination: “the Indians of the Americas, the Inuit and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Sami of northern Europe, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia, and the Maori of New Zealand.”

The UN pamphlet characterizes such peoples as having “retained social, culture, economic and political characteristics which are clearly distinct from those of the other segments of the national population.” (emphasis added). This is the first use of the term “national” in the pamphlet, and it is strategically placed to frame the peoples termed “indigenous” as being merely one of many “segments” of “the national population,” and presumably an integral part of the body politic of the state system, as a result of the initial domination of the ancestors of present day Indigenous nations and peoples.

A later sentence of the pamphlet is designed to create the very same sense, for it says: “The threats to indigenous peoples’ cultures and lands, to their status and other legal rights as distinct groups and as citizens, do not always take the same forms as in previous times.” (emphasis added) The phrase “and as citizens” is politically designed to create the impression that “indigenous peoples” are “citizens” of one of the states of the international system of states called the United Nations. There is a reason why this is significant: Such wording draws the reader’s mind away from the distinct nationhood of our original nations and peoples.

The pamphlet’s wording enables us to see that being conceptualized as “indigenous” means being conceptualized as having been born into the aftermath of the domination forcibly imposed on our free and independent ancestors. The term “indigenous” refers to the descendants of entirely free and independent nations and peoples, whose existence and territories were overrun by invading foreigners. So, where and when do we see Indigenous Peoples? As the UN pamphlet states, we see them wherever and “whenever dominant neighboring peoples have expanded their territories or settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force.” Such an explanation once again places peoples termed “indigenous” in a context of dominance or domination. Use of the word “neighboring” seems deftly designed to soften the effect of the phrase “by force.”

What is implied is just as important as what is explicitly stated. When the pamphlet says, for example, that “neighboring peoples” having “expanded their territories” (emphasis added) they have done so by claiming and appropriating other peoples’ territories as their own, specifically by claiming and overrunning the territories of those peoples under a claim of dominance. Evidence that the pamphlet is not written from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective is found in the phrase “settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force.” (Emphasis added.) Instead of directly saying that “the settlers” have invaded forcibly overrun Indigenous peoples’ lands by forcibly overtaking them, the Indigenous peoples’ lands are referred to as “new” lands. However, the Indigenous peoples’ lands are merely “new” to “the settlers” who, by means of invasion, force, or other techniques of domination have claimed those lands, which the pamphlet terms “acquired.”

Another working definition of Indigenous Peoples also pinpoints the domination framework. It was issued by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples (UN Doc. No. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add. 4, para. 379): “Indigenous communities, Peoples and Nations are those which have a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies…” The terms “pre-invasion” and “pre-colonial” refer to the original free and independent existence of nations and peoples, prior to the onset of domination through invasion, colonialism, and so forth.

The terms implicitly refer to an original context and existence, before (“pre”) domination” and before colonization, or, in other words, to an original free existence. Those characterized as being “indigenous,” says the definition, “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing…” (emphasis added). The definition tells us that those peoples termed “Indigenous” “form at present non-dominant sectors of [the prevailing] society…” Words such as “invasion,” “colonial,” “prevailing,” and “non-dominant” serve as carriers of a paradigm of domination.

The phrase “societies now prevailing” leads us directly to the domination framework, for the word “prevail” means “to gain ascendency; win mastery; triumph;--often with over or against.” The term “ascendancy” leads us to “governing or controlling influence; domination.” This tells us that the phrase “indigenous peoples” as used by the UN is accurately interpreted as, “peoples under dominance or domination.”

Accordingly, the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” is accurately understood as The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peoples Under Domination.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008, Fulcrum), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation