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What Do Tribes Want?

Just as minority and ethnic groups want equality and inclusion in their national governments and cultures, so do Indigenous Peoples.

The answer to the question posed by the title of this essay seems, at first glance, to actually be pretty straightforward. Just as minority and ethnic groups throughout the world want equality and inclusion in their respective national governments and cultures, so too do Indigenous Peoples. Political self-determination, the ability to uphold their cultures, and control over land and natural resources—these are basic, requisite needs for any Native community.

And yet, how hard they are to achieve! Contemporary democratic governments may do many things well. But they are not particularly good at managing relations with indigenous nations and communities. Just look at the record. Every year the Indigenous World report, published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, offers ample evidence that indigenous needs and wants are rarely protected.

Why this continues to be the case is no mystery. In so many countries, Indigenous Peoples remain small, poor, culturally and politically marginalized, with few opportunities or resources to achieve their goals. Whenever non-Indigenous Peoples or development projects want to gain control, say, over indigenous mineral assets or land, governments tend to provide little protection.

It is a perpetually frustrating, even maddening, situation, one that modern states had not anticipated during their colonizing periods. As the world as we know it today acquired territory and set its contemporary boundaries, it was widely assumed that Indigenous Peoples would assimilate or decline into extinction—that is, cease to practice their traditional cultural and institutional ways. (By this definition, incidentally, many leading anthropologists at one point believed that Indigenous Peoples were already extinct by 1850 in the United States.) In some cases, genuine extinction has occurred. In other instances, contemporary indigenous communities have to some degree adapted to the changing political, economic, and intercultural world. They have not necessarily done this out of choice, mind you, but as a means of sheer pragmatism and continuity, like any human group bent on mere survival.

And so, properly subdued, Indigenous Peoples continue to be exploited. But why should there be such widespread acceptance of second-class citizenship? Here’s one explanation that deserves closer scrutiny: The present relationship of Indigenous Peoples to governing powers has subverted their traditional cultural and institutional relations with higher authority.

Most indigenous nations believe they have a direct relation to the creation and the creator. In this respect, the original instructions for indigenous people are direct guidelines for egalitarian moral codes, collective organization and stewardship over assets, and often a national purpose. These have been revealed over time through ceremonies and changing conditions. In some traditions, if certain ceremonies are not performed, or the people do not uphold proper moral community relations, then the world will be destroyed.

Furthermore, the tight web of relations among land, culture, community and self-government do not stem not from the rhetoric of resistance to colonization. Rather, they are embedded deeply and fundamentally within most indigenous nations. Thus, when indigenous nations struggle for land and self-government, they are struggling for central understandings of who they are as a people, as laid out in the original instructions by the Creator to the nation. There are thousands of these original instructions for thousands of different indigenous nations. Each has its own way, and each follows its own path.

These are powerful, elemental, even life-defining realizations. And they are incompatible with the dictates of arbitrarily created, man-made governments. No complete understanding of the indigenous movement worldwide, and the strength and persistence of indigenous needs and wants into the indefinite future, is possible without comprehending the spiritual basis of the interrelation of indigenous land, community, culture, and government.

Some national governments have tried to remedy present injustices through wholly secular means—passing laws and creating conservation areas for Indigenous Peoples and lands, for example, as is the case in Panama. But the struggle for indigenous rights is at root a spiritual struggle. If national governments and international agencies understood this more deeply, there might be more possibilities for mutual understanding and accommodation.