Indigenous groups suffered terribly during colonialism. They had their land taken away, were often forced to abandon their cultural practices, and struggled to maintain their traditional livelihoods. Colonial governments were responsible for awful human rights abuses, but, with independence and general progress in recognising marginalised groups, it was hoped that modern nation states would be able to overcome these problems.
Sadly, this has often not been the case. In many countries, indigenous groups still struggle to get recognition at the national level and to assert their particular ties to the land they inhabit. These groups face a diverse range of challenges. It is impossible to generalise the issues faced by Australian Aboriginal groups and tribal communities from the Brazilian Amazon. However, there are some fairly consistent reasons why these groups have struggled to assert themselves within the national politics of the countries in which they live.
Indigeneity is incredibly difficult to define. However, international organisations, like the World Bank and the UN, tend to use some key concepts to define an indigenous group. Firstly, that they define themselves as indigenous; secondly, that they have a culture, political system, and often language that is distinct from the rest of the country, and finally, that they have a special connection to the area they live in.
Running through this conception of indigenous identity is the idea that the groups are distinct from the countries in which they have come to live. This idea is one of the key reasons why national governments have often been hesitant to recognise their rights. Though it need not be the case, their distinctive identities and claims to land are often seen as a challenge to national unity and territorial sovereignty. In even more complex instances, indigenous groups often exist across national boundaries, creating a further challenge to the idea of nationality and adding another layer of decision making.
Even when there is only one national government involved, it can be very hard to come up with an agreed way of defining who is and who isn't an indigenous person. This difficulty can have very unexpected consequences. For example, some researchers have noted that indigenous people are forced to play up to stereotypes of indigeneity in order to claim rights to land that they have lived on for generations. This is obviously unsatisfactory, indigenous identity should always be primarily defined by indigenous people. Equally, governments must recognise the distinct claims of groups that have functioned, with varying degrees of autonomy, for centuries before the country existed.
The importance of doing it right
The consequences of not getting this right are plain to see. In many cases, indigenous communities are still ignored in the process of awarding mining or logging permits on their land. Equally, they tend to have particularly high rates of poverty and illness and often suffer discrimination at the national level. Even in cases where indigenous rights and identities have been strongly defined, such as in India or many South American countries, this often remains the case.
The indigenous rights movement, therefore, remains incredibly important. It relates to some of the most marginalised groups around the world and asserts the importance of recognising claims to self-determination that pre-date the creation of many countries. Many of the challenges they face are as much about basic human rights as they are about specific indigenous rights, so should be important even to people outside of indigenous groups.
For example, consulting indigenous groups on decisions made about their ancestral land should be treated in the same way as decisions related to any group or individual's land. In these cases, their indigenous identity combines very clearly with more general concerns about livelihoods and land rights. Equally, self-defining one's own identity is a fundamental human right. Indigenous people must, therefore, have the ability to assert their own understandings of indigneity in all its forms.
Moves to recognise indigenous groups, like the recent progress related to Aboriginal and Torres Straits peoples in Australia, are incredibly important. However, they are just the start of a conversation that will probably never end. It is a conversation that needs to happen.
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