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American policy towards Indians is key to worldwide protection for indigenous peoples

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American policy towards Indians is key to worldwide protection for indigenous peoples

MORRIS 1992 (Glenn, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, ed. M. Annette Jaimes, p. 55-57)

Only in the past fifty years, or the past thirty for over a third of the states of the world, has self-determination been realized through the recognition that colonialism is abhorrent to the desired liberty of humankind. Through the acceptance of the UN. charter and other human-rights instruments, self-determination of peoples is a universally accepted aspiration. Unfortunately, thousands of the world's peoples have yet to realize that aspiration. Indigenous peoples from Burma to Brazil, from the Arctic to Australia, continue to be denied the right to control their affairs in any effective and meaningful manner. In many of these countries, such as Guatemala, Bolivia, Greenland, and Ecuador, indigenous peoples comprise a majority of the total state population; yet, they often remain disenfranchised and subordinated by the descendants of the original settler or colonizing classes. Despite recent and tentative advances in the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples in such places as Nicaragua, Greenland, and Panama, and despite some progress in certain international forums, the overwhelming majority of indigenous peoples are forced to struggle for their very existence against the enormous pressure of encroaching states surrounding them.

Through the application of international legal and political norms, many peoples under colonial domination have achieved some level of political self-determination. Many representatives of indigenous peoples and nations point to the example of the decolonization of southern Africa as an example to be emulated in the case of indigenous peoples elsewhere. Just as principles of self-determination have been applied to liberate the peoples of Zimbabwe or Namibia, where the idea of Black majority rule is accepted without question, so, too, should such principles apply to all indigenous peoples. This essay is devoted to the examination of why such principles have not been applied to indigenous peoples and how the operation of European and American legal doctrines has been used to maintain their colonial condition. One particular paradox in this examination will be the recognition that even by their own legal standards, the Euroamerican colonization of the Western hemisphere (and, by extension, other indigenous peoples' lands across the globe) was unjustified.

More important, the purpose here is to indicate that through the application of contemporary principles of international law, particularly in the area of decolonization and self-determination, indigenous peoples must ultimately be entitled to decide for themselves the dimensions of their political, economic, cultural, and social conditions. It must be emphasized that the construction of this position is not based in the supposition that because indigenous peoples constitute ethnic or cultural minorities in larger societies they must be protected due to that status. Rather, the position is that since Europeans first wandered into the Western hemisphere they have acknowledged the unique status of indigenous peoples qua indigenous peoples. That status is only now being reacknowledged through the application of evolving principles of positive and customary international law.

While such assertions may seem novel and untenable at present, it should be recalled that just forty years ago, tens of millions of people languished under the rule of colonial domination; today, they are politically independent. Central to their independence was the development and acceptance of the right to self-determination under international law. Despite such developments, many colonized peoples were forced by desperate conditions to engage in armed struggle to advance their legitimate aspirations. Similarly, for many indigenous peoples few viable options remain in their quest for control of their destinies. Consequently, a majority of the current armed conflicts in the world are not between established states, but between indigenous peoples and states that seek their subordination. Armed struggle for most indigenous peoples represents a desperate and untenable strategy for their survival. Nonetheless, it may remain an unavoidable option for many of them, because if their petitions seeking recognition of their rights in international forums are ignored, many indigenous peoples, quite literally, face extermination.

Although this chapter has implications for the status of all indigenous peoples, its concentration is primarily within the United States. This is because, in several ways, the status of indigenous nations within the U.S. is unique, and the policy of the United States toward indigenous nations has frequently been emulated by other states. The fact that a treaty relationship exists between the United States and indigenous nations, and the fact that indigenous nations within the U.S. retain defined and separate land bases and continue to exercise some degree of effective self-government, may contribute to the successful application of international standards in their cases. Also, given the size and relative power of the United States in international relations, and absent the unlikely independence of a majority-indigenous nation-state such as Guatemala or Greenland, the successful application of decolonization principles to indigenous nations within the U.S. could allow the extension of such applications to indigenous peoples in other parts of the planet.

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