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The Phantom of Racism Racism and Indigenous Peoples
Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2001

"Racism has historically been a banner to justify the enterprises of expansion, conquest, colonization and domination and has walked hand in hand with intolerance, injustice and violence."
- Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Guatemalan Indigenous Leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
"The Problem of Racism on the Threshold of the 21st Century"

"Doctrines of Dispossession" - Racism against Indigenous peoples

Historians and academics agree that the colonization of the New World saw extreme expressions of racism - massacres, forced-march relocations, the "Indian wars", death by starvation and disease. Today, such practices would be called ethnic cleansing and genocide. What seems even more appalling for contemporary minds is that the subjugation of the native peoples of the New World was legally sanctioned. "Laws" of "discovery", "conquest" and "terra nullius" made up the "doctrines of dispossession", according to Erica Irene Daes, chairperson/rapporteur of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, in a study on indigenous peoples and their relationship to land.

Specifically, in the fifteenth century, two Papal Bulls set the stage for European domination of the New World and Africa. Romanus Pontifex, issued by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal in 1452, declared war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories. Inter Caetera, issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 to the King and Queen of Spain following the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the island he called Hispaniola, officially established Christian dominion over the New World. It called for the subjugation of the native inhabitants and their territories, and divided all newly discovered or yet-to-be discovered lands into two - giving Spain rights of conquest and dominion over one side of the globe and Portugal over the other. The subsequent Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) re-divided the globe with the result that most Brazilians today speak Portuguese rather than Spanish, as in the rest of Latin America. The Papal Bulls have never been revoked, although indigenous representatives have asked the Vatican to consider doing so.

These "doctrines of discovery" provided the basis for both the "law of nations" and subsequent international law. Thus, they allowed Christian nations to claim "unoccupied lands" (terra nullius), or lands belonging to "heathens" or "pagans". In many parts of the world, these concepts later gave rise to the situation of many Native peoples in the today - dependent nations or wards of the State, whose ownership of their land could be revoked - or "extinguished" -- at any time by the Government.

Indigenous leaders today contend that it is essentially discriminatory that native title does not confer the same privileges as ordinary title. According to Mick Dodson, an Australian Aboriginal lawyer, the concept of extinguishment "treats indigenous rights and interests in land as inferior to all other titles". According to indigenous law and custom, indigenous interests can only hold native title, and, according to the law put into place since then by the European immigrants, native title can be extinguished.

Indigenous Peoples in the 'New World'

The world's indigenous peoples - or "first peoples" - do not share the same story of colonization. In the New World, white European colonizers arrived and settled suddenly, with drastic results. The indigenous peoples were pushed aside and marginalized by the dominant descendents of Europeans. Some peoples have disappeared, or nearly so. Modern estimates place the 15th century, or pre-Columbus, population of North America at 10 to 12 million. By the 1890s, it had been reduced to approximately 300,000. In parts of Latin America, the results were similar; in others, there are still majority indigenous populations. But even in those areas, indigenous people are often at a disadvantage. Indigenous peoples in Latin America still face the same obstacles as indigenous peoples elsewhere - primarily, separation from their lands. And that separation is usually based on distinctions originally deriving from race.

Indigenous peoples in the 'Old World'

Among African peoples, there are clearly groups of peoples who have always lived where they are, who have struggled to maintain their culture, their language and their way of life, and who suffer problems similar to those of indigenous peoples everywhere, particularly when forcibly separated from their lands. These include poverty, marginalization, the loss of culture and language, and the subsequent problems of identity that often lead to social problems such as alcoholism and suicide. Because of these particular similarities, many people find it useful and suitable to consider such groups indigenous peoples.

The hunter-gatherer Forest Peoples (Pygmies) of the central African rainforests, comprising many groups, are threatened by conservation policies, logging, the spread of agriculture, and political upheavals and civil wars. They are usually at the bottom of the social structure. It is ironic that modern conservation policies intended to protect species of animals, not groups of humans, forbid many of these hunter-gatherers from hunting.

Nomadic pastoralist peoples like the Maasai and Samburu of east Africa are struggling with the encroachment of farming and conservation into their areas. As they are limited to smaller and smaller spaces, it becomes more and more difficult for them to maintain their livestock, especially in difficult periods, such as times of drought. Increasingly, they are being forced to move to urban areas.

The San, or Bushmen, of southern Africa have in some cases disappeared, or nearly so, as they have lost or been driven from their traditional homelands. Large numbers remain in Namibia, but they are usually impoverished and unable to live their traditional way of life. Many of them, with nowhere to go, have simply stayed, and now find themselves poorly paid laborers on farms - made up of their traditional territory -- now owned by whites or by other Africans.

The Imazighen (Berbers) are the indigenous peoples of northern Africa and the Sahel. The best known Imazighen may be the Tuareg. Most Imazighen who have not been assimilated live in the mountains or the desert. In Mediterranean areas, they have become sedentary; those living in the desert are usually nomadic. Today they exist as small linguistic pockets, with few, if any, cultural protections. Activists are working to maintain their language and culture.

"Well-intentioned" discrimination: the cost

In Australia, Canada and the United States, one practice which has only been recognized as discriminatory and damaging in the second half of the 20th century is the forced removal of Native/Aboriginal children from their homes. In Australia, the practice focused on mixed-race Aboriginal children, who were forcibly taken from their parents and given to adoptive white families. These children usually grew up without the knowledge that they were in fact partly Aboriginal. Today they have been named the "Stolen Generation".

In the US and Canada, Native children were sent to the notorious residential schools, which persisted well into the latter part of the 20th century. Language, religion and cultural beliefs were often the objects of ridicule. Speaking native words was forbidden, and often earned physical punishment - to force a stubborn Indian child to learn to speak good English. Contact with parents and family was often discouraged, or even disallowed. In the worst examples, to discourage run-aways, children were told their parents had died, that there was no home to return to; or, vice versa, to discourage parental visits, families were told that their children had died. In an ironic twist, these falsehoods sometimes proved prophetic: there were cases where children did run away in mid-winter, dressed only in nightclothes, hoping to find their way home. Today it is assumed that they froze to death, as their parents have never been able to find them.

In an earlier age, these actions were defended as being in the "best interests" of the Indian/Aboriginal child, to improve her chances in the modern world. Assimilation was the goal. The value inherent in indigenous cultures and knowledge was not then recognized.

In isolated areas, some residential schools attracted faculty and staff of the sort who prey on children. Extensive physical and sexual abuse has been documented. In North America, as the abuse has come to light, victims have been identified and there have been attempts to provide remedies and retribution.

The United Nations Tackles the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations

The United Nations first focused its attention formally on the problems of indigenous peoples in the context of its work against racism and discrimination.

In 1970, the Subcommission on Prevention and Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (a subsidiary body of the Commission on Human Rights) commissioned Special Rapporteur Martinez Cobo of Ecuador to undertake a study on "The Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations". That monumental study, completed only in 1984, carefully documented modern discrimination against indigenous peoples and their precarious situation. His report catalogued the wide variety of laws in place to protect native peoples: some of these were discriminatory in concept, and others were routinely disregarded by the dominant community. It concluded that the continuous discrimination against indigenous peoples threatened their existence.

The report found that some governments denied that indigenous peoples existed within their borders. Others denied the existence of any kind of discrimination - in contradiction to the reality encountered. It described cases where the governmental authorities, when reporting on the situation of indigenous peoples, unwittingly betrayed their baldly discriminatory thinking. For example, a governmental official in the Americas replied to Mr. Cobo's request for information on "protective measures" by stating: "In our civil legislation, the Indians are not even included among the incapable persons." Another responded: "They are not inscribed in the Birth Register, which means that they have no legal civil personality. They are beings without political, social or economic obligations. They do not vote. They pay no taxes." A judicial decision concluded that an Indian could not be found guilty of homicide because of "unsurmountable ignorance", stating "Although in our country they belong to the category of Citizens with rights and duties…. The Indian does not reach the text of Law. He does not understand it."

The establishment of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982 was a direct result of the Cobo study. Consisting of five independent experts, the Working Group meets annually in Geneva, and, until now, has been the only arena in the United Nations system in which indigenous peoples could state their views. The United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004) has helped to focus efforts in the UN system on two primary goals: the creation of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the drafting of a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. The draft Declaration is still under consideration by the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN Charter body to which the Commission on Human Rights reports, recently took steps to establish the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which will consist of eight governmental experts and eight indigenous representatives. Indigenous representatives will for the first time be allowed to address directly an official United Nations Charter body, ECOSOC.

Due to growing concerns about the environment, the activity undertaken by the Working Group and other United Nations bodies and the advocacy work carried on by indigenous groups and non-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples worldwide are receiving increasing attention from their respective governments. Countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States have focused efforts on settling land claims with indigenous groups and on achieving reconciliation for past injuries, including those done in the name of assimilation. In Scandinavia, the native Saami have established a parliamentary forum across their national borders. In Africa, indigenous groups have just begun to mobilize. In other areas, indigenous groups have taken strong positions in defiance of their governments. And in a first, a UN-brokered peace agreement in the civil war in Guatemala gave a specific role to indigenous peoples. But a lot has not been settled.

Retribution: Land claims and more

Native groups have made a great deal of progress in pursuing land claims, particularly in the Americas and Australia. Of particular note is is Nunavut, Canada's newest and largest territory. Established on 1 April 1999 to be a homeland for the Inuit, who make up 85 per cent of its population, it was the result of the process that began in the early 1970s when Canada decided to negotiate settlements with aboriginal groups that filed land claims. The establishment of Nunavut represents a new level of indigenous self-determination in Canada.

In response to the reports of widespread abuse in the residential school system, the Law Commission of Canada in 1996 published a report, "Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions". In its research, the Commission found that, in addition to physical and sexual abuse, it was imperative to also consider the emotional, racial and cultural abuse. Following the report, the Government of Canada announced a new programme "Gathering Strength - an Aboriginal Action Plan". It called for a renewed partnership with Aboriginal people based on recognizing past mistakes and injustices, the advancement of reconciliation, healing and renewal, and the building of a joint plan for the future. The Government also offered a Statement of Reconciliation, in which it said "To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry."

Unfortunately, it has become apparent that resolving such emotionally charged issues will take a great deal of time and commitment. With over 6,000 lawsuits currently seeking reparations for physical and sexual abuse, the Churches who ran the schools for the Canadian Government and who are co-defendants in the suits report that they are facing almost certain bankruptcy. And a number of the victims of abuse have committed suicide.

Elsewhere in North America, the United States is also in the process of settling many land claims. Some Indian Nations have successfully established a level of sovereignty. A few have established casinos that have become multi-billion dollars industries and that provide needed jobs to depressed areas - and not just to residents of the reservation.

In one particularly difficult case, the Federal Government has filed suit against New York State for illegally acquiring and selling land belonging to the Oneida Nation - land that is now occupied by thousands of upset American homeowners. While the Oneida Nation has insisted throughout that they have no intention of seizing anyone's land or evicting anyone, feelings have run very high. Death threats have been made.

The Cayugas, the Senecas, the Mohawks and the Onondagas - all Haudenosaunee, or members of the Iroquois Confederacy, along with the Oneida Nation - also have claims on property in New York State. Because the population of New York State is much more dense than in most other areas of "Indian country", these may prove difficult to resolve to everyone's mutual satisfaction.

Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota, is the poorest county in the United States of America. The midwestern states are also the site of more obvious racism against Native Americans. It has been commonly charged that there are two tiers of justce, one for Native Americans and another for "whites". Native Americans say that crimes committed against them - including those resulting in death - receive only a cursory investigation, while crimes committed against "whites", allegedly committed by Native Americans, are fiercely prosecuted. And daily expressions of racism of the type long thought to exist only in memory still occur -- but the apparent recipients are Native Americans. The segregated lunch counters of the South may no longer exist, but Native Americans say they are not surprised when they are refused service in a coffee shop. Such experiences of Native Americans living in Indian Country, however, are not known to vast majority of American citizens. Which gives rise to another question: is racism against Native Americans less likely to be covered by the mainstream media?

World Conference against Racism

Copyright United Nations 2001

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