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13 May, 2012

How colonialism has impacted on the world’s indigenous peoples

Originally Published: 13 May 2012

An intense and fascinating debate on the legacy of colonialism and its impact on the world’s indigenous peoples took place at the UN headquarters in New York between May 7-9. The 11th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues focussed on the special theme: “The Doctrine of Discovery: Its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests.”

According to a detailed three-part transcript summary of the debate posted on the UN website, the controversial “Doctrine of Discovery” is a 15th century Christian dogma that “provided religious justification for the seizure by early explorers of indigenous land and resources, which later became embedded in international law and policy.”

Reported the transcript: “During the panel discussion, experts denounced the Discovery Doctrine as a “Doctrine of Extinguishment” and a “Doctrine of Domination”, lamenting its impact on hundreds of millions of indigenous people, who had been killed, subjugated or used as pawns while colonial powers competed for power and wealth. The policy’s residual affects were still being felt and, according to one speaker, those racist and bigoted ripple effects remained “the central problem confronting the global human rights movement of indigenous peoples”.”

The forum brought together a remarkable collection of global Indigenous Peoples’ representatives, including one known as the World Association of Reindeer Herders.

In her opening remarks, UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said the 16-member expert body could play a dynamic role in helping indigenous peoples worldwide achieve their goals and the right to self-determination. Weighing the abiding impact of the Discovery Doctrine, she said, would provide space to reconcile the past with the need to build a future on the pillars of truth, in terms of recognizing past abuses, and memory, in terms of understanding the past. “Raise your voices here, at this Forum, and beyond. I will urge the world to listen,” Ms Migiro was quoted as saying.

The Chairperson of the Permanent Forum, Edward John, from Canada, said, as reported in the transcript: “There is a continuing need for all of us […] to take collaborative and coordinated actions, bold and effective, to address the continued discrimination, racism, marginalization, extreme poverty and conflict faced by indigenous peoples,” urging action over indifference, “because indifference is the breeding ground for intolerance.”

Herebelow are just a few quotes from the transcript which runs to nearly 25,000 words in full but is well worth reading by historians, sociologists, economists and geopolitical scientists tracking contemporary global conflicts and their root causes in this changing world order.

Robert Williams, Professor of Native American Studies, said that without the Doctrine of Discovery, western civilization would not exist. The Doctrine’s most important principle was that of extinguishment, under which the colonizing State sought to abolish indigenous peoples, their languages, religions and existence, by recognizing some peoples and not others. The State could terminate the act of recognition at any point. That extraordinary power had been adopted by Governments in Asia, Africa, Europe and throughout the world. Through laws, regulations, court decisions, dam locations, and uncompensated grants of timber rights, Governments continued to assert the “doctrine of extinguishment”.

Indeed, the “doctrine of extinguishment” was the central problem confronting the global human rights movement of indigenous peoples, he said. The doctrine had originated in the language of racism, which regarded indigenous peoples as savage, inferior and an obstacle to the development of the non-indigenous State. Western civilization had been in perpetual war with indigenous peoples. All Governments shared in the complex of racist ideas. But did that complex of ideas correspond with anything observed in nature? “We cannot and will not be extinguished,” he said. “We’re indigenous, we are still here.”

Tonya Gonella Frichner, Lawyer, Onondaga Nation, said, “We forget that this doctrine — this legal construct — established a framework of domination that continues today,” she said, noting that Dominion Day was still observed by Canada. Domination was exhausting and must be changed, not just for indigenous peoples, who had suffered decades of discrimination, but for humanity in general.

Victoria Tauli Corpuz, of the Philippines, Former Chair of the Permanent Forum, said research on the Doctrine had generally focused on North America, Australia and New Zealand, but the dogma had severely impacted peoples in Asia and Africa. It had been imposed upon those peoples to promote Western views, with the Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch setting up colonial outposts in Asia and then Indo-China.

She said that, like most indigenous communities, the native peoples of the Philippines were not really “discovered”; they had indeed been trading with their regional partners and building their own societies long before Magellan had arrived on their shores. Even though the Philippines had defeated that explorer, their land was passed through Spain with the Regalian Doctrine and eventually “bought” by the United States. Unfortunately, many of the colonial laws and practices lingered until this day.

Moana Jackson, Maori Lawyer, New Zealand said that, while it was paramount to reject the Doctrine and dismantle its lingering structures, there was also a pressing need for indigenous people to “rediscover” and celebrate their own heritages and cultural traditions, which might be one of the best ways to undo the “genocidal legal magic” that had accompanied the dogma’s implementation. Indeed, States, churches and others that had profited from the Doctrine could not merely apologize for that dogma “as a product of another time”; they must truly seek to undo its structures in meaningful ways that took into account the priorities of indigenous peoples.”

Ortenzia Hidalgo, Latin American Indigenous Peoples Caucus, said European conquerors used the cross and the sword to impose their doctrine; one god and one king. They obtained a papal dispensation to Christianize indigenous peoples — and created the criminal notion of superior and inferior races. That was the cruel origin of capitalism. Today, multinational corporations prioritized economies based on extractive activities, especially in petroleum, water and timber. They invaded indigenous territories and systematically violated rights.

“The new god is free trade”, she said, and Mother Earth was being abused. That “extractionist” neoliberal model was reaching its end. World summits did not provide any real space for indigenous peoples to participate. Those responsible for climate change talked about a “green economy” only as a way to persist in policies that pillaged mother earth. She called for a moratorium on extractive activities on indigenous lands.

Saul Vicente Vasquez, Permanent Forum expert from Mexico, said large multinational corporations continued to implement the Discovery Doctrine today, with “conquests” that included seizure of land and the erasing of fragile indigenous cultures. He cited relevant reports that hundreds of millions of hectares of land were sold each year “in the name of so-called civilization”.

What was worse was that solutions to many of today’s challenges — climate change, food insecurity — actually perpetuated the conditions that had led to them, including consolidating power in a few countries and placing a handful of institutions in charge of implementing so-called globally agreed initiatives.

Chief Oren Lyons, speaking on behalf of the Onondaga Nation, said that with the General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration in 2007, indigenous people had finally “taken their places at the table of humanity.” Being at the table was very important because, according to an old Native American adage “if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” And feasting had indeed been going on, with the ancestral lands of indigenous people the main course. But, after centuries of carnage that could be traced back to the Catholic Church and the Christian Crusades, the first peoples were now demanding an accounting.

Raja Devasish Roy, Permanent Forum expert from Bangladesh, agreed that the Discovery Doctrine had no legal standing. It was a racist exercise in legal gymnastics, which was dead. The Permanent Forum could best use its time in dealing with its legacies, which, unfortunately, were “alive and kicking” in national laws and policies on land, forests and natural resources, whether contrary to or in line with national constitutions.

Munda Meenakashi, Indian Confederation of Indigenous Tribal Peoples, North East Zone, discussed the history and ethnicity of north-east India and explained that the indigenous communities there wished to ensure the implementation by the Government of acts that guaranteed the protection and promotion of their rights, reversed colonial and post-colonial decisions and structures, and which could eventually lead to tribal self-rule. Land acquisition and mining should only take place in indigenous areas with the free, prior and informed consent of those communities.

Abubakar Al-Bashir, North African Indigenous Caucus (TUNFA), said his caucus dealt with the situation of nomadic and traditional communities in a diverse group of countries that included Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. He added that in the name of socio-economic development, Governments in his region generally pursued policies that either marginalized indigenous peoples or tried to push them towards economic assimilation. That situation needed to be addressed, especially regarding territorial and pastoral structures.