In comments, I mentioned the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the United Nations this past September. For those unfamiliar with a document of this sort, it is not legally binding but sets a minimum standard that States should aim at and could be the foundation for future law.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been in the works for quite some time and many American Indians were instrumental to its development.
In the next few weeks I’ll be writing about different Articles in the Declaration. I welcome comments from everyone, especially indigenous readers in the United States and elsewhere. Since it is the minimum standard the international community thinks we ought to aim at, it is good for Indians and non-Indians to discuss the Declaration together in, as the Declaration says, a spirit of partnership and mutual respect.
The Declaration does not set out a definition of indigenous peoples or indigenous individuals and I won’t be doing that either. However, ostensively, the Navajo Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Seminole Tribe of Florida count as indigenous peoples. Elouise Cobell, Winona LaDuke, Carrie Dann and Suzan Shown Harjo count as indigenous individuals.
Indigenous peoples and individuals around the world have suffered from—and still suffer from—absolutely horrible injustices. Philosophers, especially those with interests in political philosophy, ethics and the like, ought to be interested in these issues.
Additionally, there are many things philosophers might be interested in within the Declaration itself. Here’s two: The Declaration sketches a model by which States and indigenous peoples should interact with each other. And it employs a concept of collective rights in addition to individual rights. (For some commentary on the Declaration, click here.)
As I said, I’ll be writing about the Articles in the Declaration over the next few weeks to mull over the Articles and discuss why some provisions might have been included, but for now, let’s have a look at Article 8(1).
“Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.”
Many indigenous people around the world have been subjected to what is referred to as forced assimilation, forced integration or cultural genocide. This has taken many forms. Article 8(1) states that indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to this.
Numerous colonizing populations enacted forced assimilation policies and they did this for, at least, the following reasons: Because they thought indigenous cultures, customs, religions and languages were inferior, and because if they could get indigenous people to assimilate into the dominant colonizing culture, they thought indigenous people would no longer care about or fight for their lands and resources, which the colonizing population wanted.
An example of a policy that aimed at forced assimilation is Boarding Schools, practiced in the US, Canada and elsewhere until fairly recently. Boarding Schools were different from one another and different over time, but the way it typically went was this: Indian children were forced to leave their families and tribes to go to a Boarding School where they were not allowed to wear their traditional clothing, practice their religions or speak their languages. They had to wear ‘civilized’ clothing, have ‘civilized’ hairstyles, practice Christianity and speak English or they would be punished, oftentimes severely.
In addition to forced assimilation, many Indian children experienced a variety of other abuses in the schools by the people who ran them. At the time they were conceived, a lot of Americans thought Indian Boarding Schools were a better policy to deal with the so-called ‘Indian Problem’ than the policy they replaced, which was war. Thus the slogan of Indian Boarding Schools: ‘Kill the Indian, not the Man’, where one abolishes Indian cultures but does not kill Indian people. That was the policy idea, anyway, but many native people died or were killed in Boarding Schools.
It can be difficult for non-Indian Americans to imagine the psychological trauma many of these kids experienced as a result of forced assimilation. So if readers are interested, I can look up articles written specifically on this trauma as well as first person accounts and post references to them in comments. I welcome, too, references from readers in comments. References to forced assimilation of indigenous people outside of the US and Canada are more than welcome.
An unintended effect of the Boarding School policy is that such oppression galvanized many young American Indians and they grew up to become activists for their people. And today, although American Indian languages are endangered, tribes are actively encouraging the continuance and flourishing of their languages and cultures among their people.
The following video explains more about Boarding Schools. (Warning: Some things in the world are really bad.)
For further reading on Indian Boarding Schools, you can find a nice bibliography here.