Why Indigenous Movements DO NOT and SHOULD NOT Solely Focus on Civil, Environmental and Human RIGHTS!! – Part 1

Contrary to many other movements in the United States and more Western Societies, Indigenous communities in the United States and throughout the world are arguing that neither equal or equitable rights are good enough for reconciling as well as establishing agency, self-determination and sovereignty in Indigenous nation-building.

I’m sure you as the reader might be asking Why is this is? What other options are their for sovereignty, equity and nation-building? Why is this important for non-Indigenous people and nations?

The answer is quite simple: Rights can be very empty structures when all Indigenous views of relationships and responsibilities to place and people’s values are within that place

As Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel argue in Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism, Indigenous nations are not sovereign if their sovereignty is granted by a colonial state-nation, nor are they sovereign when they are mirroring the same model or structure as a western government. This paradox is very problematic and has a purpose within systematic colonization of Indigenous nations in the United States. Federal laws such as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 have been established to “allow” Indigenous nations to practice their rights to self-governance and manage their own communities, land and resources. This lacked a great understanding that Indigenous nations DO NOT hold structures that can successfully practice self-determination and sovereignty if they are the same models of Western governments. Many men are put in powerful positions and a hierarchy of power is distributed as a result. Indigenous forms of governments often have balances of female, male and non-binary gender roles as well. These communities also many times WERE NOT democracies, and did not vote members based on popularity. Much traditional leaders were appointed by consensus, hereditary roles of leadership and for matralineal tribes, appointed by women.  Therefore, the rights to self-govern are a paradox with Indigenous nations with complex and non-hierarchical forms of sovereignty.

The most important role to conceptualize within Indigenous resurgence and sovereignty and why it differs from the movements of other communities of color and underrepresented groups in the Western nations is their need for responsibility and relationships. Above any rights that can be granted, the individualism in Western law does not define a collective and communal responsibility for true equity. To perceive the world around and our roles as human beings in it solely in relations to self and protecting self, is a concept that lacks much responsibility and relationships to our communities and non-human interactions. As Indigenous nations, we cannot “fight” for rights.

My mother’s people are Iroquois from the Mohawk and Seneca Nations. Studying much of their governance, I have learned that much of the United States Constitution was appropriated from the Iroquois Confederacy’s laws and agreements between its nations. BUT, there was a rather large difference between these forms of law and governance; Rights vs Responsibility and Relationality. The Indigenous laws cannot define the human experience without a relationship with nature and our community. We do not see ourselves as individuals, dependence or separate from our land and its environment. Because we are not separate, our relationships are not solely with ourselves. The idea of rights does not address our relationships to nature and community nor to they hold a responsibility of holding relationships. I can strongly agree that with responsibilities expected and distributed of each human being, our societies would not have the same experiences of oppression and disconnect. If we hold responsibilities to protect one another’s livelihoods, relationships with human and non-human relatives, and responsibilities in society roles of work, this could address man of the issues in society, especially the issues that pertain with colonial oppression.

Responsibilities involve distributing power in a non-hierarchical manner. Gender roles in traditional settings did not establish for one gender to distribute roles to another nor did it allow one role to be more important than another. As seen in Western forms of governance, much power is only distributed to those with access to certain education and a certain socioeconomic status. These roles in power are not balanced among their nation or community. The role in power only having individual rights and roles, is not accountable for distributing power, nor are they accountable for protecting the rights of others. Individual rights are problematic because they can only be addressed by the individual themselves when violated. This means that the individual is expected to be thoroughly educated about their rights and have the accessibility to practice them. As we are seeing in society during the War on Drugs, Police Brutality and other issues such as Labor Rights, much of this accountability for violations are not transparent. Because we are expected to legally only be accountable for protecting and practicing our individual rights, we lack responsibility for our relationships with our environments and communities. When an individual does not have the ability to be educated on their rights, they fall short of protecting themselves. Similarly, when an individual does not have the ability to practice their rights, they fall short of holding their government accountable for acknowledging their rights as well.

To put into perspective how powerful and transparent responsibilities can be described in Indigenous ideologies, imagine laws  that detail responsibilities and roles in a society, for example:

You have the responsibility to respect the agency of human beings

You have the responsibility to respectfully gather plants with reciprocity to their environments

You have the responsibility to respect your romantic partner’s consent

You have the responsibility to consume the necessary nutrients for your personal livelihood.

You have the responsibility to respect the natural environment of nature with the exception of sustainable living, hunting and gathering with the appropriated protocols, during appropriate times of the year

Recommended additional Reads:

Wasase by Taiaiake Alfred

Therapuetic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights by Dian Million

From a Native Mother by Huanani Kay-Trask

Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

First Voices: An Aboriginal Women’s Reader Edited by Patricia Anne Monture, Patricia Danielle McGuire

Making Space for Indigenous Feminism Edited by Joyce Green


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