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Onto the Right Side of History: Confronting the World’s Last Colonial Legacies by Supporting Indigenous Peoples
Martin Edwin Andersen, 8/30/2010

“For the first time in history almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive. Global activism is generating a surge in the quest for cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world scarred by memories of colonial or imperial domination.”

—Zbigniew Brzezinski


“More important than the observable nature of external reality, when it comes to the determination of Washington’s view of the world, is the subjective state of readiness on the part of Washington officialdom to recognize this or that feature of it.”

—George Kennan


The struggle for liberation of the estimated two hundred and fifty million individuals belonging to five thousand distinct indigenous communities in 70 nation-states around the world is arguably the final frontier, and the unfinished business, of a more than century-long—or more than two-centuries-long, if the U.S. revolution is the starting point—process of global de-colonization. As part of a fourth stage of global democratic development—the first three being the struggle against overseas colonialism and national dictatorships, and the expansion of largely “Western” democratic institutions and practices—native peoples have emerged as key political actors in countries around the planet. The struggle for formal de-colonization from the Western powers “restored a large measure of freedom and dignity to one billion colonized people and [therefore] must be ranked as one of the greatest human rights achievements in the twentieth century.”[1] Yet much remains to be done and, until 2010, the United States has appeared to sit on the sidelines, often jeering in diplomatic bureaucratese. Failure to act can fuel ethnic conflicts based on inequitable access to power and resources. Key to the effective remediation of long-standing United States policy, one that put the world’s oldest democracy at odds with a fourth world revolution whose tenor, direction and outcome remain in the balance, is the role played by the U.S. State Department.

The struggle to rid the world of its last colonial legacies continues to be conducted almost entirely in the homelands of indigenous peoples, a wide array of humankind linked by a common term. As José Martinez Cobo, the special rapporteur of the U.N. Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities defined: “Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.”[2] Indigenous peoples, those who inhabited the land before it was taken up by colonial societies and who believe themselves to be fundamentally different from those currently governing those lands, can no longer be ignored.

Despite being a devalued currency in the policy debates of today, no doubt the word “genocide” applies to the legacy of colonialism and the neo-colonial treatment of indigenous peoples throughout the world, as measured in the number of indigenous nations exterminated, cultures destroyed, languages lost, and lands stolen. Even when not overtly victimized, indigenous peoples were still ignored; their voices—offering different ways to view and appreciate the world—went unheard. Framed largely in the words, perspectives and history forged in the global North, concepts such as race and ethnicity, statehood and nationalism, and modernity and civilization rest uneasily and uncertainly on the current debate over indigenous peoples’ rights and their places within nation-states. Generally speaking, however, the challenge of indigenous peoples’ political struggle includes crises of participation (where “sizeable segments of the population, heretofore excluded from the system, demand effective participation in the political process”), legitimacy (where “sizable portions of the politically relevant population challenge or deny the normative validity of claims to authority made by existing leadership”), and distribution (in which “sizable portions of the politically relevant population demand a redistribution of societal rewards and benefits, often economic”).[3]

Despite the fact that U.S. policy remains anchored in formal principles of democracy, peaceful change, equal opportunity and respect for private property, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., support for legitimate indigenous aspirations has remained a defaulted promissory note whose redemption could bring the riches of freedom and the security of justice to some of the world’s poorest and most underrepresented peoples. At the same time, State institutions that reflect ethnic diversity and respect for minority rights, checks and balances that reduce the perception of injustice and insecurity, and power sharing arrangements can help reduce the potential for ethnic conflict. For those policymakers, geostrategists, academics and others concerned about lessening the potential for violent conflict, particularly threats of terrorism and insurgencies around the world, the findings of economists José G. Montalvo and Marta Reynal-Querol, are particularly important: “The index of ethnic polarization is a significant explanatory variable for the incidence of civil wars.” At minimum, they add, “Business as usual is not possible in a society with a high level of potential ethnic conflict, since this situation affects all levels of economic activity.” [4]

Recently the State Department has begun to comprehensive review U.S. positions on a variety of issues of critical importance to indigenous peoples. On March 29th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending a meeting of Arctic rim states in Ottawa, gave a rare dressing down to her Canadian hosts for continuing to exclude the non-state Inuit people, as well as non-coastal Arctic states of Sweden and Finland and sub-arctic Iceland, from the deliberations. Then, on April 20th, Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that Foggy Bottom was reviewing its long-held rejection (a last hold-out on the international scene) of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that sets forth an unprecedented set of guarantees for indigenous peoples, protecting their rights to land, resources, languages, cultures, spiritual beliefs and self-determination. And on July 7-8, State Department officials, along with other federal officials and agency representatives, met with Indian leaders and non-governmental organizations to discuss possible support for the U.N. Declaration, an important signal to the world that the U.S. was prepared to turn words into action. United States support for the declaration, noted Leonardo Crippa, a staff attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, D.C., “will have a huge impact on international law.” [5]

The possible sea change in U.S. policy is particularly noteworthy given Washington’s previous stance. During the presidency of George H.W. Bush, the dawn of a purported “new world order, the United States cold-shouldered U.N. efforts to address the indigenous agenda. Then, in the first year of the Bill Clinton Administration, a U.S. delegation did not even have a position paper ready for discussion on indigenous rights, the hottest topic on the agenda after women’s rights at a June human rights summit in Vienna. According to one participant in closed-door talks with the U.S. team: “They were all bent out of shape about anything that might be said that might go against U.S. interests. There were a lot of older, white males worried what the effect might be on U.S. internal politics, whether we’d have to give Manhattan back.” In 1994 Richard Feinberg, Clinton’s principal architect for the first Summit of the Americas tried several times to eliminate any mention of indigenous peoples from the conference declaration (only to be thwarted by an activist Treasury Department official who repeatedly reinserted the nixed language surreptitiously back into the document). Also during the Clinton presidency the Organization of American States (OAS) engaged in an extensive consultation with indigenous peoples from around the hemisphere on a “Proposed American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Even though the draft did not include the concept of self-determination, or protect traditional hunting, fishing and gathering rights as Indian peoples wished, State Department lawyers operating in a vacuum were allowed to use their position in the interagency process in order to gut the draft declaration. The lawyers argued, improbably, that failure to offer a precise definition of the term “indigenous peoples” would lead to armed militia and hate groups taking advantage of Native rights, services and benefits in the United States. The failure of states to recognize indigenous groups as “peoples” in international forums, “the failure to affirm their full, unqualified right to self determination, insults and inflames the sensitivities of indigenous leaders,” Steve Tullberg, then an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center, told an OAS hearing, because it suggested that there are “two classes of peoples in the world: a second class comprised of indigenous peoples and a first class comprised of all other peoples.”[6]

Meanwhile, a 1995 proposal by the U.S. Department of Justice to assist the Bolivian government to create a rural police force that would have incorporated elements of Native American (or customary) law in the formation of an indigenous-oriented community police, and which would also have had first-line responsibilities for protecting the environment, was successfully vetoed by a U.S. embassy political officer in La Paz. The decision came despite buy-in for the project by the Bolivian vice president—himself a Native American—and the Bolivian National Police and support from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In killing the proposal, the diplomat justified the decision by saying flatly, based on his experience growing up in Rocky Mountains, that Indians were “not interested in justice.” (In March 2007, the leaders of the Bolivian Conamaq—an important group of indigenous leaders—called for the establishment of a community justice system on par with the existing national justice system. The Evo Morales government implemented the demand, although in a haphazard and controversial fashion that has called into question the wisdom of the move itself. In August 2010, the U.S. Embassy in La Paz sponsored a group of four Choctaw Indians from Mississippi to share knowledge of their traditions and culture, including the fact that tribal courts try both criminal and civil cases. “If a person is detained by order of a judge, and he or she is Choctaw, that person is brought before an indigenous court,” Joshua Breedlove, one of the delegation, explained.)[7]

The lack of serious attention and hostility to the indigenous agenda continued into the new century; one of the most important backward steps taken was when the George W. Bush Administration began backfilling on the narrow acceptance by its predecessor to accept the terms “indigenous peoples” and “self-determination” in international discussions. When the United Nations met to consider the declaration of rights of indigenous peoples, the United States was one of a handful of countries that opposed it (together with Canada, Australia, Russia and New Zealand). Opposition to the declaration’s self-determination language was based on the possibility of secession that would imperil the political unity of member states, as well as their territorial integrity. [8]

Because members of dominant, non-native peoples feel that their sovereignty is threatened by granting indigenous peoples specific rights, the example of the United States, which recognizes a measure—however imperfect—of autonomy for its Native American peoples, can offer useful models in support of legitimate indigenous demands. The U.S. experience, as we will see below, offers critical lessons on issues ranging from self-determination; sovereignty; and the protection of native lands, resources and cultural sites, to the struggle for cultural survival of peoples. As a Guatemalan ambassador to the United Nations remarked after visiting the Meskwaki tribal settlement in Iowa in October 2007, “It is an eye-opener to find indigenous peoples in a different state of social and political development.” For example, although perhaps 15 years too late to help prevent Marxist populist Evo Morales from hijacking the issue of indigenous justice for his own purposes, the courts and common laws of the Navajo Nation, for example, form part of the largest and one of the most developed tribal justice systems in the world. Its example could be of significant benefit to indigenous peoples around the world who are currently denied effective access to legal systems to uphold their rights under the rule of law.[9]

The State Department, in partnership with other U.S. cabinet departments and agencies, needs to bring policy cohesion to international indigenous issues. Advocates for change within State point out that although some 50-80 people in various regional and functional bureaus within the Department are responsible for a variety of aspects of indigenous concerns, there is no effective coordination on these issues. In the absence of policy articulated by experts, decision-making often defaults to State lawyers, whose policy recommendations up through the first year of the Obama Administration have been riven by ignorance, elitism, or worse. Clearly a formal coordination mechanism that encompasses indigenous issues across the board needs to be established. Current consideration at State for identifying a single lead official, or perhaps several people, in each bureau to be functional experts on indigenous issues, representing them at policy coordination meetings, would greatly improve the chances of policymaking being taken from a maladroit legal section and into the hands of those with substantial knowledge and proactive concern.

The following ideas might also significantly improve the outlook for better coordination and thus the elaboration of a forward-looking policy stance:

General Recommendations:

Increase department-wide knowledge of and appreciation for the legitimate demands of indigenous peoples

Apart from a handful whose work on related issues or personal interest has given them key insights and contacts, currently there are few Foreign Service officers whose education and experience allows them to form part of a critical cadre within the Department to work effectively on indigenous issues. In furtherance of that knowledge and potential, the Foreign Service Institute offer region-specific and global courses on issues that affect indigenous peoples. In creating a specific model on the rights of indigenous peoples and the challenges they face, an examination should take place of the continued use of legal arguments by States that have as their basis the colonialist assumptions of a “doctrine of discovery” inconsistent with domestic legal regimes that seek to include broader human rights concerns. [10] Over time, knowledge from the courses could be spun off to form part of training and education on human rights, intellectual property rights, and free market initiatives, among others.

Actively partner with U.S. Native American tribes

Executive Order 13175 calls for regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with Native American officials in developing Federal policies that impact their tribes. In its July 7-8 meeting with tribal leaders, the State Department took an important step in this direction, asking Indian and Alaska Native leaders and governments to provide appropriate government agencies with written comments for their review, including those responding to two key international indigenous issues: “How is the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples important to your Indian nation?” and “If the U.S. endorses the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, what effects would it have for citizens of your Indian nation? How would it make a difference or benefit your nation?” In addition, Secretary Clinton has designated the Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs as the point of contact for those questions within State’s purview that affect tribal interests.

In light of these positive steps, a senior level inter-agency working group, including representatives from the Departments of State, Justice, Interior and Defense, should be convened to examine the potential for engaging indigenous peoples throughout the world in becoming full partners on their own terms in efforts to promote democracy and security. (Inter-agency outreach should include NORTHCOM, which is the DoD combatant command with domestic (U.S.) jurisdiction and whose inter-face includes state, local and tribal governments.)

The Secretary of State should invite a representative sample of Indian tribes and non-governmental organizations to Washington to assay the potential for Native Americans to provide ideas, manpower and other resources in efforts to engage indigenous peoples in a meaningful dialogue. Consultation should be extended early in the process to individual U.S. Indian tribal governments, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and the Indian Law Resource Center. The NCAI, the oldest and largest indigenous organization in the United States that is still in existence, and the Indian Law Resource Center have repeatedly stated their willingness to work with the U.S. government in the promotion of innovative ideas responding to indigenous realities. U.S. Indian tribes are themselves a wellspring of knowledge ranging from democracy and security issues, to environmental protection, the protection of cultural patrimony, and the extension of free-market ideas within the context of collective land ownership.

For example, Raymond D. Austin served for 16 years as a justice on the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, the world largest tribal justice system. Austin noted in his recent book, Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law, A Tradition of Tribal Self-Governance, that the leading role played by his tribe in this legal revolution places it in a unique position to help indigenous peoples around the world as they seek to protect their cultures, languages, and spiritual traditions. In societies where justice through public institutions is denied, groups seeking resolution of their grievances are more likely to resort to violence. In an age when policymakers focus on the need to drain “swamps” of neglect and despair around the globe that are potential breeding grounds for terrorists and their supporters, those areas of disaffection and radicalization can be contained, at least in part, in the words of one Indian rights lawyer ,“by offering the poorest and most neglected people access to legal systems that recognize their human rights under the rule of law.”[11]

Effectively pressure the World Bank and regional institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for equity

The Secretary of State, together with the Secretary of the Treasury, should publicly demand that international financial institutions take actions based on specific goals and binding timetables reflected in country strategies that provide a far greater percentage of ordinary capital resources to victims of ongoing racial and ethnic discrimination, as well as vigorously pursue diversity recruitment, retention and pro-active promotion within the institutions. Both the World Bank and IDB have developed guidelines that were designed to showcase what the multilateral development banks suggested was real recognition that development practices needed to be tailored differently in projects affecting the lives, rights and resources of indigenous peoples. They also suggested a role for special indigenous development projects that were supposed to create indigenous-controlled wealth. For example, the population of Latin America includes more than 150 million Afro-Latinos and more than 40 million indigenous people; together they comprise some 40 percent of the region’s population and are disproportionately represented among the poor. Yet a recent study by the independent Government Accountability Project (GAP) has shown that despite the florid rhetoric, lending by the IDB—whose primary stated mission includes poverty alleviation—included just two (2) percent dedicated especially to the needs of Afro-Latinos and indigenous peoples. The situation at the World Bank is only marginally better. [12]

Provide better coverage of indigenous peoples in the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights

Eighteen years after the requirement for including the indigenous rights section in the annual State Department country reports on human rights was signed into law (the “Cranston Amendment,” named after its author, former U.S. Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston), the reporting on the rights of Native peoples—including access to land and the protection of their natural resources—barely meets the original Congressional intent and rarely serves as an important tool for accountability. The Department should consult routinely with outside experts on the quality of the annual Human Rights Report’s section on indigenous peoples, with a view to improving its accuracy and completeness, including recognition of and possible conformance with international norms on indigenous rights. Once the Report is issued, the group should then be reconvened to evaluate the results. This before-and-after review should be a yearly process.

Pledge U.S. support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and provide advocacy at the Organization of American States (OAS) working group on indigenous rights

The George W. Bush policies concerning universal and regional declarations on indigenous rights need to be reversed. It is time to show concrete changes in U.S. policy in order to strengthen American leadership in the international community as a nation that consistently promotes democratic values and the rule of law around the world. United States support for the UN Declaration on indigenous rights will tangibly benefit indigenous peoples in the region. U.S. re-engagement in the OAS negotiations sessions on draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will also contribute to a better dialogue with Native American leaders, who have being actively participating in the process.

U.S. non-support for the most recent statement in international law recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples and US non-participation at OAS for a on indigenous peoples has relegated Washington to an observer status. At the regional level and since 1997, OAS member states have been elaborating the declaration on indigenous rights in conjunction with representatives of indigenous peoples, including the U.S. Native American leaders. Active engagement by the United States was key to push the process forward. But in 2007, the Bush Administration decided to stop its active participation in the negotiations on the OAS draft declaration. Since then, the U.S. delegation attends the negotiation sessions as a mere observer in order to take notes and report back. The Obama Administration, which was still in the process of getting its political appointees in place at the State Department, followed the same position in the November 2009 session—meaning no change in the Bush regressive policy on the international recognition of indigenous rights.

Recruit Native American contributions to the U.S. Peace Corps

The State Department should encourage the Peace Corps to develop and implement a specific program dedicated to indigenous communities, particularly in Latin America, where fully 10 percent of the region’s more than 400 million people are indigenous. The program, which would have as its priority the recruitment of U.S. Indians, could offer culturally-sensitive direct training (possibly in conjunction with the Foreign Service Institute), education and development. Over time, the program could also help expand the number of those familiar with tribal and indigenous issues within the foreign policy and security establishments.

An important though truncated precedent to this recommendation was established in 1967, when a select group of American Indian young adults were trained for service in Latin America. The effort, called “Project Peace Pipe,” was a joint effort by the Peace Corps, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity, and the University of Oklahoma. In part, the effort was designed to desegregate the Peace Corps, which was developing a “WASP” image and was yet to recruit blacks, Hispanics and other minorities as well. Indian selectees were offered special consideration in both the recruitment process and in the training regime. “The value of the Peace Pipe Project,” wrote one observer, although it was a limited initiative, “was that native peoples in other countries were more likely to trust the advice of another indigenous person than they were a white official.” [13]

More recently, the Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois has served as the pilot site for the first official higher education Peace Corps Preparatory Program, with candidates required beginning in the spring of 2010 to take a seminar on international service. As part of the preparatory effort, Knox offers its students several classes relating to indigenous peoples, including “Indigenous Peoples of Latin America,” “Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America,” and “Language and Culture,” among others. The program suggests that a foundation for a robust recruitment of Native American volunteers—with the unique synergies that would entail—already exists, if the political decision is made to go forward.[14]

Support cultural property protection abroad by means of focusing greater attention on American leadership, including that of the U.S. military, on this issue

Special insight into the potential fruits of effective sovereignty, potentially an important lesson in many parts of the world, comes with the fact that today, more Native Americans proportionally serve in the U.S. armed forces ( 2.1 percent of the active-duty military) than any other ethnic group, a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the Republic.[15] What is lesser known, and only imperfectly understood, is the role played by the U.S. Department of Defense in the protection of cultural properties both at home and abroad, the latter in cooperation with the State Department. Proactive cultural resources stewardship is an increasing part of the mission of U.S. armed forces, and one in which the DoD has for more than a decade moved into a “period of openness and consultation” with American Indians, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians, who have for many years engaged in conversations and negotiations with the military over the identification and protection of those places where native peoples have lived that are currently held by the U.S. military.

Writing at the end of the 20th century, the late Native American author Vine Deloria, Jr., and anthropologist Richard Stoffle noted that “Native Americans, both as citizens and members of dependent nations within the United States and has original occupants of lands that are currently held by the DoD, have a special cultural relationship with these military lands. Traditional, aboriginal, and historical cultural ties to places, objects, and activities are the foundation of this special relationship.” In an explanation of the views of U.S. tribes that is also of significance for indigenous peoples in other areas of the world, Deloria and Stoffle added:

Native Americans are attached to the land in some ways that others can easily understand, but also in other ways that are almost impossible to explain. The Christian-Islamic-Hebrew concept called holy land perhaps best describes where the Indian people perceive they were created. Here in their holy lands are origin mountains where the supernatural created them and gave them responsibilities for using and protecting the land. Here also are places of great religious significance to al Native ethnic group members; places best described by the Christian-Islamic-Hebrew term sacred site. However, Native Americans have places that they consider powerful or religiously significant, such as where a mythic being spent one night or where lightening struck the earth. Such places lack cognates in European and Mid-Eastern religions, making it more difficult to explain to non-Native Americans that such places are truly sacred and worthy of protection and reverence by everyone.[16]

In March 2009, the U.S. ratified the 55-year-old Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Not only does the Army Field Manual on Stability Operations include among “essential stability tasks” the requirement to “protect and secure places of religious worship and cultural sites,” and to “protect and secure strategically important institutions (such as government buildings; medical and public health infrastructure; … museums; and religious sites.” Section 402 of the National Historic Preservation Act indicates that the United States is responsible for cultural resources stewardship, by government representatives as well as contractors, everywhere the U.S. is in a position of command responsibility. Taking the lead among American military theater commands, the U.S. Central Command has given special responsibility to its Historical/Cultural Advisory Group for devising actions to mitigate cultural property damage, including Air Force No Strike Lists and archaeological and cultural resource mapping. Furthermore, US-trained foreign students from countries facing contentious issues of indigenous rights are using concepts learned from laws such as the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to confront situations of potential conflict at home.[17]

Create an international scholarship program with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).

Since 1977, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society has sought to substantially increase the representation of American Indian and Alaskan Natives in engineering, science and other related technology disciplines. As a result of the educational opportunities received as a result of their affiliation with AISES, young indigenous peoples are able, in the words of the organization, to “create dynamic cohesion between indigenous ways of knowing and the evolving technological challenges of today’s world. … These challenges are multifaceted and complex, including harnessing sustainable energy, ensuring supplies of clean water, balancing the needs of an ever-complex world with the mandates of environmental stewardship, dealing with health challenges, and making the best of technological innovations.” Like the Fulbright Scholarship Program, which awards some 7,500 new grants annually and operates in more than 155 countries, a similar if smaller effort might be sponsored by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. [18]


Latin America Specific Recommendations:

As is the case with Native Americans in the United States, for the 40 million indigenous citizens of Mexico and Central and South America the possession of commonly held ancestral land goes beyond mere economic survival—although it also serves tens of millions for that purpose as well. The ability to govern themselves, to establish and maintain group rights and territorial control of lands that form part of their cultural inheritance, to empower themselves through education and to protect their languages and cultures, means that as a people they can also hope to survive in a way that allows them to pass their ethnic identity as well as their traditions to their children. The increased political mobilizations of indigenous peoples in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico in the 1970s can all be traced to increases in outside pressure on native peoples’ lands. Since that time, the number of countries facing similar challenges has grown, from Guatemala south, on both sides of the Andes and down the Cordillera to Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city on Earth.

Although some regional governments view the activism of indigenous peoples in those the so-called “ungoverned” areas as real or potential threats to national sovereignty, just as surely those risks are exacerbated by the failure of those same nation-states to consider solutions that allow Native American communities to survive as nations within those nation-states. Those concerned about human rights, regional security, and environmental protection can find in the subject of indigenous rights common interests and, potentially, common cause throughout the hemisphere. By juxtaposing a map of where most indigenous peoples live in the Americas, with diagrams of the region’s most vulnerable so-called “ungoverned areas” and what is left of the hemisphere’s pristine natural inheritance many cases the last remote forests, savannas, mountains and wetlands of Latin America, are facing a ruthless onslaught by multinational corporations, lawless cattle ranchers, cash-hungry loggers and landless peasants.

In a region in which the failure to protect property rights looms as an Achilles’ heal for democratic governance and economic growth, securing legal protection for Indian lands is the greatest challenge faced by native peoples as they seek to preserve their own ways of life, and the ecosystems that sustain them. A systematic effort is needed to encourage indigenous peoples living in fragile environments to protect their resources, and to help them—by protecting their land and resource base— sustain their time-honored resource management methods that are suddenly seemingly more relevant in a globally warming world.

Because of the United States’ historic and special relationship with the countries and peoples of Latin America, a couple recommendations are offered here to help promote a necessary and largely missing dialogue between the world’s oldest democracy and the descendents of the first peoples of the region.

These include:

Focusing on indigenous women and gender violence

Domestic violence and sexual assault against Indian women by non-Indians remains at near epidemic proportions in many parts of Latin America, a problem exacerbated by flawed justice systems and social and racial prejudices. Historically, high rates of violence against Native women have no roots in the traditional cultures of Indian nations. Indian women often had greater authority than men over the home, in activities associated with trade, and in the holding of property. Greater international attention on gender violence against indigenous women is needed, and attention by the State Department would allow greater possibilities for partnership with UNESCO, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and the OAS Inter-American Commission of Women as they seek to establish remedies.

The Department should also seek coordination with the White House policy advisor on Native Americans and other Federal government agencies to ensure the United States leads by example. Citing “the horrible problem of violence against Native women in (U.S.) Indian country, the Indian Law Resource Center offered “staggering” statistics: “one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime; four in five women will be violently assaulted; and six in ten experience domestic abuse. Sadly, the majority of these women never see their abusers or rapists brought to justice. The complex jurisdictional scheme in Indian country leaves Native women without effective judicial recourse against their perpetrators.” In August 2008, the State Department took an important step in that direction by announcing, in its first-ever participation in a Universal Periodic Report—a unique process that reviews every four years the human rights records of all 192 U.N. member-states—that “Addressing crimes involving violence against women and children on tribal lands is a priority” of the Obama Administration. [19]

Issuing a proactive statement on property rights and rule of law

Leading development theorist Hernan de Soto points out that respect for property is fundamental for the creation and sustenance of a free market system, an attribute that is short supply throughout much of Latin America and particularly so with regards to indigenous peoples’ claim to ownership of ancestral lands held in common tenancy. Danish development expert Søren Hvalkof and others suggest that critical land reform that recognizes communal tenure requires a strong central government “with well functioning and attendant institutions, and certainly not its withdrawal and substitution with the moral indifference of savage market mechanisms.”[20]

The Department should promote in multilateral forums the leveraging of the expertise of those, such as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who can help to resolve land claims by Latin America’s indigenous peoples, while explicitly acknowledging the challenges posed by indigenous territorial concepts, patrimony, beliefs, and languages. The U.S. declaration should also publicly recognize the importance of indigenous peoples’ customs and values, and how this interrelates with their cultural, historical and spiritual relationship to the land. A report on progress on this important issue should be published on October 12 each year.

Special attention should be paid in the discussion of land issues to the victory of Nicaragua’s Awas Tingni community at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), in August 31, 2001. The finding came after a sustained campaign by indigenous leaders and their local and international NGO allies. The alliance between a historically oppressed people, multilateral institutions and pro bono publico international organizations allowed highly contentious issue to be solved using international law and peaceful means of redress.


Indigenous rights have become a primary battleground in the global struggle for human rights, environmental protection and democracy in the twenty-first century. Strategies for the full inclusion of indigenous peoples in the modern world on their own terms are essential if the stated goals of U.S. foreign policy are to be obtained. The U.S. government appears slowly to be coming to that realization, but time grows short in an uncertain and turbulent world. Focusing on the strengths, and the challenges, of the U.S. model of relations with its Native American citizens, and consulting with them, offers an important point of departure for policymakers interested in engaging indigenous peoples from around the world in a respectful and productive dialogue. In doing so, it is important to remember that the response to the challenges posed by the least represented and most imperiled ten percent of our planet’s population will do much to determine the quality and indeed the viability of tomorrow’s world.

About the Author

Martin Edwin Andersen, vice president of the Midwest Association of Latin American Studies, is the author of Peoples of the Earth; Ethnonationalism, Democracy and the Indigenous Challenge in ‘Latin’ America (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010) and the staff author of the 1992 Cranston Amendment requiring coverage of the rights of indigenous peoples be included in the annual State Department country reports on human rights. An earlier version of this paper served as the basis for a discussion draft at the State Department for possible structural changes in U.S. approaches to indigenous issues.


1. Tullberg, “Securing Human Rights of American Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples Under International Law,” in Bringing Human Rights Home, Volume 3, Portraits of the Movement, ed., Cynthia Soohoo, Catherine Albisa, and Martha F. Davis. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008, p. 87.

2. The definition by Martinez Cobo can be found online on the Web site of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, at: http://www.iwgia.org/sw310.asp.

3. The categories come from Peter H. Smith, Argentina and the Failure of Democracy, Conflict among Political Elites, 1904-1955, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974, p. 89.

4. Montalvo and Reynal-Querol, “Ethnic Polarization, Potential Conflict, and Civil Wars,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 95, No. 3 (June, 2005), pp. 796-797.

5. Barry Scott Zellen, “Cold Front: Hillary,Ottawa, and the Inuit: A Year after the Inuit Re-Assert their Sovereignty, Washington Takes Their Side,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 12, Issue 3, Spring 2010; David Ljunggren, “Clinton Rebuke Overshadows Canada’s Arctic Meeting,” Reuters, March 29, 2010; Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/2010/140600.htm; “Consultation and Meeting on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” on Indian Law Resource Center Web site,  http://www.indianlaw.org/en/node/565.

6. Martin Edwin Andersen, “Chiapas, Indigenous Rights, and the Coming Fourth World Revolution,” SAIS Review, Summer-Fall 1994, p. 156; Tullberg, op. cit., pp. 76, 79-81.

7. Martin Edwin Andersen, “Native American rights: State targets indigenous people,” The Washington Times, November 25, 1999; the author was the U.S. Justice Department consultant who designed the concept of using the Bolivian Popular Participation Law as a way of creating the rural police force and was privy to the debate within the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. In a 1995 conversation with the author, the then U.S. Ambassador to the OAS airily asked, what the example of “a bunch of drunken Indians in Gallup,” New Mexico had to offer anyone; “Bolivian Indigenous for Community Courts,” Prensa Latina (Cuba), March 8, 2007; Edwin Conde Villarreal, “Nativos de la tribu Choctaw de EEUU comparten su tradición,” Cambio, August 31, 2010.

8. Tullberg, op. cit., pp. 76, 79-81.

9. Amb. Jorge Skinner-Klee, quoted in Josh Nelson, “U.N. Ambassadors experience Meskwaki culture,” WFCCourier.com, October 16, 2007.

10. See Tullberg, op. cit., and the important work of Robert J. Miller, Jacinta Ruru, Larissa Behrendt, and Tracey Lindberg, Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

11. Martin Edwin Andersen, “Thankful for renewed rights; Native Nicaraguans needed protection,” The Washington Times, November 22, 2001.

12. Government Accountability Project, “Report Identifies Racial Inequality in IDB Projects and Employment,” October 28, 2009.

13. LaDonna Harris and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe. Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty,” Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7, No. 2, January 1968; Answers.com, “LaDonna Harris, Biography,” http://answers.com/topic/ladonna-harris ; the author would like to thank Dr. Bruce Bagley Chair of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami and a former Peace Corp volunteer, for bringing this precedent to his attention.

14. Knox College Peace Corps Preparatory Program, http://www.knox.edu/Academics/Courses-of-Study/Peace-Corps-Program.html; Knox College Peace Corps Course List, http://www.knox.edu/Academics/Courses-of-study/Peace-Corps-program/Course-List.html.

15. “Warriors honored on powwow poster,” Targeted News Service, July 11, 2006; “Gainey celebrates American Indian Heritage, Military Diversity,” American Forces Press Service, November 1, 2006.

16. Vine Deloria, Jr. and Richard W. Stoffle, “Native American Sacred Sites and the Department of Defense,” A Report Sponsored by the Legacy Resource Management Program, United States National Park Service and submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense, June 1998, Chapter One “Introduction.”

17. Interview with Col. Michael F. Welch, USAF, Vice Director, Sub-secretariat for Administration and Conference Support/Military and Defense Advisor, Inter-American Defense Board, Organization of American States.

18. For more information, see http://www.aises.org/.

19. Indian Law Resource Center, “U.S. Admits Violence Against Native Women is a Human Rights Issue,” September 7, 2010 @ http://indianlaw.org/en/node/584; see also the ILRC Safe Women, Strong Nation Web page at www.indianlaw.org/en/safewomen.

20. Hvalkof, “Privatization of Land and Indigenous Communities in Latin America: Tenure Security or Social Security,” Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) Working Paper No. 2008/21, p. 19.



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