Indigenous Peoples' Rights

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Date: 2019
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,883 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1330L

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Indigenous people are "first people," the ancestral inhabitants of a land before colonization or conquest by others, or those who have the earliest historical connection to a region. There are between three hundred million and five hundred million indigenous people worldwide; they live in almost every country of the world. Some live in remote areas in small hunter-gatherer groups, whereas others live in urban spaces. In most countries, indigenous people are minority populations with distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions. Many indigenous groups also have a distinct racial or ethnic heritage.

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Key Figures

  • Truganini (1812?–1876), Tasmanian Aboriginal woman
  • Pope Francis I (1936–), leader of the Catholic Church (2013–)
  • Jair Bolsonaro (1955–), President of Brazil (2019–)
  • Tony Abbott (1957–), Prime Minister of Australia (2013–2015)
  • Barack Obama (1961–), President of the United States (2009–2017)
  • Justin Trudeau (1971–), Prime Minister of Canada (2015–)

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Main Ideas

  • Indigenous people are the original inhabitants of a land or region or have the earliest historical connection with it. Many indigenous people have distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions, and they possess a unique ethnic heritage.
  • Over the past several centuries, colonialism produced lingering negative effects on indigenous communities when groups of people, not native to the land or region, settled and exerted control over the indigenous population.
  • Many indigenous peoples have been forced to acculturate or assimilate to the culture, values, religion, and language of their colonial conqueror. In many instances, this included the forced displacement of the indigenous population to a new location and a government-mandated indoctrination of school-aged children.
  • Indigenous peoples have struggled to reclaim the rights to their native lands and the natural resources located there. In many instances, indigenous groups have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to govern themselves.
  • Many indigenous groups view archaeological and cultural artifacts in museums as significant to their heritage and push for repatriation of those items. Also of major concern is the repatriation of indigenous human remains.
  • The United Nations Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples demands fair treatment of native peoples around the globe, promoting self-determination and an end to the harmful effects of colonialism.


During the era of exploration, developed nations sought natural resources and other riches that were not readily available in their own countries. As "new" continents were explored and brought into the colonial system, many indigenous peoples were displaced from their native lands and forced to assimilate, or acculturate, into their conquerors' culture. Those who resisted were subjected to practices that were designed to make them conform, including religious and cultural indoctrination, relocation, forced sterilization, and in the extreme, extinction.

There are countless examples of colonial powers that infringed on the rights of indigenous peoples. Many of those practices are still prevalent in the twenty-first century. Civil liberties and human rights organizations are working to change the ill treatment of indigenous peoples around the globe. In 2007, the United Nations (UN) issued the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which advocates that national governments grant indigenous people greater self-determination over their language, culture, and lands. The declaration reinforces the basic human rights that are enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), but provides that some special protections be granted to indigenous groups. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous people should have the right to maintain their own political, social, economic, legal, cultural, linguistic, and educational systems. However, they should not be excluded from any benefits of being a state or national citizen. The declaration also affirms that indigenous people maintain the rights to their traditional lands.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The difference between acculturation and assimilation is that acculturation is often the result of political or territorial conquest; assimilation occurs when one culture takes on the cultural and societal practices of another. In the case of most indigenous peoples, acculturation was the norm, but it was perceived as assimilation by those in power.

Australia has had a long fraught relationship with its Aboriginal population. Decades of violent clashes between indigenous Australian people and European settlers resulted in an estimated 80 percent reduction in the native population of Australia during the nineteenth century. The Australian colonial government embarked on a plan to assimilate the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into "mainstream" (white European) Australian culture. The assimilation policy, called the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1869, was built on the assumption that the indigenous communities would naturally prefer to adopt a European lifestyle. The policy regulated marriage, residence, and employment, and involved forced separation of children from their parents to be raised and educated in European fashion. Similar policies were also practiced in the United States and Canada with the indigenous cultures in North America.

In Australia, assimilation policies were gradually abandoned during the late 1970s in favor of greater recognition of the rights of Australia's native peoples to preserve their culture. In 2013, the Australian government recognized Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first to inhabit the country.

Canada's relationship with its First Nations population has included more than two centuries of similar treatment, including forced sterilization, medical experimentation, and separation of children from their families to attend residential schools—educational facilities that were established during the 1870s to board indigenous children and indoctrinate them into a Euro-Canadian lifestyle. The last residential school in Canada closed its doors in 1996.

In 2008, the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (1959–) officially apologized on behalf of the Canadian government for the harm that was caused to an estimated 150,000 native children forced into the residential school system. Harper established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to conduct a thorough investigation of the schools' records and hear testimony from former students to assess the damage caused to those who were forced to attend. Upon conclusion of its work in 2015, the TRC called what was done to the indigenous people "cultural genocide" or "ethnocide."

The relationship between the U.S. government and the many Native American tribes that exist or once existed within the country's borders has also been characterized by violence and cultural imperialism dating back to the eighteenth century. Like Canada, the United States fought its native population throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and adopted assimilationist policies as well. During the early twenty-first century, the U.S. government sought to engage Native American leadership on a "government to government" basis. In 2000, the U.S. president Bill Clinton (1946–) signed an executive order that recognized tribal sovereignty and self-government. In 2004, the U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–) recommitted the U.S. government to the same task. In 2009, the U.S. president Barack Obama (1961–) instituted the Tribal Nations Conference, an annual summit of tribal leaders and U.S. government officials that was designed to increase coordination of policies and programs.

Land Rights

Indigenous groups have raised issues about maintaining traditional lands and water rights and, in some cases, the right to govern themselves. Their demands, and the governmental response to them, differ throughout the world.

Indigenous peoples represent a large proportion of the population in South America; in Bolivia and Guatemala, they account for more than half of the population. In 1985, the Brazilian government set aside 12 percent of its land as reservations for its indigenous population; most of the indigenous land is in the Amazon Basin. However, Jair Bolsonaro (1955–) became president of Brazil on 1 January 2019. Shortly thereafter, he slashed the duties of the Fundaçao Nacional do Índio (Indigenous Affairs Protection Agency), leaving it without jurisdiction over indigenous lands. Critics believe Bolsonaro intends to develop the indigenous lands without consent of the people.

Well-organized protests by native groups have led to some important victories for indigenous peoples' rights during the early twenty-first century. For example, Brazil's Supreme Court ruled in 2009 on a decades-old land dispute between indigenous Amazonians and large farming concerns in northern Brazil. The court ruling put the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation under the legal control of its indigenous people.

In 2014, a group of Olkola Aboriginal people were awarded a native title claim to their native land on the Cape York peninsula in Queensland, Australia—an area that covers roughly 8,000 square kilometers (3,090 square miles). Until the Olkola resumed control of the land, it was used primarily for grazing cattle and mining bauxite. As a result, all future development in the region must be approved by the Olkola.

In the United States, the government reached a settlement in 2014 with the Navajo over mismanagement of resources on tribal lands. The dispute, which dated back more than fifty years, concerned millions of acres of tribal lands that were leased out for various purposes, including farming, mining, and oil production. The U.S. government agreed to pay the Navajo more than $500 million if the tribal leaders agreed to drop their lawsuits against it; this was the largest settlement ever granted to a Native American tribe.

In 2015, a federal court in Australia ruled in favor of the indigenous Barngarla people of South Australia in a massive land claim case dating back to 1996. The Barngarla had traditionally settled along the Eyre Peninsula, northwest of Adelaide. With the court's decision, the Barngarla now hold rights to about 4,050 square kilometers (1,560 square miles) of the peninsula, excluding the towns of Port Augusta and Port Lincoln. The claim does not establish ownership or prohibit future development of the land, but any group seeking development in the region will be required to negotiate with the Barngarla for the right to do so.

Not all indigenous land claims are awarded to the native peoples. In some cases, indigenous peoples' rights are not upheld, as in the case of the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. In 2011, Norte Energia, a nine-company consortium, won a bid from the Brazilian government to build a hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon River. The dam would provide electricity to twenty-three million homes. Several hundred protesters, including indigenous peoples and environmentalists, gathered outside the Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica (Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency) office in Brasilia to protest the decision because the dam would displace up to forty thousand indigenous people. Despite the protests, the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA; Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) gave its approval in January 2011 for the clearing of forests at the site of the planned dam.

Hundreds of indigenous Brazilians continued to protest. They even presented a petition that was signed by six hundred thousand people calling for the dam project to be abandoned. The matter was turned over to the judicial system; one court blocked the dam's construction, citing environmental concerns. A higher court overturned the ruling, removing another hurdle to the dam's construction. Brazil's foreign ministry rejected a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that work on the dam be halted. Eventually, IBAMA approved the dam project and construction began. The hydroelectric dam became operational in 2016; the powerhouse will be completed in 2020.

In the quest for fossil fuels, offshore drilling platforms, oil wells, pipelines, coal mines, crude oil tankers, and railroads checker the North American continent. Many of these facilities and transportation routes encroach on native lands in Canada and the United States. Overland pipelines have been a controversial subject for many years, causing people and communities to protest their development not only because they crisscross indigenous peoples' lands but also because of potential leaks or spills that could flood agricultural lands and/or seep into the groundwater that is essential to local communities.

The Dakota Access Pipeline became the focus of a fight over the rights of indigenous people in September 2016. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued to stop construction of the oil pipeline that was slated to extend nearly 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) from North Dakota to Illinois; the pipeline passes under a lake that is used by the tribe as a water source. An estimated fifteen thousand people from around the globe traveled to Standing Rock to unite in protest with the Sioux, including a group of U.S. veterans. In December 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant an easement to permit drilling under the Missouri River (including the lake at the center of the dispute); instead, the Corps would investigate alternate routes for the pipeline. However, that all changed in January 2017, when the incoming U.S. president Donald Trump (1946–) signed executive orders that revived the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines. The pipeline was completed in April and was operational by June.

In January 2019, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were called in to break up a protest and knock down a barricade in northwestern Canada. Members of the Wet'suwet'en, who have jurisdiction over their territorial lands in British Columbia, tried to stop TransCanada's Coastal GasLink crews from installing a natural gas pipeline on their land, which the hereditary chiefs prohibited. The matter went to the courts to be decided.

Repatriation of Artifacts

One central issue for many indigenous peoples is that artifacts left behind by their ancestors are often taken from traditional lands by nonindigenous people to be studied in universities or displayed at museums. Many nations, including Australia, Mexico, and the United States, have laws that provide for the repatriation (giving back) of indigenous and ancestral archaeological, burial, and cultural artifacts. However, these laws generally apply only to those artifacts that have been recently taken from indigenous lands or people. Several indigenous groups are demanding that museums release and repatriate many long-held items of cultural, religious, or personal value. Both American Indian and Australian Aboriginal groups advocate and petition for the release of curated indigenous human remains.

In one such case, Truganini (1812?–1876), who was believed to be one of the last Tasmanian Aboriginal people, pleaded with the colonial government that she be cremated and her ashes scattered after her death. She had witnessed how other Aboriginal people had been treated after death—their bodies were taken to hospitals and universities to be studied and dissected. Instead of granting her request, the government buried Truganini; two years later, her body was exhumed by the Royal Society of Tasmania and later displayed in the Tasmanian Museum until 1947. In 1976, one hundred years after her death, Truganini's wishes were granted—she was cremated. Her personal belongings—a necklace and other jewelry—have been repatriated to Tasmania from a museum in the United Kingdom.

Some indigenous groups, such as the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, assert they should have better means to protect their cultural symbols. Some groups have pushed for international laws or copyright schemes that restrict the use and appropriation of indigenous symbols and art.

Global Impact

Since the 2007 release of the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, civil and human rights groups have pushed for the fair treatment of indigenous peoples around the world. National governments are yielding their power over indigenous groups by giving them greater self-determination over their culture and traditions.

However, not all government leaders are amenable to the idea of autonomous indigenous peoples. In 2015, the Australian prime minister Tony Abbott (1957–) angered Aboriginal rights advocates by outlining plans to withdraw government subsidies from approximately 150 indigenous communities in Western Australia. Abbott explained his decision by stating, "What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have." Critics of Abbott's statement pointed out that living in traditional communities was not a simple "lifestyle choice" but a part of Aboriginal culture dating back forty thousand years—long before the arrival of Europeans. Furthermore, critics said, indigenous people were deliberately and often violently excluded from European settlement for decades.

In 2016, the Vatican issued a decree that approved the celebration of Mass in the indigenous language of Nahuatl during a trip by Pope Francis I (1936–) to Mexico. Nahuatl is a language used by people of Aztec descent. Francis celebrated Mass using Nahuatl and three other indigenous languages while visiting the state of Chiapas. During his visit, Francis asked for forgiveness from indigenous groups, acknowledging that they had been excluded and persecuted in the past.

Even after efforts have been made to protect the rights of indigenous people, the lingering harmful effects of colonialism remain. Although many struggle with land rights claims or repatriation of indigenous artifacts, others are plagued by acculturalization issues that stem from years of harassment, abuse, and insecurity.

In Ontario, Canada, the Attawapiskat First Nations community experienced a devastating rash of suicide attempts among its people in late 2015 and early 2016. The community, which has about two thousand citizens, experienced more than one hundred suicide attempts, with eleven in a single twenty-four-hour period. The Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (1971–) called the situation "heartbreaking," and the Attawapiskat chief declared a state of emergency for the community. The Attawapiskat community's remote location in northern Ontario, coupled with widespread poverty among First Nations people, was suspected to be a significant factor in the crisis.

In Brazil, many young Guarani men are also taking their own life. Older Guarani men are being gunned down by private militias that have been hired by farmers and ranchers who want Guarani land for planting crops or grazing cattle. Sociologists believe the young Guarani commit suicide because they believe they have no future.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CP3208520063