Preserving the Past, Providing a Future: Land Claims and Self-Rule

Article excerpt

The bond between indigenous people and their homelands is spiritual, economic and ancestral. The tribe is the communal trustee of the land for living members, as well as for past and future generations, but indigenous people often follow a land-based religion, believing that when their land is taken away, so is the spirit that gives them life. indeed, land is the lifeblood of traditional existence, providing indigenous people with their food, shelter and possessions.

But during a history plagued by foreign conquest, colonization and assimilation, masses of indigenous people have been forced off their ancestral lands or relegated to impoverished and subordinated lives if they remained, despite existing treaties enacted to protect their territorial rights.

In waging an ongoing struggle to secure or regain what they view as legally and historically theirs, indigenous communities have achieved incremental progress by resorting to the very legal tools that have let them down in the past.

Land claims have gathered particular momentum in Canada, with the recent signing of an agreement that will give ownership to some 40,000 Inuit (as Eskimos prefer to be known) and other indigenous tribes living near the Arctic of a vast expanse of wilderness and tundra. The new territory, called Nunavut, is to be established by the year 2000.

Pressing for land rights

In the United States, the Western Shoshone are pressing claims to several million acres taken from them by an act of Congress in 1863, and the Lakota Sioux have refused to accept more than $100 million in court-awarded compensation for the Black Hills, a sacred area expropriated by Congress in 1874 after gold was discovered there.

The High Court of Australia declared in 1992 that the traditional land rights of the Murray island people in the Torres Straits had not been extinguished by the arrival of the British in Australia, which set a completely new agenda for the national debate on indigenous rights.

Similarly, 500,000 native Ecuadorians successfully demonstrated for legal title to more than 2.5 million acres of Amazon land in 1990. Colombia has also begun to acknowledge the territorial rights of some 500,000 indigenous people, who inhabit nearly 2 5 per cent of the country's land area.

The rising tide of land claims put forth by indigenous communities has been matched by intensified efforts to secure greater autonomy and political power.

Although the great majority of the nearly 300 million indigenous and tribal peoples live in Asia and the Americas, progress towards indigenous self-rule has been led by the Nordic countries, where a strong liberal democratic tradition, coupled with effective political organization on the part of indigenous communities, has made self-rule and high levels of local autonomy a reality.

The Saami people of Finland were granted what some describe as an exceptional concession with the creation of a Saami Parliament in 1973, a move replicated for the Saami people of Norway in 1987.

Denmark passed a Home Rule Act in 1979, granting the local Inuit population of Greenland wide powers of self-government within a single State system, while maintaining the territorial and legal unity of Denmark. Although they cannot enter international treaties on their own, the Inuit of Greenland now have considerable legislative autonomy on a wide range of domestic issues.

Colonial treaties: A problem

In the developing world, a major problem area for tribal peoples is that of treaties promulgated during colonial rule. In the post-colonial era, many such agreements have been sidestepped, amplified or otherwise changed.

Many indigenous communities have had no choice but to place their grievances before the international community through the UN. Indigenous people base their claims for the right to self-rule on the fact that the principle of self-determination is mentioned in the UN Charter and included in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. …