Toward Sustainable Self-Determination: Rethinking the Contemporary Indigenous-Rights Discourse

By Corntassel, Jeff | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, January-March 2008 | Go to article overview

Toward Sustainable Self-Determination: Rethinking the Contemporary Indigenous-Rights Discourse


Corntassel, Jeff, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


  It is still true that the first part of self-determination is the
  self. In our minds and in our souls, we need to reject the colonists'
  control and authority, their definition of who we are and what our
  rights are, their definition of what is worthwhile and how one should
  live, their hypocritical and pacifying moralities. We need to rebel
  against what they want us to become, start remembering the qualities
  of our ancestors and act on those remembrances. This is the kind of
  spiritual revolution that will ensure our survival.
  --Taiaiake Alfred, 2005

How is self-determination being framed in the contemporary indigenous-rights discourse? And to what degree are indigenous peoples asserting visions of self-determination on their own terms in order to "start remembering the qualities of our ancestors and act on those remembrances"? The 1999 Nisga'a Final Agreement, which is part of the British Columbia Treaty Process (BCTC) and represents federal and provincial governmental efforts to permanently resolve indigenous land claims in Canada, provides some important insights into the current realities of indigenous self-determination movements in Canada and around the world. According to the comprehensive analysis of the BCTC made by Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk) scholar Taiaiake Alfred, whose words provide the epigraph to this article, (1) the $190 million paid to the Nisga'a tribal council, coupled with surrender of their tax exemption status under the Indian Act and the dire prospects for future economic growth in the Nass Valley, makes it "difficult to see how the Nisga'a people will find the money to survive as a nation." (2)

As Alfred points out, "Most likely, Nisga'a people will find themselves having to sell off land, mineral, fish and timber rights to fund their government and social programs." (3) Political scientist Jim Tully provides a similar assessment:

  As far as I am aware, this is the first time in the history of Great
  Turtle Island that an indigenous people, or at least 61 percent of its
  eligible voters, has voluntarily surrendered their rights as
  indigenous peoples, not to mention surrendering over 90 percent of
  their territory, and accepted their status as a distinctive minority
  with group rights within Canada. This appears to be the first success
  of strategies of extinguishment (release) and incorporation by
  agreement. (4)

Unfortunately, the land-settlement strategies employed by Canada extinguish original indigenous title to their territories and force community members to accept monetary payouts for their unrecovered land. In this case, the Nisga'a final agreement left 92 percent of their original homelands to Canada and put the community at risk by leading them into an unsustainable future under the banner of "self-government." As with the Nisga'a agreement, states tend to narrowly frame self-determination by focusing on state political/legal recognition of indigenous peoples as self-governing entities while diverting energies away from more substantive discussions regarding the reclamation of indigenous territories, livelihoods, natural resources, and the regeneration of community languages and culturally based practices.

As the above example demonstrates, the rights discourse can take indigenous peoples only so far. Over the past thirty years, indigenous self-determination claims have been framed by states and global organizations in four distinct ways that jeopardize the futures of indigenous communities. First, the rights-based discourse has resulted in the compartmentalization of indigenous powers of self-determination by separating questions of homelands and natural resources from those of political/legal recognition of a limited indigenous autonomy within the existing framework of the host state(s). (5) This was evident from the above-referenced Nisga'a Final Agreement, which provided a political/legal basis for limited autonomy but neglected to address interrelated issues of regenerating sustainable livelihoods, food security, and renewal of community relationships with the natural world. …

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