Historical Background for the Decolonization of Indigenous People

Indigenous peoples have always been differentiated from the majority of people in all of the common societies. The number of individuals who are a part of an indigenous people is approximately 370 million and they are citizens of various countries, the number of which is about 70. Even though these peoples live within the boundaries of a certain country, they usually maintain their own culture as well as a system of beliefs and values. Indigenous peoples are holders of unique languages, systems of knowledge and beliefs and most importantly, they possess invaluable knowledge about practices for sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special approach to utilizing their land resources. Indigenous peoples possess their own diverse concepts of development, based on their traditional values, visions, needs, and priorities. The main historical conflict was one of priority, and it has existed since the first encounter between white people and indigenous ones. White people exercised the belief of being better and worthier on many occasions in history and on the territories of many modern countries. However, under the circumstances of facing global ecological collapse which has never before been a real threat, humanity is in need of a sacred knowledge that was produced by indigenous science along with the latest achievements of the globalized culture. Thus, nowadays the life of indigenous people changes under the circumstances of decolonization, which was caused by the long chain of injustices and really poor treatment throughout the period of their co-existence with the white people.  

The first essential point is to understand the influence that the local conditions had on the indigenous peoples. The next point lies in changing the attitude towards these peoples. Effective cooperation between the two massive systems is essential for the planet’s sustainability. 


Environmental Justice and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a definition for the concept of indigenous people. 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.

The system of beliefs which concerns indigenous people is well represented in the book Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future by Melissa Nelson. The stories collected in the book cover the real situations taking place as a result of an opposition between the indigenous peoples and the prevailing society. The concepts that this book sheds light on are constructed on two primary beliefs. Indigenous people believe that in spite of all the losses, suffering and disrespect, people should remain thankful for everything that surrounds them and should be able to fully enjoy their lives under any circumstances. For indigenous people, their surroundings are the most important part of the world. Priscilla Settee in Melissa Nelson’s book represents the same idea by saying, “They have developed the harmonious existence with their surroundings, which is based on a respect, dependence, and spiritual relationship with nature.” Even though the indigenous people seem to have obtained the original knowledge for uniting with the nature, the impact of colonization and further assimilation as well as the resultant extreme poverty manifested itself in the change of preferences and “Prioritizing casinos and resorts to traditional agriculture and sustainable land use.” 

The colonization by Europeans had a wide range of harmful effects, some of which were the atrocities that might be considered ethnic cleanses. Such crimes led to emergence of many health problems, particularly diabetes and, in most cases, depression. One of the characteristic features of Native Americans is that they recall the traditions of their ancestors and try to recreate them. The prevalent belief that food and water can serve as medicine leads to the fact that, “Native Americans in partnership with food movements are changing the ways they think of, grow, eat, and celebrate food.” 

Relationships with food are quite different in comparison to the way white people relate to food. Watching the talk Reclaiming the Honorable Harvest: Indigenous Knowledge for a Sustainable Future by Robin Kimmerer provides an understanding of the traditional ways in which indigenous people approach their environment and harvest. It conveys some valuable data about understanding a people’s relationship to the living earth. This botanist admits the need for combining wisdom of traditional ecological knowledge with the latest results of western science in order to address common concerns for planet’s sustainability. In this video, the representor emphasizes the role of natural world and claims, that “The natural world is the source of gifts, not commodities.” By pondering on the meaning of the “Question of what is our responsibility in return for the gifts of the Earth”, she considers the necessity to comprehend the importance of people’s everyday relationship with the living world. 

The concept of food and the relation to it is quite of a great importance, but the point of environmental changes is essential as well. As a lot of the areas of the biggest biological diversity on Earth are inhabited by indigenous peoples, it becomes a question of great concern. This concern regards, first of all, indigenous peoples, as nature is often the very the basis of their existence in many areas around the world. A clear border between the indigenous peoples and the conquerors has been created as a result of colonization. The data provided in Post 2015 Development Process: Environmental Sustainability is of great importance, “While indigenous peoples constitute approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, they make up 15 percent of the world’s poor and one third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people.” It is often the case that indigenous people heavily rely on access to natural resources. This condition affects them to a greater degree in comparison with other cultures regarding the changes in the natural environment. The increasing scarcity of resources attracts attention to the situation regarding their right to land, territories and resources and to their self-determined development. These changing factors are said to “Eventually undermine their cultural practices, traditional knowledge and social cohesion and deprive indigenous peoples of their rights to natural resources.”

The natural laws and natural law doctrines have existed since ancient times and are by no means exclusive to the indigenous peoples’ societies. In her book Environmental Justice and the Rights of Indigenous People, Laura Westra presented the historical chain of their appearance and existence on different territories. The representation of the concept of nature from ancient philosophy through the Middle Ages is accompanied by a strong author’s belief that for emergence of effective laws which could protect both people and the environment that they live in, a reconsideration of the doctrine of natural law is essential. The author states, “Natural law is able to provide the starting point for a comprehensive and non-partisan understanding of human rights, imperative in our complex and changing world.” 

Possible ways of linking the environmental, economic and social dimensions of a sustainable type of development were discussed and constructed at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. Representatives of different backgrounds, indigenous people among others, worked together towards a resolution. This is an example that demonstrates the fact that consequences of colonization can be overcome only by a complete and thorough cooperation. The targets set at the conference included a proposition to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples’ to their lands, territories and resources as well as a right to self-determination. As a great step in understanding between two formations of people it was concluded the sovereign countries had to get acquainted and learn to percept and validate indigenous peoples’ world views, which effectively are knowledge systems, technologies, innovations and practices, customary institutions and styles of governance as well as lands and resources. States were proclaimed as enforceable safeguards of these points. The discussion also concerned the secure land tenure rights. Recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to land and resources is not only a question of morality; it is the natural state of affairs which was just failed by the ancestors. The policy environment for cooperation between the governments is a step which should be taken in order to provide the equality of rights in different sectors of a society. The principles of human rights and social justice are the spheres where much work is still to be done. People legal and policy changes can help to achieve and satisfy the needs, aspirations and uphold of the indigenous. Documenting and sharing the best practices and lessons learned from the community-based sustainable development and conservation projects are one of the best ways to reach an agreement and to understand the main points of changes. 

International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), the source of above mentioned data, is one of the numerous organizations that exist nowadays with a goal of supporting the work carried out by local organizations of indigenous people to decrease further land loss and to attempt to reclaim the illegally taken land. The aim of the activities organized and supervised by this group is to raise community awareness and mobilize the issues of land rights, land registration and land mapping. The litigation and court cases are within their zone of responsibility as well.

Indigenous peoples have always strived to be recognized as collective members, but not to be distinguished as a separate group. The most significant achievement in the indigenous peoples’ struggle is the acceptance of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. that the introduction of this declaration states that “The thirteenth of September 2007 will be remembered as a day when the United Nations and its Member States, together with Indigenous Peoples, reconciled with past painful histories and decided to march into the future on the path of human rights.”

The 46 articles of the document consider all the significant points which could include the popular complaints in the past. The rights and their detailed descriptions ensure that the indigenous people have an equal range of available services provided by the society. This is a significant milestone, as indigenous peoples often have much in common with other neglected and marginalized segments or groups of societies, or are considered to be minorities without political representation and participation, but with economic marginalization and poverty. They have always strived for recognition of their specific identities, acceptance of their ways of life as equal and respectful and their right to the land, territories and natural resources. One of the most concerning problems is the apparent lack of access to social services. The example with women in Ethiopia, provided by Bogaletch Gebre in Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future, reflects the state of affairs regarding the provision of medical services. “Only when things go terribly wrong – during labor to give birth to a healthy baby unable to break through the scarring caused by excision – do they seek help.” 

Historical background for all of the events concerning the relationship between the white people and the indigenous peoples refers to the Christianity. The book by Steven Newcomb discusses such predispositions and factors, where the author explains the roots of such treatment of the indigenous peoples. The history of the two groups of interests’ co-existence was ripe with cases of genocide and oppression. The very first steps in this co-existence are characterized by severe violence from the Westerners. The Portuguese had absolute support of the Christian church, as the following makes clear, “You are given the right to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, and put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.” This document gave the permission from Pope Nicholas V to the royal family in Portugal. The case of Johnson v. M’intosh represented in Pagans in the Promised Land by Steven Newcomb, establishes the division of nations into the categories of “civilized” and “uncivilized”, which was still common even a couple of centuries later. The ideas of that time concluded that only the Christian Europeans were civilized and were thus allowed to enjoy absolute independence. As the main question of the case was regarding the rights of the Indians for their land, the mentioned division into two groups was used as a justification for taking these rights from the indigenous peoples. 

Nowadays there are many organizations with a purpose of protecting the rights of the indigenous people. However, the main organization remains the United Nations. The main modern achievements of the UN are well represented in State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It is said that the United Nations has produced “A new awareness of indigenous peoples’ concerns and human rights, an awareness of the need to address the issues through policies, legislation and budgets, and has produced the recognition of indigenous people’s invaluable contribution to humanity’s cultural diversity and heritage, nor least through their traditional knowledge.” The indigenous movement has become really active since 1945 and serves as a proof for the changing situation regarding of the remaining effects of colonization. The historical period that has started at approximately that point was called the era of decolonization. The number of issues under discussion and evaluation ranges from broken treaties and loss of land to discrimination, marginalization, conflict and gross violations of human rights, including massacres.

As it has already been stated, currently there are movements many countries all over the world for the rights of indigenous peoples. In her article, Jessica Murphy analyzes the news from Canada’s government. It launched a national inquiry regarding murder and disappearance of hundreds of indigenous women throughout the country. The meeting was held by the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The government promised the start of absolutely new country’s relationship and policy towards the indigenous peoples. The process began because of more than 1,200 cases of murder of indigenous women in Canada. This situation has been neglected for about thirty years. The fact represented in the article is that “Indigenous women make up just 4% of Canada’s female population but 16% of all women murdered in the country.” As one of the first steps of the renewed policy should be an online component with background information. This source will provide the survey and enable discussion guide accessible to all Canadians. Trudeau established many great promises on the Aboriginal file concerning issues starting from water and housing to education, funding and infrastructure. The new government addressed issues like rampant poverty and homelessness as the key reasons to make aboriginal women more vulnerable to deadly violence.

The situation with discrimination of women and violence towards them is well described in For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook, where authors included evidence for the women of Tla-o-qui-aht and Checlesaht internalized oppression and sexualized violence. These remaining features are the reflections of past colonization habits and cannot be eradicated or at least knocked out up to our days. 

Thus, nowadays the process of decolonization is in full swing on the territories of various countries. The process cannot be performed in one day or even a year, as the effects of colonization and further attitudes of the people have accumulated during several previous centuries. The definition of decolonization is accurately presented in the book called For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook. It proposes to define decolonization as “the meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands.” Although in comparison with the previous centuries people are more aware of equality and human rights, the same for all the people around the world, there still remain many controversies and nonsatisfaction. In For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook the readers are introduced with the belief of the speaker that many leaders launch bureaucratized processes the only objective of which is “undermine indigenous peoples’ traditional governance capacities and responsibilities.” The British Columbia Treaty Process is under discussion here. 

Hence, as a result of the research, it became evident that the effects of colonization that have manifested themselves with interference of the Europeans into indigenous peoples’ territories are still topical even today. Their character is quite violent and abusive. Considering the dangerous position that people find themselves in with regards to the ecological problems, knowledge of the indigenous people is required for cooperation with the Western latest achievements. Therefore, the process of decolonization and providing the equality of human rights is in progress nowadays. The speed and quality of these changes are very often controversial and non-satisfactory as there still remain people and societies with the views of priority of particular races. These views appeared on the basis of the great amount of historical events which were discussed above and can be eradicated with time and gradual though steady approach. 


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