During the fossil-fueled extravaganza after World War II, Indian tribes in the United States were still recovering from the traumas of colonization; coerced displacement, religious conversion, and the brutal abuse of their children in state-supported, church-run Indian boarding schools was still contributing to their social, cultural and political dysfunction. Not until the 1970s did tribal communities and Indian nations across America recover sufficiently from their ordeals to begin to assert themselves in reclaiming their identities as indigenous peoples and dignity as human beings.
By the 1990s, the concept of applying the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights to indigenous peoples began to take hold. Still, it would take until September 2007 before international law would extend human rights to indigenous nations. Even then, four members of the UN opposed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Not until 2010 would the US grudgingly and partially endorse the principles of UNDRIP.
Today, as modern states and indigenous nations engage in conflict and negotiation over the implementation of indigenous human rights, many states pay these rights lip service while neglecting to observe them in practice. Witness the hundreds of confrontations worldwide where indigenous peoples’ properties and resources are trampled on by insatiable corporations and corrupted states. Even the UN itself — in the form of its conferences on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development — excludes and marginalizes indigenous governing authorities, relegating indigenous delegates to the status of powerless observers.
With the resurgence of fossil-fueled extravagance and the reemergence of indigenous nations challenging the power of the state on all continents, civil society has found a new role for itself in both defending democracy and honoring humanity. With the recovered memory of the malign neglect of indigenous peoples by institutions and markets over the five centuries of European colonies and successor states in the Americas, human rights activists have both an opportunity and an obligation to force their dominant societies to make amends. Pretending we can have meaningful reconciliation without cultural restoration is just wishful thinking.
Conditioning the extension of human rights to indigenous peoples on their acceptance of assimilation into European forms of governance, religion and economics is moral fraud. Asking indigenous nations to forfeit their rights to self-determination, cultural preservation and religious freedom as the terms of their right to exist is perhaps the worst form of self-serving hypocrisy invented by a racially discriminating society. But then, what would you expect from a people whose entire social architecture was founded on genocide?