Indigenous Diversities: Each Nation Is Different

UN Photo/Yubi Hoffmann - Participants at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, held at the UN Headquarters in September.

Indigenous Diversities: Each Nation Is Different

Indigenous nations are extremely diverse in terms of languages, lands, governments, cultures, races, and nowadays even rural and urban residence. The diversity of Indigenous Peoples is a central heritage inherited from the time when all human peoples were diverse and tribal. The diversity of human cultures is an indication of the possible prospects and ways in which humans can live and prosper. Just as Indigenous Peoples continue to express diverse cultures and histories, that diversity is magnified by the contemporary world of nation states and national cultures, which usually are trying to transform and assimilate Indigenous Peoples into mainstream institutions, cultures, languages and government organizations.

The contemporary efforts of nationalization and assimilation are new sources of change and continued diversity for Indigenous Peoples. If indigenous nations maintain the right and capabilities to preserve their cultures, governments, and territories, the result will be extremely diverse ways in which Indigenous Peoples adapt to contemporary markets, governments, and land regimes.

Indigenous Peoples, no doubt, will continue to struggle to preserve their governments, lands, and cultures. Even under changing world conditions, left to their own devices, Indigenous Peoples will make specific and diverse accommodations to modernity and national institutions. The autonomy of Indigenous Peoples is not necessarily a rejection of nation states and their national cultures, but rather a preference to uphold their political, land, and cultural ways, and carry them into the future.

The extreme diversity and specific autonomy of Indigenous Peoples does not mean that one cannot understand their goals, values, trends, interests, or perspectives. While Indigenous Peoples are extremely diverse in many ways, they have some common causes. Most indigenous groups share common understandings that they as a people have access to land, have a form of self-government, and want to preserve important parts of their culture and worldviews. In many ways, the international Indigenous Peoples movement over the past 50 years or more, reflects the common interests of preserving a variety of indigenous rights including land, self-government, and culture.

Indigeneity is not expressed as a common identity, culture, or government. There is no common indigenous identity, culture, or government. Indigenous Peoples want to express their own specific cultures and identities. There is no common indigenous identity, there are a large number of indigenous identities. The common cause that unites contemporary Indigenous Peoples at the international level is the result of similar threats from nation states that do not fully recognize indigenous claims to land, self-government, culture, and other indigenous rights. There is a common threat, but each indigenous nation defends specific cultures, lands, history, and forms of self-government, that are autonomous to the full range of other Indigenous Peoples. There is not one common indigenous government, but rather the struggle to uphold many diverse indigenous nations.

How can we understand or even speak about Indigenous Peoples and uphold and respect their diversity and autonomy? Understanding and developing relations with Indigenous Peoples comes from listening and respecting what Indigenous Peoples say about themselves, about what they say about who they are, and what they want. It means taking seriously their claims to specific cultures, identities, self-government, interests, and values. Such understanding can take place through deep appreciation of specific indigenous histories, cultures, worldviews, and their contemporary expressions of adapting to contemporary government, law, cultures, and communities.

This complexity should not be shirked as too specialized or impossible, but rather as an appreciation of the continued cultural and political diversity of the human experience. Indigenous nations are best understood from their own perspective. The great diversity of change and tradition that is the contemporary experience of indigenous nations should indicate that common ground is not necessarily easy or forthcoming. However, an indigenous pathway to balanced and reciprocal relations is through mutual respect for the cultural differences of each human nation, nowadays including modernizing nation states.

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