People Belong to the Land; Land Doesn’t Belong to the People

UNDRIP / The cover of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

People Belong to the Land; Land Doesn’t Belong to the People.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) does not recognize the right of indigenous nations to own land outside the laws and rules of national governments. According to international historical doctrines of discovery, Indigenous Peoples, non-Christian nations, cannot own land over the rights of Christian kings or governments.

Although since 1690, the Catholic Church has disavowed the doctrine of discovery, the doctrine continues to inform land holding theory and common law in many nations. Indigenous nations, however, have rights to occupy and use lands they have lived on from time immemorial, at the discretion of the Christian government. In the United States, reservation land is managed by the federal government. In Canada the land for Indian reserves is legally known as crown land, that is controlled by the national government and by the sovereign of the United Kingdom.

Indigenous nations have their own conceptions of land stewardship. The people are granted territory according to creation teachings or migration histories where the creator designated specific territories for specific peoples to live upon. The people belong to the land, rather than the land belonging to the people. The land is usually divided among villages, regions, families, clan or bands. Each subgroup has land for use that is recognized by other members of the nation and often other indigenous nations. Often several indigenous nations or subgroups may have shared rights to hunt, fish, travel to a lake or ocean, and gather fruits and vegetables on the land.

The traditions of local economic land assignments allowed people to have recognized economic assets which they use, but at the same time preserve, since their long term livelihood depended on it. Land was collectively held by the entire nation, but the individual parcels and agreements among groups allowed for efficient economic use as well as strong incentives for environmentally sound practices of preservation and harvesting. Land could be traded or left for others, but only to members of the nation.

In North America, when European colonists first treated with Indians, they recognized that Indigenous Peoples had governments and held territory. The early treaties of friendship recognized diverse cultures, lands, and governments. From the indigenous point of view, treaties memorialized agreements with colonists over the shared use of the land. Indians were willing to share land with the colonists for farming, hunting, and gathering, but did not expect the colonists to assume exclusive rights to all of the land or extinguish Indian territorial rights. In the English colonies and the United States, changing power relations led to national governments using the doctrine of discovery, or arguments of conquest, to assume national control over land held by Indigenous nations.

UNDRIP does not address the diverse patterns of land use and cultural origins between national governments and indigenous nations. The Declaration does not address the issue that the rights of land use and ownership is highly, though usually passively, contended by indigenous nations. UNDRIP leaves management of land ownership to national governments and does not acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples have their own ways of using and managing land. When Indigenous Peoples appealed the United Nations for recognition of their rights, they wanted affirmation of their own indigenous national rights to land within indigenous forms of government.

Within UNDRIP, an indigenous nation can make claim to territory under the laws and courts of the national government, and not under indigenous law or understandings. Few nations recognize indigenous government powers, or land rights, or cultural diversity, and therefore do not recognize indigenous rights. Indigenous Peoples do not form homogenous ethnic groups, and usually are widely diverse in language, government, culture, community organization, and land use. Continued indigenous land use and occupation, from time immemorial and long before the formation of national governments, are central features of indigenous nationalities.

UNDRIP offers political inclusion, but not preservation of self-government over land and natural resources.