The way in which the nation state legally, politically, and culturally defines and acts toward indigenous nations greatly affects the opportunities indigenous nations have for securing political autonomy, territory, and cultural continuity. In practice very few nation states are favorable to the primary goals of indigenous nations, and therefore Indigenous Peoples are typically marginalized and unrecognized. Some scholars argue that the main reasons for the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples derives from the discrimination and control created by settler state or settler colonization. This argument suggests that Europeans came, conquered and took control over land and Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous Peoples within a settler nation state, like in Australia, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, are controlled by racial hierarchies and have market based economies that commodify land and resources. In this view, Indigenous Peoples are victims of unmoral external dominating powers, and there is very little positive action possible for Indian nations and groups. In the settler colonial argument, the focus is on the powers of domination, but little focus on Indigenous Peoples. In many ways that settler state conception is too narrow because it relies on racial arguments of oppression, and gives little or no agency to Indigenous Peoples to act on their own behalf.
The settler colonialism argument in its full form is not easily generalizable to the rest of the world. Many nation states in Asia, Europe, and Africa have Indigenous Peoples, and the people who are in political control are people of the same race as the Indigenous Peoples. The Saami of the Scandinavian countries and northwest Russia are Caucasians, and yet the Saami are struggling to preserve their cultures, and for political autonomy, and control over the land, like other indigenous nations around the world. Similarly, the Maasai of Kenya are traditionally nomadic peoples, but they are not recognized as Indigenous Peoples. Like other Indigenous Peoples around the globe, the Maasai, by Kenyan nation state policies, are losing their collective land, and remain unrecognized as an indigenous nation. The Scandinavian and Kenyan states are not viewed, as settler states, but as modernizing states, where the emphasis is on commodification of production and land. Social inclusion as equal citizens is granted, but not social or political inclusion of Indigenous Peoples with rights to collective land and local political autonomy within their traditional forms of government.
Since the American and allied victory of World War II, and more so after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, most nation states of the world have taken up the modernizing state model. The modernizing state model focuses on human rights, and equal citizen rights, but does not usually recognize indigenous rights. A large number, if not most, contemporary nation states aspire to obtain the democratic modernizing political form, but have a long way to go. Many nation states are still democracies in progress, and many have authoritarian and/or patronage forms of management.
Russia—formally a democracy, but managed by an elite oligarchy—has a constitution that honors indigenous rights at the same level as international law and declarations. However, Russian indigenous nations are provided with few resources and assistance. Many of the modernizing nation states of Latin and South America, like Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, and others, might be seen as patronage states that are controlled by a rich oligarchy with bureaucracies that redistribute resources to citizens according to political loyalty. Indigenous Peoples are usually outside of the state patronage systems, and socially, politically, and culturally excluded from the benefits of the state.
Relations between most nation states and indigenous nations are complex and almost entirely unsupportive. Theories and policies that focus on nation states, rather than centering indigenous nations, offer little understanding of indigenous points of view or practical possibilities for achieving indigenous goals of more political autonomy, cultural continuity, and control over land.