The history of religious crusades and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples by invaders claiming the right to appropriate other peoples property based on Papal dispensations, biblical manipulations, or ancient religious connections to other peoples territories, requires that we distinguish between the right to practice religion and the right to deprive others of their land based on religion. Whether that deprivation is in the form of European states invading the Americas, or European settlers invading Palestine, the use of religion for the purpose of theft is inexcusable.
As noted by the International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs,
Indigenous Peoples do not necessarily claim to be the only people native to their countries, but are descendants of those peoples that inhabited a territory prior to colonization or formation of the present state. Their continued existence as peoples is closely connected to their possibility to influence their own fate and to live in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.
Modern states are not benign institutions. Indeed, they were formed for the express purpose of concentrating political power. Over the last few centuries, this form of social organization has proven adept at coercion, domination, and warfare. In fact, this consolidation of power to plunder and pillage — sometimes worldwide — is precisely why Indigenous peoples and their Fourth World nations, all along, have opposed both the form and the process of the modern state as inherently evil.
Fourth World nations are the native populations on top of which were formed many new states since 1948—nations that did not agree to the formation of the state, and were not integrated into the political power structure of the state. Fourth World nations include the Pashtun and Balukis in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Palestinians in the Middle East, Chechens in the Caucasus, as well as the Catalans of Spain, the Ogoni of Nigeria and the Ainu of Japan.
While it is often argued that centralized states and exclusionary decision-making in state-centric bodies like the EU and UN is more efficient than the dispersed, consultative consensus-building typical of indigenous governance, one should look carefully at the results of concentrated power before endorsing it as the ideal governing process. Inclusiveness and power-sharing are one and the same; excluding those who are less powerful cannot result in anything but conflict and hostility.
Yet, there is no need to be unwieldy, given the propensity of indigenous nations to organize representative bodies from tribal councils to regional affiliations, national congresses and assemblies–the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Nordic Sami Council, and National Aboriginal Council to name a few. Indeed, in the COP 15 debacle in Copenhagen, it was the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change that spoke with one coherent voice, while states and their corporate masters haggled over indigenous biodiversity resources they hoped to steal through carbon market trading.
Once citizens of corporate states no longer conflate power with leadership, we might finally be able to make some headway on human rights and climate change. Until then, it is up to indigenous nations to show us how it is done.
In the IWGIA report Indigenous World 2009, the evolving set of relations between indigenous nations and modern states is examined in detail. Within the new context of international human rights instruments developed for this purpose, the majority of states continue to pursue a policy of assimilation or other forms of annihilation of indigenous cultures. Included in their strategies are the assassination and co-opting of traditional leaders in support of the neoliberal development model.
The primary change resulting from recently adopted UN instruments appears to be greater participation by indigenous peoples within the state model, with little observation in practice by states of the principles of international human rights law cited in their constitutional reforms. As extractive industries continue to exploit indigenous territories with state military and police backing, the clouded title of state and corporate interests in inherent indigenous property is no clearer than it was under colonialism.
What is clearer, though, is indigenous consciousness, communication and organization. Notwithstanding the moral social shortcomings of the states reviewed, the report itself is a remarkable achievement. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs deserves our thanks.
As Dr. Rudolph C. Ryser of the Center for World Indigenous Studies wrote in Toward the Coexistence of Nations and States, the state system is an experiment of human problem-solving: Nations are natural human organisms which persist; where states fail to serve the needs of human society, they should be allowed to disassemble in a planned process which permits the nations within to systematically reassume their governing responsibilities. In reality, says Ryser, the nation stands as the foundation of human organization essential for human survival. They persist because nations satisfy human spiritual, social, economic, and political (cultural) needs.
Oppression of indigenous nations by institutions in the form of centralized governments, organized religion, and corporatized economies — that deny indigenous autonomy and self-determination — is by definition genocidal, in that by making it impossible to coexist, a de facto ethnic cleansing results.
After losing homes and businesses, land and families, it may not seem like much to lose libraries, but for the Palestinians it’s part of reclaiming history. The cultural heritage embodied by the Palestinian libraries, confiscated by the invading Zionists in 1948, constitute a documentation of their intellectual life despite the invasions by Romans, Turks, British and Israelis.
As an expression of their experience leading up to the Nakba, the looting of their libraries is now the subject of The Great Book Robbery, a documentary film project by an Israeli filmmaker and Palestinian journalist. As some of the collections were destroyed by Israeli archivists as unsuitable material, much remains stored and catalogued, and as such has the potential to be restored to their rightful owners. As a corollary to the restitution to Jews dispossessed by the Nazi bureaucracy, the act of returning these properties could become an important moment in reconciling the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
In his memoir Strangers in the House, Palestinian human rights attorney Raja Shehadeh describes through his family’s personal ordeals since the Zionist invasion of 1948, the increasingly sadistic daily violence, humiliations, harassment, and brutal disregard for human rights systematically conducted by the Israeli state against the indigenous population. Reinforcing what I’ve written previously about Zionism projecting the earlier Jewish pogrom and Holocaust traumas onto the Palestinian people, author Shehadeh recounts the futility of peaceful negotiation over coexistence exemplified by his statesman father, as well as the suicidal yet noble heroism of armed struggle against genocide.
Shehadeh’s answer to the seemingly hopeless future for his people in facing down a superpower and its protege is to document and expose the largely hidden ethnic cleansing policies and conduct to the world and its civil institutions. Admittedly only a small part of the overall liberation struggle against US and Israeli hegemony, Shehadeh offers an alternative to hopelessness, perhaps his greatest contribution to the children of Palestine.
Sami scholars in northern Norway note that their Indigenous society — prior to the colonization by the Christian Scandinavian states of Norway and Sweden — practiced natural religions, organized natural nations, and conducted natural economies. If we are ever to respect Indigenous peoples right to self-determination, we are going to need to abolish religious states, and replace them with plurinational states where religion or race or ethnic identity no longer determines who is entitled to human rights and who is not.