Newcomb: Colonialism and the human rights of indigenous peoples

During and shortly after World War II (1939-1945), a number of anthropologists were writing about the topic of indigenous peoples and what was then being referred to as the “colonial administration” of various empires. Looking back at those writings today enables us to shed some additional light on the historical context of what are now commonly referred to as “indigenous peoples” and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the United Nations General
Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007.

In 1945, Columbia University Press published a book of essays entitled “The Science of Man in the World Crisis,” edited by Ralph Linton, who was a professor of anthropology at the University of Columbia. One essay, “The Colonial Crisis and the Future,” was written by another anthropology professor named Raymond Kennedy. His essay was framed primarily in terms of the differentiation “between colonial and noncolonial areas,” or between “dependent and independent nations.”

“The present pattern of colonialism,” wrote Kennedy, “has an easily explainable historical origin, for it had its beginnings about four hundred years ago, when Europeans ‘discovered’ the rest of the world.” In other words, he traced the beginning of colonialism to the so-called Age of Discovery dating back to the mid-1500s.

The “record of the last four centuries,” Kennedy continued, “has been one of steady conquest of the native populations of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania—a conquest accompanied by political subjugation and economic exploitation.” Thus, the “colonialism” to which Kennedy refers is characterized by a process whereby originally free and independent nations and peoples throughout the globe had been forced, through various means, to exist under the authority of sea-faring European nations and their offshoots transplanted to all the other non-European regions of the world.

One key point found in Raymond Kennedy’s essay has to do with his
distinction between what he termed ‘free nations’ and presumably ‘unfree nations,’ which he termed ‘dependent nations.’

Professor Kennedy outlined the above historical framework as a way of contextualizing his discussion of what would likely be happening in the decades after 1945. “The period of colonial wars and conquests is now past,” wrote Kennedy, “and coming struggles for power must be either between the independent nations, or between the subject peoples of the colonies and their masters.” Note the terminology: “subject peoples” and “masters.” In other words, Kennedy was distinguishing between peoples living under some form of political dominance and those who were successfully exerting dominance over originally free peoples.

One key point found in Kennedy’s essay has to do with his distinction between what he termed “free nations” and presumably “unfree nations,” which he termed “dependent nations.” He considered the “unfree” or “dependent” nations to be existing in a two-tiered system: “The color line, indeed” wrote Kennedy, “is the foundation of the entire colonial system, for on it is built the whole social, economic and political system.”

He continued: “All the relationships between the racial groups are those of superordination [dominance] and subordination [domination], or superiority and inferiority. There is no mistaking this pattern for one of mere segregation, or separation with equality. The color line is horizontal, so to speak, and cuts across every colonial society in such a way as to leave the natives in the lower stratum and the whites in the upper.”

The key point to be noticed here is the over-under power structure to which Kennedy was calling attention. This is one of the key features of federal Indian law and policy in the United States and Canada. The historically white power structure, has judged itself to exist in a superior and dominant position in relationship to the first, original, and free nations and peoples that were existing on their own lands within their own territories when the Christian Europeans invasively arrived as late-comers to this continent and hemisphere.

Work toward the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was the result of the efforts of Indigenous elders, leaders, scholars, and activists to come to terms with the very history and political phenomena that professor Kennedy was drawing attention to in his 1945 essay “The Colonial Crisis and the Future.” During the past 60 plus years, we have been living that future, and many of us have been working to overturn the colonial subordination that countries such as the United States and Canada wish to maintain as a permanent social, political, and economic order over originally free Indian nations and peoples.

This, then, is but part of the larger historical context for understanding the recent actions of the United States and Great Britain with regard to the Iroquois Nationals and the Haudenosaunee passports. It reflects a desire on the part of some to impose a system of domination on indigenous nations and peoples, while creating a perception of superordination (dominance) for state systems that have spent generations rationalizing themselves as against Indian nations and peoples.

We in Indian country would be well-advised to remain hyper-conscious of a basic fact. As the Obama administration compares the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with U.S. federal Indian and policy, it is actually comparing a human rights framework predicated on human dignity and human worth with the U.S. colonial framework that was designed by many previous generations of federal officials to subordinate and dominate originally free Indian nations and peoples in order to expropriate our indigenous lands, territories and resources.

Steven Newcomb is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today.


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Newcomb: Colonialism and the human rights of indigenous peoples