By the time this is published, the 13th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNFPII) will have concluded. The “Special Theme” for this year's session was “Principles of good governance consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: articles 3 to 6 and 46.”
In the context of the United Nations system, peoples called “indigenous” are defined in terms of the centuries-long establishment of a global system of domination. That is the frame within which to accurately interpret the phrase “good governance” in the theme of this year's UN Permanent Forum.
Peoples termed “indigenous” were originally living free in their territories, when—as one United Nations definition states—“persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world.” The definition calls these invaders “new arrivals,” who “overcame” the original nations and peoples “by conquest, settlement or other means,” and “reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situation.” (emphasis added)
Given the above definition of Indigenous peoples, the concept of “good governance” in this year’s UNPFII special theme is accurately interpreted in keeping with the purported political reduction of originally free nations and peoples down to an indigenous level or status. Through the construction of a states-of-domination reality system, free and independent nations and peoples are now characterized as having been reduced to a sub-order “indigenous” existence.
Although what I have written above accurately expresses a United Nations working definition of “indigenous peoples,” the states of the U.N. consider it impolite for us to call attention to this. While domination is written into the U.N. working definition of “Indigenous,” state governments are made to feel uncomfortable if and when we point this out. Why? Because to point this out is to question what the states consider the unquestionable legitimacy of their domination over our originally free and independent nations and peoples.
Pointing out the patterns of domination embedded in the U.N. definition of “Indigenous,” and thereby identifying that “good governance” in that context means “good dominance,” is likely to provoke two possible responses. One response is to be marginalized and ignored for pointing out the connection. Another possible response is to be accused of engaging in “hyperbole” for using the word domination.
According to my massive Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, hyperbole is “an extravagant exaggeration that represents something as much greater or less, better or worse, or more intense than it really is…” Imagine being accused of being hyperbolic for pointing out the pattern of domination embedded in the U.N. Definition of “Indigenous.” One possible retort might sound like this: “Okay, sure, the U.N. Definition of 'Indigenous peoples' is accurately interpreted in term of domination, but it’s a kind of domination that’s just a little bit dominating. You're trying to exaggerate the effects of domination on those nations and peoples being compelled to live under it.”
Of course this response implies that there has been to date some kind of effort to measure the negative effects that result from forcing nations and peoples to live under domination. So far as I know, there has been no effort to date to measure the effects of domination on originally free nations and peoples. Yet those effects are constantly being illustrated by news story about what is happening to the dominated peoples of the world called “indigenous.”
What examples of domination are we able to cite? First and foremost, we can point to the rituals and ceremonies that the colonizers initially performed as a basis for claiming a dominating right of “sovereignty” and “dominion” over the soil of the original nations and peoples. Secondly, in the name of “civilizing” the “un-civilized” (un-dominated) natives, we can cite the use of those symbolic claims of “sovereignty” and “dominion” as the basis for forcibly imposing political and legal systems upon the original nations and peoples.
Other examples include, the dominating society overrunning the lands and territories of the original nations and peoples; taking anything and everything valuable from their lands and territories for the colonizers’ enrichment; killing or imprisoning the original people if they resist the onslaught of the domination system. Another example of the domination is the destruction of the sacred, ceremonial, and significant places of the original nations and peoples, which they have no ability to stop.
Two other effects of domination are the intentional killing of the original peoples' languages (lingui-cide) by the dominating society, as well as the trauma inflicted on the parents and their children when the dominating society takes away the children of the dominated nations and peoples and institutionalizes them in indoctrination centers so that their children can be socialized to the values and norms and ways of thinking of the domination society. Dominated peoples suffer from the trauma of inter-generational domination. Thus the terrible health statistics provide other examples of the effects of domination.
We have a choice. We can allow the dominating societies to go unchallenged in their use of euphemistic terminology to characterize what they have been doing for centuries to dominate our nations and peoples. Or, we can use the word domination (and the resulting dehumanization) to precisely name and identify the problem that needs to be solved. Then, and only then is it possible to ask the critical question: “How do we end or abolish the domination of our nations and peoples?”
When domination is euphemistically framed as “good governance” by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the domination of our existence, it is our responsibility to call them on their manipulative use of language. The fact that patterns of domination can be called “good governance” in the United Nations without our people seeming to even noticing is a testimony to the subtlety of the semantic issues we face on a daily basis.
Semantics has to do with the interpretation of words and symbols. Semantic self-determination is a critical part of what the right of self-determination is all about for originally free and independent nations and peoples now called “Indigenous.” Originally free, we need to take control of the semantic field and no longer allow dominating societies to continue to dominate our existence by naming their systems of domination “good governance.” That the UN Declaration on the Rights of Dominated Peoples is designed to reinforce rather than abolish the state-domination of our existence as originally free nations is demonstrated by Article 46 which gives domination the cover-name, “the territorial integrity of states.”
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.