When people these days discuss the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they have no idea that 70 years ago, just before the end of World War II, such a document was already being envisioned. What was being focused on back then, however, was the “colonial problem,” which was a subject of discussion for the U.S. government and for the United Nations at that time. One scholar envisioned a “Charter of Colonial Freedom” as a proposed solution regarding “colonial” or “indigenous” peoples.
In 1943, the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York published Dr. Laura Thompson’s “Steps Toward Colonial Freedom: Some Long-Range Planning Principles for a Peaceful World Order.” Dr. Thompson was a psychologist based at the University of Chicago, and she wrote the essay while working for the U.S. Navy.
Given the title of the paper, one realizes that the elite at that time did not envision ending colonialism. Instead, they foresaw the need for certain approved “principles” under colonialism, or a version of “freedom” that Thompson termed “Colonial Freedom.” Comparably, today the U.S. government is fond of saying that the text of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is just “a set of principles” which are aspirations. That’s state-speak for: “The Declaration recognizes you as having the right to ‘aspire’ to someday achieve certain rights for yourselves, in the future.”
Importantly, in her preface, Ms. Thompson specified that the form of colonialism she had in mind also existed in the United States: “The ‘colonial’ problem discussed [herein] refers to a relationship between dominant and subject groups, which may exist within a continuous land area, as in pre-Soviet Russia, and even within a politically as well as geographically homogenous state, [such] as Australia and the United States, and does not necessarily involve long distance.” In other words, what Thompson was identifying as “colonialism” was a relationship of domination and subordination between dominant groups and those being subjected.
Mr. W. L. Holland was the Research Secretary for Institute of Pacific Relations, and he wrote the Foreword to Thompson’s essay. Holland wrote of the need for a colonial people or a backward national minority group to adapt to the demands of world civilization. This was the context he had in mind for the futuristic nirvana of Colonial Freedom.
Holland also wrote of Thompson’s work with colonial peoples: “Out of her own experience and that of others which she has had special opportunities to review—including the American Indian administration—she has distilled a set of principles of both theoretical and practical validity.” He sums up in this way: “A democratic colonial charter, expressed solely in generalities, is not enough. There also has to be the will and the ability to translate it [that charter] into an effective code of methods and [best] practices.”
“Indigenous peoples,” meaning “peoples under the dominance of states,” are the present day version of what used to be called colonial peoples. In fact, when writing about colonial peoples Dr. Thompson also used the term “indigenous,” as demonstrated by this sentence of hers: “Respect for the indigenous system should not be carried to the extent of regarding it as sacred or unchangeable.”
I find it instructional that 70 years ago Laura Thompson was brainstorming for the U.S. military on the need for a Colonial Charter in the context of the United Nations, which she characterized as part of “Long-range Planning Principles.” It also is important to note that what was being discussed back then was the need to “translate” such a Colonial Charter into a code of methods and, presumably, best “practices.” Flash forward seven decades. State governments of the world are organizing a meeting of the UN General Assembly to translate the 46 articles of the UN Declaration (Charter) into an “outcome document” of “best practices.”
As original nations and peoples now termed “Indigenous,” we are evidently living in and dealing with the reality of colonial freedom that Dr. Thompson envisioned in her future planning for what she called “the New World Order.” At the end of her essay, Dr. Thompson said she had “enumerated some positive principles which seem to me essential in working out a democratic colonial charter.” The idea What she had in mind was to “work out a blueprint for a democratic world order” but not “try to impose it immediately on the colonial world.” (emphasis added) Such a blueprint would be imposed, just not immediately. And Thompson ends her paper by talking about achieving a “successful democratic colonial future within a world order.” Think for a moment about the significance of a colonial future that is made to look democratic.
Isn’t it interesting that Dr. Thompson defined the “colonial problem” she was addressing as “a relationship of dominant and subject groups,” which is the same dominating/subordinating structure that continues today to define the existence of nations and peoples termed “Indigenous?” And isn’t it also interesting that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was not drafted to end or abolish that dominating structure, but merely “to improve” the relationship between dominating states and what they deem to be subject “Indigenous groups.” State governments are now treating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as equivalent to the kind of Democratic Colonial Charter that Dr. Thompson had in mind, as an “enlightened colonial policy.”
Dr. Thompson’s essay ought to be kept in mind by American Indian “tribal” governments, and by organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians, when they continue to support the High Level Plenary Meeting (HLPM) of the UN General Assembly, to be held in New York this coming September. By the end of the HLPM, a state-constructed dominating outcome document will have been produced by international state governments. The drafting of that democratic colonial document will be used by states as an opportunity to express their views on the implementation of what is more precisely called “the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peoples Under the Presumed Dominance of States.” It is our job to challenge every claimed right of dominance over our nations and peoples, and to never treat such claims as acceptable.
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 federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s, and has published several law review articles, including “The Evidence of Christian Nationalism in Federal Indian Law: The Doctrine of Discovery, Johnson v. McIntosh, and Plenary Power,” (1993).