Self-determination is an expression often used in discussion of indigenous goals. However, the meaning of self-determination varies among Indigenous Peoples, scholars, international documents, and nation states. The most common meaning of self-determination suggests that peoples with common political and cultural organization have the right to self-government and territory. The latter use of the term self-determination was used by the United States, and to a large extent by the United Nations in the post-World War II period to argue that the many former colonies of European nations, including the British, French, Dutch, Germans, Italians and others, had the right to form independent nation-states, declare territory, and join in the United Nations and international commerce.
Indigenous Peoples were not included in the international expression of self-determination, which is reserved for internationally recognized nation-states. Indigenous Peoples populated many of the new formerly colonized nation-states, but Indigenous Peoples generally were subgroups within the new nation states, but without international recognition of nation-state status. Indigenous Peoples were relegated to ethnic, cultural, racial, or minority relations within nation states where indigenous individuals were at best citizens with formal equality, and at worst marginalized castes or non-citizens.
The formation of nation states since World War II was an extension of the system of European nation states, initiated by international agreements from the middle 1600s. According to current international law and declarations, Indigenous Peoples do not receive recognition as nation-states, or self-determination as nation states, but are subordinate to local surrounding nation-states.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples uses the expression of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples but qualifies the expression. The Declaration does not recognize the right of Indigenous Peoples to seek recognition as a nation state or to withdraw from the nation-state that is currently occupying indigenous territories. Most Indigenous Peoples are not ready or do not want to take on nation-state status, since most indigenous nations are small, not market-based, and cannot compete politically, economically, or militarily with nation states. Most Indigenous Peoples are not dreaming of taking over the nation-state, or even seceding from the nation-state, but they dislike that nation-states have considerable political, legal and economic control over their communities, territory, and cultural orientations.
The Declaration recognizes that Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination for local internal government matters, but are not part of the international government-to-government relations. For issues outside of local government, according to the Declaration, Indigenous Peoples do not have power to make decisions. Furthermore, the Declaration goes on to say that Indigenous Peoples have free, prior, and informed consent on issues of land use and minerals.
While Indigenous Peoples have the right to be consulted, Indigenous Peoples do not have veto power over unwanted government or corporate land use, mineral extractions, and are not compensated for their land and mineral wealth losses. In effect, the Declaration and supporting international laws restrict indigenous self-determination to cultural and social issues, but leaves the land, resources, and government-to-government relations firmly in the hands of nation-states.
Indigenous Peoples believe they have existed for thousands of years before the present-day nation-states. Indigenous Peoples managed land, resources, spiritual relations, and human relations, as well as government-to-government relations long before the formation of nation-states. Indigenous Peoples usually believe they have a spiritual right to manage their affairs, provide stewardship over the land, maintain a cultural and political community, and uphold government-to-government relations with all other nations, including present-day nation states. Self-determination is set out in the creation teachings. Only the creator can change the ways in which indigenous people govern themselves and maintain self-determination. Most Indigenous Peoples will find international expressions of self-determination incongruent, not fully acceptable, and will resist by upholding their own understandings of self-determination.