Ensuring Equity for the Indigenous Within Their Nation-States for the Benefit of All

By Moki Kokoris Of all sectors of society that have historically been marginalized or effectively excluded from development planning and policymaking, indigenous peoples represent the group that poses the most complex challenges.

According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, there are 370 million indigenous people in the world who to varying degrees “have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.” However, maintaining these attributes has been very difficult because many nations continue to enforce assimilation policies, principally in the name of development – for the benefit of all.

While assimilation of native populations may be a well-intentioned objective of the countries that have engulfed these groups, it is debatable whether indigenous peoples desire the type of social inclusion that development in its varied forms can create. Development is a mixed blessing. Nevertheless, reality dictates that development is inevitable, and that resistance to it would likely bring about consequences far more adverse than those brought forth by acquiescence.

In an increasingly globalized world, maintaining the delicate balance between freedom and development is even more challenging for indigenous people because development typically entails significant natural resource exploitation. In regions where their ancestral lands are rich in these coveted resources, indigenous people are often viewed as obstacles and impediments to progress.

Problems arise as lands are claimed by nation-states without regard for the indigenous populations that rely on open access to these tracts for their livelihood. Land use rights for the native people range from limited rights to none at all, yet without those rights, indigenous people cannot engage in the development process.

Opposite to the accepted views of the industrialized world, to the indigenous people, their environment is not a “grocery store at the service of men.” Nor are land and its resources seen as economic assets; they are the very foundation of life. Development planners, however, have systematically disregarded the cultural context that distinguishes indigenous perspective from the Western. Consequently, the struggle for land recognition and territorial autonomy faces a complicated path forward as it strives to reach an equitable resolution.

Though development has brought about some undeniable gains, it has not been beneficial to indigenous peoples across all regions of the Far North. Native groups may wish to share in the benefits of the modern world to varying degrees, but many nation-states continue to ignore the capacity of indigenous peoples to formulate their own conceptions of development and devise strategies for carrying them out. Despite the growing number of prominent indigenous intellectuals and politicians, the idea is still widespread that indigenous peoples do not have a comprehensive understanding of the Western system of values. Even more detrimental is the presumption that a Western lifestyle is superior to their “primitive” traditional ways. The result is that consideration is rarely given to the idea that native people should have the option to choose whether or not to adopt it.

In addition to the central issue of land rights, another key factor that must be addressed is indigenous participation. Though they are longstanding core values in the Western world, sovereignty, self-governance and self-determination are not prerequisite concepts as they may relate to indigenous peoples. Even today, government leaders reserve the right to exploit resources in the name of “national interest” – regardless of whether the methods have adverse effects on native populations. While some reformative ethical advances in this respect have been made in Nunavut, Nunavik and Greenland, they are exceptions rather than the rule, and a pervasive tension between aspirations for development and the need for preservation still exists.

The Inuit people, whose communities are scattered across northern Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and the Chukotka region of eastern Siberia, are often regarded as “guardians of the Arctic,” yet each of these groups faces its own unique challenges.

After being accused of ignoring the human development of Inuit populations who lived within its borders during the time of colonization, Canada devised an ideologically-slanted strategy for Inuit development. Although the Inuit eventually achieved a pseudo-Western standard of living, the direct result of material improvement was cultural impoverishment. Even in rare cases where native people escaped material deprivation – alcoholism, prostitution, obesity, and alarming rates of suicide among young people have been prevalent conditions.  

In Canada and Greenland alike, efforts to assimilate Inuit into mainstream national society involved coercing tent and igloo-dwellers to give up their nomadic lifestyles and move to fixed settlements, with promises of security, reliable access to food, medical care and formal education. Well-meaning as these relocation efforts may have been, they nevertheless disconnected the Inuit from their traditional ways of life, which in turn led to a loss of self-identity. The ultimate side-effect of this process was that it forced the newly “civilized” hunters and their families to almost exclusively rely on government assistance, perpetuating the decline of self-worth.

In 2008, Greenland’s referendum on greater autonomy from Denmark was approved and Greenlanders were recognized as a separate people under international law. At present, international relations are largely left to the discretion of Greenland’s government. While Denmark still provides a substantial subsidy, that amount will gradually diminish as Greenland begins to collect revenues from the sale of its natural resources.

To many international investors, Greenland is seen as “the last frontier” and a resource bonanza. Though the Greenland Inuit welcome the possibility of economic opportunities, they are understandably skeptical of multinational interest in their natural resources, such as large-scale mining operations, which they know will have social, economic and environmental consequences. Additionally, the disappearance of sea ice could drastically change the composition of the circumpolar region by introducing new trade routes and increasing outside corporate investment. Collectively, these conditions pose ever-growing threats to the Greenland’s environment. Because they understand that they will be living with the direct effects of potentially large scale development, Greenland Inuit are seeking a larger role in the international decision-making process.

Despite regaining a high degree of control over their lands and embracing opportunities to create self-sustaining economies, most Inuit still face an uncertain future. Taking into account the impacts of climate and societal change, controversial hunting policies and regulations, compounded by global environmental pressures and uncertainty about the consequences of resource exploitation, the peoples of the Arctic seem to be on the verge of profound culture shock.

Therefore, the ramifications of fostering a capitalistic system should be carefully considered in the planning of development strategies across the Arctic. As one example, within the framework of indigenous communities, monetary income can only be used for the procurement of food and technology from the outside world. Though these goods are needed, they also weaken the traditional bond the native people have with their environment, thereby amplifying external dependency.

Elsewhere, particularly in the northern reaches of Russia, massive investment by numerous international oil consortia has created one of the world’s largest oil and gas industries. Until relatively recently, the indigenous people in these regions had managed to peacefully exist outside a political system in which economic development presumed the imagined consent of indigenous populations. However, due to external political pressure to include indigenous communities in their exploits, the energy companies are insisting on holding regular public meetings with the local people as a new form of “public relations.” The indigenous people across Siberia are granted token privileges under the guise of fair compensation as barter for exploitation of their ancestral lands – all in the name of development. Western ideology is forced on these native communities as a matter of course, under the pretense of “lifestyle improvement and modernization.” From their own perspective, however, the native groups feel that they are little more than ornaments to capital investment rather than symbols of a social system that promotes and ensures equity.

Though the concept has many connotations, when viewed through the scope of Western universalism, the term “development” frequently carries overtones of pretentiousness and arrogance. Furthermore, elitist leaders who choose to validate their political and economic claims by using the rhetoric of environmentalism and branding their activity as “sustainable development” whilst ignoring the ability of indigenous peoples to advance the process through active participation and traditional knowledge, are irresponsibly pushing entire societies into new conditions of cultural poverty and even extinction.

Instead of imposing on them models of development that are alien to these groups, it is imperative that the opinions of the native people are not only given voice at their respective government’s tables but that their right to self-determination is respected. Saying “no” to certain aspects of development should also be an indigenous prerogative. Only if and when native people are involved in the process will development in all its iterations have the best chance for success. Achieving these goals will require a drastic attitude shift on the part of policymakers and planners, and should include acknowledgement that traditional knowledge must be an integral part of development where it impacts indigenous communities. The main objective is to not only enable but to empower indigenous peoples to establish – for themselves and their nation-states – the best means of interaction that secures their traditional heritage and supports their cultural survival within the context of a contemporary world.

Indigenous peoples across the globe lay claim to an ancient ethic of responsibility toward the environment and all the creatures that thrive in it. They have survived for thousands of years by respecting nature and living sustainably in a symbiotic relationship with it. That fragile age-old balance is now under threat. In their inevitable collision with mainstream culture, native people face the prospect of a potential tragedy, namely that they could choose to set aside that traditional ethic, and risk destroying the resource base upon which their cultures was built. Yet even through their struggle for self-determination, they have much to teach us about human nature and quite possibly about the fate of humanity as a whole.

We in the allegedly more “civilized” world should not be presumptuous nor brazen enough to speak on their behalf nor act as their ambassadors. We cannot know what is best for indigenous peoples. Our obligation is to respectfully offer them an equal place at the decision-making table – for the benefit of all.


[1] Nordregio. Indigenous population in the Arctic regions. Retrieved June 27, 2012 from  http://www.nordregio.se/en/Maps--Graphs/01-Population-and-demography/Indigenous-population-in-the-Arctic-regions/