Alan Boraas: Centuries testify to human rights claims of indigenous peoples

By ALAN BORAASJanuary 25, 2013 

This fall and early winter the "Idle No More" protests swept across Canada like a tsunami of indigenous alienation. The movement is now beginning to emerge on this side of the border among some Alaskan Natives. In Alaska the issue is generally subsumed under the concept of decolonization sometimes rebranded as a less militant resiliency.

The Canadian protests of First Nations, Metis and Inuit were triggered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unilateral revision of some of that nation's environmental laws that historically have given aboriginal communities approval rights to resource development based on centuries old treaties.

Harper's omnibus bill, C-45, for example, took away aboriginal approval of stream crossings in some areas of proposed gas, oil and bitumen condensate (Athabasca Tar Sands) pipelines and mine development. Resource development corporations and Harper's Conservative government feel the tribes have been an impediment to development because of the lengthy consultation process sometimes resulting in a veto of environmentally sensitive projects.

Neither Harper nor multinational corporations anticipated the push back. Protestors have mobilized themselves by social media networking. One of the Idle No More anthems reads: "Blog, Tweet, Post, Defend the Indigenous Rights Revolution." At the click of a tweet flash mobs were organized in shopping malls such as the West Edmonton Mall and Toronto's Eaton Centre. Protestors have blockaded the Canadian National Railway and Trans-Canada Highway among other freight transportation corridors.

One of the most visible protests was a hunger strike, recently ended, by Theresa Spence an Attawapiskat chief from a northern Ontario Cree band whose reservation is one of the poorest in Canada despite the location of a diamond mine on their land.

The target of the loosely organized Idle No More protests is the right to have a meaningful say about resource development in their territory and a critique of the consumerism that drives resource development. On the surface it's development vs. environmentalism. But at a deeper level Idle No More questions the very nature of human rights.

In the U.S. the Bill of Rights is a statement of individual rights. Likewise property rights are embedded in American (and Canadian) law. Together individual property rights are a foundation of pre-corporate capitalism and American democracy. With the shift to corporate capitalism, corporations, largely through the Supreme Court, have increasingly succeeded in defining themselves as individuals (personhood) with the same inalienable rights as a human with a soul.

From a legal standpoint, the Idle No More protests would appear to be futile and will result, at best, in incessant, insincere listening sessions; and, at worst, demonization charging anti-Americanism (anti-Canadianism?) undermining resource development, consumerism, and shareholder profits.

But the protests are really asking us to rethink the nature of human rights. The fundamental right of all humans is not property, nor so-called natural law, but the right to self-identity. This is because one cannot have a sense of rights prior to being a person and one is not a person without an identity. For this reason the right to one's identity as formulated by their culture is the elemental human right and the basis of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Indigenous peoples, especially subsistence peoples of the north, express self-identity in terms of a deep, ages-long relationship to the land. It's not some touchy-feely thing. You become a person through your relationship of the land of your ancestors by using the land in a respectful, sustainable manner. Indigenous self-identity is bound to language and the right to practices defined by the cultural landscape of their heritage.

So what's to say some Papa Pilgrim-like group can't come in and assert rights based on the same concept. Should they also be granted the same rights as indigenous peoples? No, because they do not have millennia-long traditions at a place to support their claim.

It is time for Alaska to recognize the right of her indigenous peoples to a legitimate place at the table (as the federal government is beginning to do) to frame cautious, conservative, sustainable resource development and management. And central to that process is to incorporate into law the right of indigenous peoples to their land-based identity.

For a start we can reject House Bill 47 that would restrict native organizations, local governments, citizens and environmental groups from questioning resource development by requiring these organizations to post a bond which would be forfeited if they lost in court.

Ask Stephen Harper what passage of that bill might cause.


Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. He thanks his colleague, sociology professor Dr. Tony Lack, "for helping me think through this column."

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