On the Meaning of Restoring Indigenous Self-Determination

This article is part of an E-IR Edited Collection on Indigenous Self-Determination – Published on E-International Relations, by Marc Woons, May 13, 2014.

… The idea of restitution might do better to reflect colonialism’s lasting and irreversible impacts. Yet, it raises serious questions. What are the reasons for restitution? What would fair restitution entail? Who should receive restitution? How would it be determined? The list of questions is a lengthy one. Here, very different perspectives emerge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Whereas the former assert their inherent authority to self-determine, demand self-determination as a right, demand recognition of prior sovereignty, and demand respect for historical agreements, the latter typically believe that these claims should be reduced in favour of more limited state recognition and greater forms of redistribution in the form of funding or access to state programs.
In other words, the non-Indigenous majority controlling the state often expects Indigenous peoples to forego the full normative implications of their claims and to accept forms of assimilation into state institutions as forms of restitution. To the extent that this is promoted, Indigenous self-determination is denied. It would seem that a more just starting point would require greater consideration of what Indigenous peoples themselves view as fair in cases where disagreement prevails given that it is they who have been disempowered. In such cases, even the existence of the state itself as the arbiter of claims and dispenser of recognition is rightfully questioned.

The disconnect between what colonial states propose and what Indigenous self-determination requires can be at least partially explained by the third and fourth definitional categories, which speak to moral motivations. Against arguments to the contrary, settler majorities typically find reason to minimize their obligations toward Indigenous peoples. Their general self-interest cuts against the idea of setting things right or freeing the state from the effects of sin, to paraphrase the earlier definition. Most contemporary settlers, who benefit from colonial histories that saw them gain land at the expense of Indigenous peoples, believe that they should not pay for the deeds of their ancestors. For instance, Canadian courts have at times gone quite far in promoting moral arguments that support Indigenous self-determination and access to traditional territories, but politicians typically respond by dragging their feet and doing as little as possible (e.g., see Harty and Murphy 2005; Hoehn 2012). Settler populations generally find ways of convincing themselves that no sins have been committed or that time has closed old wounds. On the whole, this affirms for Indigenous peoples that they simply can’t expect dominant states to act without pressure, whether through state institutions, civil actions, or international pressure. This is not to say that a sense of moral obligation never exists on the part of states, but that even when it does it typically falls far short of full and equal self-determination for Indigenous peoples.

The idea of reinvigoration comes closest to the heart of what it means to restore Indigenous self-determination, giving the other definitions vigour and a sense of direction and purpose. It is beyond doubt that state- and nation-building efforts have marginalized and ultimately sought to destroy many of the Indigenous nations present in all regions of the world. Beyond the need for dominant groups to cleanse themselves of the effects of historical and ongoing injustices is the paramount need to “bring back a healthy and vigorous state” for every Indigenous person and within all Indigenous communities. Restoring the health and well-being of Indigenous communities involves breaking free from the various forms of dependency – financial, psychological, physical – created by colonialism and colonial institutions (Alfred 2009). Though external support and respect can make a tremendous difference, another aspect is positive transformation and decolonization within the communities themselves. This requires aspects of the previous three definitions, but should not be limited to them. Clearly, expecting non-Indigenous peoples to support the steps necessary to revitalize Indigenous communities, especially when it threatens their own self-interest and perception of the world, seems an unlikely avenue. Therefore, Indigenous peoples are all too often forced to focus on asserting their claims – rooted in principles of equal self-determination, prior occupancy of lands, and colonial histories – primarily outside existing state and global institutions. Although this sometimes leads states to respond using violence, the act of resisting itself – apart from the small and not so small victories – seems to help reinvigorate people individually and collectively. This is primarily because assimilating or waiting in vain both fail as options that provide any form of restoration understood as reinvigoration. In summary, we all have a role to play in reinvigorating Indigenous peoples, though how this will come about remains an open question.

The idea of restoring Indigenous self-determination clearly involves complex and inter-related debates about what self-determination means and how states and Indigenous peoples can take the steps necessary for achieving it. It also involves debates about the many facets just discussed on why self-determination is required and how we can usher in a new era where Indigenous peoples once again enjoy the same freedoms currently enjoyed only by dominant nations who monopolize access to lands, resources, and institutional power through state and, increasingly, international institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and so on. In other words, it requires looking at the many ways that the idea of restoring plays out politically through returning – or promoting restitution for – what continues to be taken from Indigenous peoples. It involves promoting justice-based arguments that will awaken non-Indigenous peoples to the historical realities at the same time as Indigenous peoples continue to assert themselves and revitalize their communities at all levels and through a variety of channels, including those that come from within.

The above is purely an introduction to the types of issues covered within this volume. It is only the tip of an iceberg that is more thoroughly described by the dozen contributors who provide clearer answers to who is Indigenous, what it means to restore Indigenous self-determination, and why it is important. Most use specific examples from different parts of the world to highlight the various theoretical issues raised as Indigenous struggles evolve in different contexts. All the authors seem to challenge, in one way or another, the state-centric model and its strong tendency to marginalize and exclude Indigenous peoples from their lands and the political processes affecting them. The ultimate purpose of this volume is to share ideas on how to restore greater balance so that Indigenous peoples around the world find their place among an international community that recognizes and respects their differences and treats them as equal members. With this shared focus at the forefront of the volume, it is an honour to introduce the twelve papers within this volume that I believe highlight many paths that can take us there.

(full text).


Foucault and International Relations, on E-IR, by Philippe Fournier, May 12, 2014;
Website: E-International Relations;

Self determination of indigenous peoples, on IWGIA;
Website: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs IWGIA;

Self-Determination, on Globalization 101;
Website: Globalization 101;

Website: the Project for Indigenous Self-Determination;

STUDY GUIDE: the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, on University of Minnesota /Human Rights Library;

Find on en.wikipedia:

Videos: Cultural Commodification, Indigenous Peoples & Self-Determination IPinCH: uploaded by Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage, September 2013:

das Nichtkampf Prinzip mit Rüdiger Lenz, auf Humanitarian Texts, May 14, 2014;
Cancer: le remède oublié, dans Gesundheits-Blog, May 9, 2014.

Comments are closed.