Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Debating indigenous self-determination

A participant listens at the recent World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. Photo by Whitney Minthorn, GCG Media Team / Facebook

Dina Gilio-Whitaker of the Center for World Indigenous Studies explores different perspectives on self-determination and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
A few recent pieces written by Duane Champagne, Steven Newcomb, and David Wilkins—some of Indian country’s best and brightest— illustrate this point. It started with Professor Champagne’s October 4 article in which he outlines the basic tenets of self-determination as it relates to indigenous peoples. According to Professor Champagne, true self-determination is reserved only for states. He tells us that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “uses the expression of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples but qualifies the expression,” because it doesn’t grant indigenous nations the right to form independent states.

Professor Champagne writes that while UNDRIP articulates the right to free, prior, and informed consent, it doesn’t give indigenous nations veto power over states in conflicts over territories and resources. For indigenous peoples, self-determination is divinely ordained. “Only the creator can change the ways in which indigenous people govern themselves and maintain self-determination,” he says. He concludes that indigenous peoples will resist international expressions of self-determination, and uphold their own understandings of it. As I read it, this is as close as he comes to arguing for or against anything.

Newcomb takes issue with Champagne, calling his stance “state-centric…uncritically accept[ing] the viewpoint of the United States and other states regarding the right of self-determination in international law.” Newcomb is critical that Champagne fails to challenge the domination paradigm in state/indigenous relationships, suggesting that Champagne takes it for granted as just the way things are. Newcomb’s interpretation of Champagne’s article is that his “vision of the future is an Orwellian form of self-determination that does nothing other than maintain ‘the status quo.’”

Get the Story:
Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Perspectives on Self-Determination: A Response to Champagne, Newcomb & Wilkins (Indian Country Today 11/7)

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