How Should Indigenous People Be Incorporated Into Western Society?

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By Quentin Choy

June 26, 2021

Since the arrival of Europeans in the New World and Africa, conflict has existed between indigenous populations and colonizers. However, in the modern era, the conflict that exists is often unseen and ideological rather than physical and violent. With the discovery of mass graves of indigenous children in Canada, western nations are coming to terms with their colonial pasts.

What ought to be done by western nations once these dark pasts are acknowledged? This is the question I will attempt to answer in this post. Issues such as cultural appropriation and media representation will not be discussed as they are not related to what I am trying to explore. The goal is to figure out: once western nations acknowledge their role in systematically wiping out indigenous culture, what should those nations do in response?

Around 751 unmarked graves were found in two mass graves around Canada’s residential schools, schools in which Indigenous children were taken from their families to be educated in a western, Catholic school. Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan was one of the locations of the unmarked grave.

Addressing the discovery of the graves, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “Canadians are horrified and ashamed of how our country behaved, about a policy that ripped kids from their homes, from their communities, from their culture and their language and forced assimilation upon them.”

Justin Trudeau. Courtesy of National Observer.

For this post, I’d like to focus on those two words used by Trudeau: “horrified and ashamed,” as they will be helpful in figuring out what nations, especially industrialized, western democracies ought to do when faced with the brutality of their pasts in terms of treatment of indigenous people.

It is one thing for societies to be ashamed of what happened in the past, and that is okay. For example, Americans are ashamed of some of their past atrocities such as removal of Native Americans from land, chattel slavery, Japanese internment, and atrocities in Vietnam and Iraq.

Trudeau spoke with Pope Francis, urging him to make an apology on behalf of the Catholic Church for their role in the establishment of residential schools in Canada.

The major question that arises after the discovery of the mass graves is “what ought to be done?” This is particularly true since the burials took place long ago before anyone in present-day Canada was alive. The complicity of the mass graves also lies with two entities rather than just one; the Canadian government and the Catholic Church.

There are six models of indigenous incorporation to western society that I will discuss in this post, with each offering different perspectives as to what indigenous incorporation looks like as well as solutions to historical injustices. The models are the American model, the Hawaiian model, the South African model, the Australian model, the Maori model, and the Brazilian model.

The American Model

A good place to start is to see what has already been done in the past, and for this, we’ll look to the United States. One of the most well-known ways that the United States has dealt with its past on Native Americans and that dark history has been the implementation of the native reservation. These lands are set apart, usually on some of the worst lands in the country.

While the concept of a reservation is quite the opposite of integrating indigenous populations into society, it grants some degree of power and autonomy to tribes within their reservation or nation. Set apart from the state and federal governments, tribes can exercise a limited amount of power on their lands such as operating tribal police, operating health departments, and other governmental structures. In this way, the United States has utilized a policy of separation from mainstream society for indigenous people to grant them a small, unobtrusive degree of power.

Like Canada, the U.S. also had schools in which native children were taken from their tribal homes to be assimilated into western, American culture. Recognition of this past has been a goal of several groups including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland who wants to review American usage of Native American boarding schools.

In terms of recognition, some institutions such as my own university acknowledge the history of indigenous people on taken lands. On several official university sites, this message can be found: The University of Northern Colorado sits upon the traditional territories of the Ute, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota peoples. Further, we acknowledge that 48 tribes are historically tied to the state of Colorado.

The federal government also tries to elevate those elected to federal power, showing that indigenous people have indeed reached power at a certain degree. Biden’s selection of Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior is a good example.

The American model views its indigenous people as culturally separate, but not politically separate from the mainstream. It focuses on isolating indigenous power to reservations and occasionally allowing power at higher levels. Unlike many other models, the American model does not emphasize cultural assimilation and is permissive of a strong, vibrant indigenous culture. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, cultural assimilation was violent and unforgiving.

For indigenous Americans living in a modernized America, much of their focus is on preservation of their existing culture, whether that be their practices, traditions, songs, and dances. Most important for indigenous preservation however is the preservation of their lands. Whether that be in preservations of their nations like the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest, or tribal lands like the Standing Rock Indian Reservation protesting to stop the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline, preservation of land in the American model is of utmost importance.

Something that will be important for movements like the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States is the incorporation of politicians and well-known celebrities to increase awareness of the movement and to garner wide support from outside the indigenous community. The Dakota Access Pipeline saw the incorporation of celebrities like Shailene Woodley and Green Party candidate Jill Stein offering their support.

Hawaiian Model

It is important to realize that the less institutional power, indigenous people have, the more important fights become over issues that may seem merely symbolic or minor to western observers. Observers may wonder, “why are these people so worked up over a simple pipeline, or a mountain, or a small, dry island?” When so much has seemingly been lost, indigenous people will fight to preserve what little they can still point to as their own.

This concept of protecting what little symbols of power indigenous populations have can be seen in the Hawaiian model. Following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, Hawai’i became a republic and territory before statehood. This followed a dramatic reduction in the native population following decades of Native Hawaiians being exposed to diseases brought by missionaries and Europeans that their immune systems were unused to.

As the children of missionaries became wealthy off of sugar and land development, the indigenous population was set back in terms of education and life expectancy. The United States military established bases on several prime lands throughout the islands, and Native Hawaiians became some of the poorest people in Hawai’i.

Following statehood in 1959, the wealth gap between Native Hawaiians and the state’s white and Asian populations began to close, and Hawaiians began to view themselves more as Americans. The Hawaiian model differs from the American one in that the indigenous populations in Hawai’i were not isolated to reservations and granted small levels of tribal power. Instead, the indigenous population was full incorporated into broader American society, and they were able to run for high levels of office at the state and federal levels.

While this is also true for Native Americans, Hawaiian culture and American culture are not as separate from each other as Native American culture is from broader American culture.

In the Hawaiian model, issues over land and cultural significance became primary focal points for indigenous activists. Examples include the movement to stop U.S. Navy Bombing of Kaho’olawe as well as the protests against the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i’s tallest mountain and a sacred place in Hawaiian culture. Like the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in the American model, the incorporations of politicians and celebrities was important, with Jason Momoa and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson visiting Mauna Kea where the protests occurred.

In terms of representative power, Hawaiians have attained high levels of power in Congress with Senators like Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Representative Kai Kahele (D-HI) having represented indigenous populations at a high level. One of the unique distinctions of the Hawaiian model is that Hawaiians are not separated from mainstream society like Native Americans, but are part of the mainstream in society. Since Hawaiians are able to reach high levels of power like other Americans are, their struggles can be overlooked, as many Native Hawaiian issues are simply lumped in by outside observers as issues among broader society.

Ideas over land development and cultural significance are essential to the Hawaiian model, with native traditions and perspectives of land clashing with the forces that aim to modernize Hawai’i into a cosmopolitan travel destination, despite indigenous people wanting to preserve the remaining natural beauty of the islands.

Efforts to increase Hawaiian wellness is seen in the establishment of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) as well as the establishment of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, prioritizing land for Hawaiians to live on at affordable costs. Re-education of Hawaiian language and culture is also being used to preserve the cultural aspects of Native Hawaiians that have been lost over the decades.

South African Model

The South African model is one of the darkest models of incorporating indigenous people into a westernized society. Marked by violence and legal separation and segregation known as the apartheid system, literally meaning “apart,” the South African model sought to incorporate the indigenous populations into South Africa by subjugating them and wiping out their culture and traditions through laws, institutions, and violence.

Following the colonization of South Africa by both the British and the Dutch, the indigenous Africans were some of the most disadvantaged people in South Africa.

The white populations of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom began separating the native South Africans from the colonial population, and in 1948, following the rise of the National Party, apartheid legislation was established, leading to separate societies. Black students in many South African schools were forced to learn Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch and Dutch settlers over their native Bantu language. Language was linked to indigenous culture, which the South Africans knew was important to preserve.

In 1976, black children and students protested the forced use of Afrikaans in their schools, and the police brutally cracked down on these students, killing over 100 of them in an event known as the Soweto uprising. Leaders such as Nelson Mandela who advocated for the rights of the indigenous South Africans and fair incorporation into western society were imprisoned. Increased violence from disgruntled South Africans along with pressure from the global community resulted in the resignation of President P.W. Botha in 1989 and the dissolution of the apartheid system.

Mandela became the president of South Africa, representing the indigenous population at the country’s highest level of power. Today in South Africa, many lawmakers in the Parliament of South Africa are indigenous South Africans in the African National Congress Party. The ANC is the party of Nelson Mandela which was banned under apartheid.

The South African system was one of the most violent incorporations of indigenous people into a western society because they were subjugated by violence and were politically disenfranchised. However, the indigenous population was the country’s majority population which is rare in many other models. This majority-indigenous population results in strong indigenous parties like the ANC being able to lead in the Parliament of South Africa.

Australian Model

In many ways, the Australian model of indigenous integration is similar to Canada, in that residential schools were also used on the Australian aboriginal populations to assimilate them into Australian society. Aboriginal children were taken from rural parts of Australia and from their tribal in what is sometimes referred to as the “stolen generation.” The forced assimilation of aboriginal children can be seen in Doris Pilkington’s novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence which follows the story of three girls who run away from the Moore River Native Settlement and make a nearly 1,000 mile journey home.

Hoping to westernize these children, the Australian government sought to convert the children to Christianity and to remove the tribal beliefs and traditions from them. According to the University of Western Sydney Law Review, “In 1920, the Indian Act was amended to require that all First Nations children attend a residential school for at least ten months a year. Church involvement in Aboriginal education was enormously important, and the formal relationship between the churches and the state did not end until 1969. During the 1970s the residential school system was in a process of winding down although the last residential school didn’t closed until the mid-1980s.”

Calls in Australia have called for the implementation of reparations for aboriginal people for the historical atrocities committed against the native population. This may seem radical, but when you think about how much the Australian government spent in its campaign to establish boarding schools to eliminate native culture, it seems reasonable for a country visited by millions of tourists to reinvest in the populations it spent decades trying to forcefully assimilate.

Today, governmental agencies and other organizations aim to address the needs of Australia’s indigenous people. Problems like and health ailments, life expectancy, and incarceration are being targeted by these organizations. According to Independent Australia, “Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders make up 3.3% of the Australian population but account for over a quarter of the total Australian prison population.”

To combat these issues, agencies have implemented campaigns such as “Close the Gap,” which seeks to “show significant improvements in the health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” by 2030.

An important aspect of the Australian model that is missing in some others is the active campaigns to address native issues of health and incarceration, which is faced by indigenous people in many other models. Continued addressing of these issues can make a vast difference over time, and issues like reparations can elevate the economic status of the indigenous population of Australia and bring them closer to the middle-class of mainstream Australians.

Maori Model

The Maori model is an incredible model in that it deals with two conflicting dynamics of outsider independence and inside compromise. Within New Zealand, several indigenous Maori have held positions of power whether that be in the Parliament, as government ministers, or as acting prime ministers.

The Maori model sees native people in power within their land, although they are conflicting over the best route to obtain power to fight for indigenous people.

In terms of political tactics, there are two strategies that are taken up by the indigenous Maori. On one hand, they work at politics from the outside-in, operating from within the independent Maori Party which holds a small number of seats in Parliament. On the other hand, Maori work at politics from the inside-out and within larger political parties, primarily in the Labor Party, New Zealand’s largest center-left party and the party of its prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

The Maori Party was wiped out of Parliament, losing their one seat. In 2020, the Maori Party re-entered Parliament after Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi won their elections, granting the Maori Party 2 out of the 120 seats.

One of the main issues facing the Maori is the court-ordered taking of children by the New Zealand government, 71% of whom were indigenous Maori or Pacific Islander, even though Maori make up only about 14.9% of New Zealand’s population. Some observers have compared this to “the stolen generation” of aboriginal children in Australia.

Other issues include issues over historical treaties and land rights, homelessness, financial insecurity, environmental concerns over waterways, and incarceration. Maori protesters have advocated against Jacinda Ardern and development of land at Ihumatao, claiming that the development of new housing would violate the Treaty of Waitangi and several laws established in New Zealand law. The Ihumatao protests occurred around the same time and in the same manner as the Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii.

In parliament, the Labor Party has 15 MPs of Maori descent. Several Maori MPs have chosen to operate within the mainstream Labor Party because they believe that broader social and economic issues can be addressed as well as indigenous issues. Some Labor MPs have been criticized by those in the Maori Party such as Debbie Ngarewa-Packer who stated that some Maori in the Labor Party “are caught up working in the mainstream.”

Labour candidate, Adrian Rurawhe criticized the Maori Party’s role within the Parliament, saying “the Maori Party claims to be an independent Maori voice, however, the only way that they can get policy through is by compromising on other things.”

The indigenous Maori play a prominent role in New Zealand politics and society, although the main issue is the conflict between independent parties aimed at indigenous issues or compromising by joining larger, generalized parties that address multiple issues not targeted at just indigenous rights. I think that it is a stronger model for both approaches of government to be taken simultaneously like the Maori Party and Labour Party are taking in New Zealand right now. With the two parties putting each other in check over general and indigenous issues, I think that indigenous issues can be better addressed.

Brazilian Model

The final model and one of the worst models is the Brazilian model. Brazil is a large country with a dense urban population as well as isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon rainforest and the country’s forested western region. Brazil has the largest number of uncontacted people groups in the world, with many still living nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles and following traditional animist beliefs.

While granted the right to continue their way of life in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil’s indigenous people face ongoing encroachment of loggers, miners, and farmers moving deeper and deeper into the rainforest, threating their way of life. Reports of violence by loggers and miners against indigenous people have been reported as more and more industrialists enter the region.

Indigenous activists in Brazil have protested over land rights and the encroachment of Brazilians into their land. Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro has consistently berated the indigenous population, and many believe that he disregards the lives of indigenous people over profits and development.

The head of environmental organization Climate Observatory told NBC News “in acts and speeches, he’s [Bolsonaro] incentivizing land grabbers, illegal loggers and illegal miners to invade Indigenous areas, causing violence and deforestation. He is putting Indigenous communities and lives at risk.”

A new bill proposed by the federal government would legalize mining on indigenous lands, which many indigenous people see as a threat to their lifestyle. With the support of Bolsonaro who despises the native population, many felt it was necessary to protests the bill in Brazil’s capital.

The Brazilian model is different from the others in that the indigenous population is usually far more isolated than indigenous groups in other models. They are also more traditional, living hunter-gatherer lifestyles, whereas indigenous groups in other models are usually far more assimilated into western culture. The active encroachment on lands and a threat to indigenous lifestyle is a differentiating factor in the Brazilian model as well, because while other cultures practice cultural activities, the indigenous in Brazil actively practice their culture as a means of survival. The indigenous in Brazil are not trying to preserve their culture – they are actively living it. The Brazilian model shows the biggest clash between the old and new, the traditional versus the modern.

Back to Canada

Coming back to what should be done about Canada following the discover of mass graves at residential schools, a combination of aspects of the discussed models should be followed. Protests like those seen in all six models ought to be followed, although they should be targeted at specific, policy changes or disapproval such as the ones against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, bombing of Kaho’olawe, construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope, opposition to apartheid, stopping aboriginal deaths in police custody, halting construction at Ihumatao, or opposition to the federal bill allowing mining on indigenous land. General protests are usually ineffective, and they should be aimed at specific policy goals.

While Canadians cannot protest residential schools as they have ceased being used, Canadians can protest the Trudeau for specific policy outcomes such as the strengthening of indigenous land protections, reparations, or policies aimed at indigenous issues similar to the “Close the Gap” campaign in the Australian model.

Trudeau should avoid short-term symbolic solutions and should implement tangible actions that the First Nations communities can feel and see. First Nations people should form a political coalition and follow the Maori model by creating a First Nations Party in the Canadian Parliament or by working with larger, existing parties like the Liberals or Greens. If they simultaneously work as an independent party and as parts of larger parties, First Nations peoples can push the government from multiple directions toward policy outcomes that would benefit their people most.

Quentin Choy, creator of <em>WeTheCommoners Blog</em>
Quentin Choy, creator of WeTheCommoners Blog

Quentin is a student of Political Science. He became interested in history and politics in 2015 watching the Republican and Democratic primaries as well as the 2016 General Election.

He is from Hawaii and currently attends school in Colorado.

Image Courtesy of NOW Toronto.

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