The speakers in this debate include Canadians, Mexicans, and Americans. They approach the subject from a variety of disciplines including law, anthropology, history, governance, “activism,” archaeology, and education. Here more than in the other debates we see commonalities and divisions arranged in multiple ways—sometimes by country, sometimes by profession, sometimes by personal experience. The trajectory of indigenous rights has differed in each country: sometimes two of the countries have similarities, which do not obtain in the third. For example, the United States and Mexico (despite the Zapatista uprising of 1994) have not faced the very real prospect of federal dissolution that Canada continues to face. First Nations in Canada would play a serious role in any scenario of secession of Quebec. Similarly, the US and Canada have like juridical systems and notions of limited autonomy for indigenous groups, which are alien to Mexico’s more centralized authoritarian regime.
Sometimes the speakers group themselves by age or “cohort”—those educated during the fifties, those educated later sharing methodological and epistemological approaches across national boundaries. On occasion the commonality is something in one’s background (i.e. belonging to an indigenous group) or a triggering event which then leads to an engaged life and career. Tureen notes: “I became involved in Indian affairs almost by accident. I wound up with a summer job working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in South Dakota as a recreation intern on an off-reservation [Indian] boarding school. It was an extraordinary summer for me. It really changed my life…I was confronted with a situation the likes of which I’d never seen…The government had essentially complete control over these people’s lives. The federal government controlled their property, controlled where their kids went to school, even controlled whether their kids went home in the summer from off-reservation boarding schools where they went in the winter. And something about that struck me as fundamentally wrong. Where I grew up in suburban St. Louis [Missouri], the government didn’t have any kind of control like that, and that certainly was not my idea of what freedom was about. I went up there thinking I’d spend a summer, and became so interested that I wanted to spend my life working in this area.” This is to say there are few “bystanders” in the arena of indigenous rights, and this includes archaeologists and historians who are often viewed as being safely ensconced in an unchangeable past.
One aspect shared by all of the speakers is an intense desire to correct widely-held misconceptions and to reassess the myths and received notions that have circulated around the issue of indigenous rights not only in the past century but stretching back to antiquity. This reevaluation includes the foundational concepts of what constitutes or constituted “indigenous” or “aboriginal” in any given time or place. Consequently the speakers make recourse to the historical and archaeological record and to legal precedence in order to arrive at workable definitions of “autonomy,” “sovereignty,” “customs and traditions,” “collective rights,” “individual/universal rights,” and “resistance vs. assimilation.”
One might best read these presentations looking for this myth-debunking commonality. Chamberlin begins with a paradox which antedates antiquity““the “settler’s contradiction”—locating the origin of this debate in the encounter between hunter-gatherer and agricultural peoples when he says “there’s nothing settled about settler societies. The whole point about settler societies is they are always on the move, settling on someone else’s land. Yet, when they get there, they always imagine the aboriginal people as the wanderers, as the nomads, as the people who could be moved around because they do move around.”
Cope asks us to reassess the distinction between public and private land in pre-Columbian and Colonial Mexico and the process of dispossession of Indians of their lands. He notes that we often think of this process as immense, immediate, and without much resistance. As he qualifies, a lengthy and intermittently successful process of legal resistance was waged over three centuries that bears directly on the strategies and manifestations of indigenous demands today.
Deloria and Stavenhagen discuss patterns of assimilation and segregation of indigenous groups, commenting that unexpected alliances have formed and expected ones have not materialzed (i.e. the supposed “solidarity” between third world governments and indigenous peoples). Diamond and Valdés-Ugalde enumerate some of the more problematic aspects of indigenous autonomy and economic development. Indigenous peoples are not necessarily stationary stewards of ancestral lands as Fox and Stephen make clear““they can and do create diasporas that transcend regions and countries, and their struggles cannot be described solely in terms of land. Finally Gomez and others point to the difficulties posed by internal inequities of indigenous groups (such as sexist practices) and how these relate to the broader process of the establishment of minimal universal human rights.