The Challenge of Indigenous Self-Determination
The Earth Summit at Rio was the first global negotiation in which indigenous peoples participated directly. They did so with the aim of advocating land rights and greater self-determination in the fields of natural-resource management and development. They justified these claims by arguing that indigenous peoples are superior stewards of the land and that strengthening indigenous peoples’ traditional economies would contribute to solving global ecological and economic problems. This approach succeeded all too well. Jaded diplomats and environmental ministers seized on the hopeful possibility that indigenous economics actually might work better than discredited socialism and overextended capitalism, and they invited indigenous peoples to accept a leadership role, nationally and globally. A few weeks after Rio, Latin American presidents announced the establishment of a regional development fund to be managed jointly by indigenous peoples and governments.
Can indigenous peoples deliver on their commitments at Rio? What role, in particular, can be played by American Indian tribes, who were conspicuously underrepresented in the preparatory negotiations for the Earth Summit and other recent international meetings? The answers to these questions are suggested by a critical assessment of what American Indian tribal governments have achieved after sixty years of “self-government” and twenty years of “self-determination.” We begin with a threshold problem: the characteristic isolationism of American Indian leadership in the twentieth century.