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SPOTLIGHT ON
ABORIGINAL RIGHTS and First Nations Governance

NB: This material is published here by Turtle Island Native Network
with permission from the author, Tom Mexsis Happynook

The Nuu chah nulth

Indigenous Self-determination, Accountability
and Liberal Democracy

"As indigenous peoples rise from the ashes of colonialism and oppression; shed the shackles of despair and dependency; secure our right to live; create a safe environment to live in; revive our identities; restore our languages; assert our right to our customary foods; return to our belief systems; utilize our accumulated ancient wisdom; rebuild our local economies; revitalize our natural resources and restructure our respective traditional governments to be effective in the 21st century. Then, and only then, can we look in the face of genocide with self-determination"
Tom Mexsis Happynook

It has been my experience that there are many indigenous communities throughout the world who are not even afforded the basic right to life, never mind the right to self-determination. Many treaties have been negotiated, but most have been subsequently ignored by the colonial powers; a form of dishonourable conduct which should be cause for shame. Even in countries like Canada where the oft-touted standard of living is held in high-esteem, living conditions for indigenous peoples are deplorable. Although our rights as First Nations are explicitly protected within the constitution of Canada we still find ourselves relegated to the sidelines. Vast amounts of money are sent around the world to those nations determined to be in need, and astronomical loans are forgiven with the stroke of a pen; yet right in our own backyard you will find that so called third world conditions are rampant. The shadow of colonialism and paternalism continues to extend across the world extinguishing the most basic needs of indigenous peoples and leaving them on the brink of despair. The result is near epidemic proportions of youth suicide, life threatening illness and other catastrophes. There is no doubt that the right to life, shelter, identity, language, customary foods, belief systems, ancient wisdom, local economies, natural resources and governance compose the essential infrastructure for the social, cultural, spiritual, physical, psychological and economic survival of indigenous peoples - the very elements of self-determination.

One need not look hard to find that over the past number of decades there has been tremendous lip service given to indigenous peoples. Wonderful words have been "enshrined" in many international treaties, conventions and declarations. Unfortunately, that is all they are: "words". Moreover, decisions derived from national and international acts, legislation, laws and policies, which were made decades ago (and in many cases racially and specifically directed at the cultural life ways of indigenous peoples) do not consider the implications they are having on indigenous treaty and/or human rights today. Clearly, real changes must be made to reflect the reality of today's situations and not past political perspectives based on paternalistic colonialism, racism and greed.

Indigenous self-determination encompasses duties, responsibilities, philosophies, jurisdictions and authorities that have evolved over millennia into unwritten indigenous laws. These laws reflect and codify our relations to the natural world, and to one another. They are the products of the slow integration, or co-evolution, of our cultures and systems of governance with the diverse environments that sustain us. The most essential of these responsibilities are those that integrate people with their environment. These responsibilities maintain our sustainable relationship with nature, the environment and the ecosystems of which our people, our indigenous governance institutions and our cultural practice are integral parts. This complex network of relationships has been developed and nurtured over generations. Reflecting on the past, we can see that some indigenous practices were purely of social and cultural importance (arranged marriages, etc.). Yet, without doubt the Nuu chah nulth cultural practice of fishing, hunting, gathering and trading has a much deeper role that helps create the basis of indigenous self-determination by recognizing that cultural diversity and bio-diversity, the human and the natural world are not separate. In fact, they are interdependent and constitute the reality of our world, a unified world whose existence depends on the exercise of our self-determination. This is described in the Nuu-chah-nulth language as "Hishuk Tsawalk", everything is one; everything is connected.

Nuu chah nulth government systems developed and evolved within the absolute limits of nature. These natural limits have guided Nuu-chah-nulth understanding for generations, and resulted in teachings which have cultivated the following principles, which guide Nuu chah nulth self-determination today and ensure accountability is maintained. Respect is the foundation of our existence. We firmly believe making decisions that flow from respect assures the natural world (of which we are a part) will be with us in perpetuity for future generations to use and benefit from. Order is found within Nuu chah nulth societies, and tribal governments prescribe strict values, principles, and teachings that makes sure everything is in its correct place and undertaken at the correct time. Protocols ensure the order is adhered to. The spoken word holds authority within Nuu chah nulth society. Witnesses are invited to attend great feasts (potlatches) to bear witness to the business of the tribal governments. These witnesses give the spoken word authenticity and authorization and it is during these feasts that government business becomes public knowledge.

Nuu chah nulth society follows strict unwritten laws regarding ownership. Ownership is dependent upon public knowledge and while Nuu-chah-nulth individuals did not amass great amounts of material goods there is great importance put on ownership. Place names and familial names are used to prove ownership. Responsibility is taught from conception and continues throughout life. We believe this principle creates a strong and healthy sense of belonging and fosters loyalty to the society, the tribal governments and the natural resources that we very much depend on.

Accountability is maintained through the implementation and maintenance of traditional values. These values set the parameters for decision making and include, but are not limited to; managing based on Hishuk tsawalk - everything is one - everything is connected; meeting the present needs without compromising the needs of future generations; making sure the human relationships (peoples' roles) are not removed through total protection; taking what you need - putting back what you remove and utilizing all that you take, there are of course others. These values ensure everyone lives up to their responsibilities and can thus be held accountable to the future generations.

A disciplined body, spirit and mind is highly valued in our society and we understand the importance of preparation, especially when it comes to resource management and sustainable utilization. Cleansing, bathing, praying and fasting is a very important cultural practice and is carried out when consequential decisions have to be made around hunting, fishing, gathering, the management of natural resources and governance. It is clear the principles of respect, order, protocols, spoken word, ownership, responsibility, accountability, discipline and preparation are inter-connected and support each other creating the foundation for effective governance, resource management within the natural limits of nature and self-determination.

As the larger society sees indigenous peoples dressed in executive attire becoming the norm, we are looked upon as moving away from a perceived point of "indigenous-ness". It is widely believed that we are far removed from our cultural lifeways and have succumbed to assimilation; that we do not have the ability to keep our traditions, customs, spirituality and beliefs alive and at the same time participate in the contemporary world. The policies of assimilation are still with us, but indigenous peoples are beginning to learn the so-called civilized ways and yet remain true to our cultures, identities and roots. One of the fundamental oversights of the agents of assimilation in the past was the failure to realize that there will always be indigenous peoples living within their traditional homelands. With the current and efficient modes of transportation, people can come and go as they please. They can circle the world in 24 hours, and cross continents in a day.

"Rootlessness" is a recent term that is often used to describe the human response to this global phenomenon. Yet this is a foreign word to indigenous people. Our roots are firmly established through generations of our ancestors fully occupying, utilizing and being effective stewards of our territories. There will always be indigenous peoples rooted within their traditional territories, honoring their histories, duties, responsibilities, philosophies, jurisdictions, authorities and obligations to all that is found within their homelands

Indigenous self-determination goes beyond our personal lives. It also enters the realm of nation building. Before we enter into any kind of self-determination strategy we must develop contemporary indigenous constitutions based on traditional government structures and belief systems, and we need to be inclusive when we define "who" our citizens or tribal members will be. These constitutions must incorporate traditional and current indigenous infrastructures, desires and aspirations and evolve from our people. This will create the catalyst to pursue all of our interests - lands, waters, air, natural resources, governance and fiscal relation's. We must build strategies that include us in the decision making processes, enabling us to influence decisions that involve or impact our homelands and families. In most cases this means negotiating.

Unfortunately, negotiations involve compromise and it is likely that these strategies will have to be accommodated within the existing framework of state legislation and policies. One of the most important strategic elements is identifying how we want to participate in the local, national and international economies - resource-based, consumer-based, research-based or technology-based. Without money it will be difficult to produce the leverage needed to make substantive progress towards change. Negotiating treaties, memorandums of understanding, protocols and/or interim measure agreements today involves many different aspects found within a modern and industrialized world. For example, we need to establish legal working relationships and effective communication with governments, agencies, corporate and other 3rd party interests. At times substantive issues will have to be tied to support agreements if they can not be included in treaties or other prominent agreements. We now have to document and map our traditional and contemporary land uses, interests and cultural sites, and in recognition of the literal nature of western society, record our traditional unwritten laws. In the course of identifying specific issues to be safeguarded and addressed, we must also develop parallel negotiating, legal and demonstrative strategies to bring indigenous self-determination to the forefront, and ensure that we exercise and protect our existing rights in accord with our ancestral teachings. In many cases indigenous peoples are expending all their energies protecting their rights instead of putting their rights into practice.

Most importantly, indigenous people must insure our health is safeguarded, for we must be healthy and clear minded if we are going to win our struggle for self-determination and avoid being dispossessed. In many cases, it is apparent that governments are setting indigenous peoples up for failure so they may later say, "We knew they couldn't do it". If we are not healthy, we will more easily fall into that trap.

Looking at indigenous self-determination from a strictly geographical point of view, the strategies developed must take into account where people are now living. There are indigenous peoples who live in their ancient traditional homelands, have always been there and will always be there. There are indigenous peoples who live in their traditional homelands that are now enclaves within or surrounded by urban areas. There are indigenous peoples who live in traditional homelands that are semi-isolated or even remote. Then there are indigenous peoples who experience varying degrees of isolation and displacement from living in cities and other urban areas. Each situation presents a unique set of criteria for modern indigenous self-determination. For those peoples who continue to live in their ancient homelands, they may be fortunate in that their cultural lifeways, natural resources and economies have remained somewhat intact.

For those peoples who are in their homelands but are surrounded by urbanism, they will have experienced major impacts to their cultural lifeways, natural resources and economies and in many cases inter-racial marriages will introduce cross cultural dynamics. There are those peoples who are semi-isolated, have access to the convenience of urbanism but have maintained their cultural lifeways and natural resources to some degree and can participate in both rural and urban economies. However, for those peoples living in isolation, in many cases maintaining their traditional and ancient life ways is the only way to survive. They must live off the land, waters, air and natural resources found within their traditional territories. For example, the Russian Inuit have for several decades had access to modern conveniences, fuel, electricity, etc. But with the recent near-collapse of Russia's arctic infrastructure, these amenities are no longer available. Thus, by necessity, the Russian Inuit are now returning to their ancient lifeways to survive. For those indigenous people who choose to live in urban areas, or are driven there by economic necessity, whole new dynamics are involved.

In Canada, for instance, you will find "Native Friendship Centres" in cities across the country. These centres provide the means for individuals and families to stay connected to their indigenous-ness with a place to gather and seek services. The complexities of indigenous self-determination are conditioned by many elements, and though they are ultimately grounded in traditional structures, they must by necessity incorporate new elements of a changing world.

How did we arrive at the situation we find ourselves in today? I believe that it is a fundamental difference in the understanding of ownership, a cultural distinction that would have left the world in a much different state if there had been respect, rather than greed, in the hearts of those landing upon our shores.

For indigenous peoples, our role is to act as caretakers and stewards. We hold the duties, responsibilities, philosophies, jurisdictions and authorities to ensure there is a future for those who live in our traditional homelands and rely on the natural resources. Amongst other things, this responsibility includes providing for our families and other community members. I raise this point, because as a very young boy Christianity was introduced to our community, our family's hereditary and ceremonial regalia were burned on the beach and our governance structure unilaterally changed. Over a relatively short period of time I learned that the book of Revelations told a tale of fire and brimstone, essentially the end of the world.

A story that grossly developed the mentality that everyone should gather and consume as much as they can before their world comes to an end. Even at a young age, based on the teachings of my ancestors, I was very disturbed by this. I went to my great grandmothers and great-aunts to find out if we had any legends, myths, stories or songs that talked about our world coming to an end. The answer that came back, of course, was "No". I found this fascinating, two diametrically opposed understandings of our place in the universe, on this earth and how we will be held accountable to the future generations during our time here.

Indigenous accountability takes many forms. Accountability to our respective creators, and to the universe, the earth, the lands, waters, air and natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. Accountability to our ancestors, histories, societies, cultures, spirituality, belief systems, customary lifeways, communities, extended families and families. We are even now accountable to the superimposed laws of the current governments and their regimes, their police forces, courts, military and financial systems. For me, accountability equals maintenance - as indigenous peoples we must maintain all that is important to us and be accountable to self-determination

Liberal democracy is an interesting concept, made all the more interesting when considered from the perspective of the ancient hereditary system of the Nuu-chah-nulth. The Nuu-chah-nulth perspective of democracy is one that is based on the premise that the hereditary system is a responsibility bestowed upon the hereditary chiefs by the creator. It is in place to ensure the survivability of the people, lands, waters, air and natural resources even as we fully utilize them. Each hereditary chief is responsible for the families within his long house and each family has a "head of family". Both these leaders must ensure that each person within the long house and their respective family has a voice within the tribal government. It is in this way that the hereditary chiefs are held accountable to the people and society. It provides the people with a sense of belonging and a sense of loyalty. Families within each house have areas of responsibilities, which makes each family important. Each individual within the families has an important role to play and it is in this fashion that the western understanding of liberal democracy takes shape within ancient tribal governments.

Understanding where you fit within the universe, the web of life, the environment, the ecosystems, the society and the community creates a different form of democracy which has been given by our creator and administered through the people by the hereditary chiefs. For it is the people with all their cultural institutions and familial responsibilities and teachings, (which have evolved over the millennia), that gives the hereditary chiefs the respect required to implement their authority. Consensus decision making is used but it does not mean that everyone must agree or have the same point of view. It means that the decision must take into consideration all the concerns and suggestions, coming to a place whereby everyone can live with the decision. This is fundamental to the survival of Nuu chah nulth accountability to self-determination.

It has only been within the last century that this system of governance has had superimposed upon it the supposedly better elective system of democracy. There is no doubt that some form of democracy is important, but how democracy is implemented is an important issue. If the basis of democracy is a popularity contest then the fundamental element of democracy (every voice being heard) is undermined and intimate continuity foregone. Within Nuu chah nulth society the hereditary chiefs are taught from birth the importance of intimate continuity being maintained and familial knowledge sustained in order to give the family and individual family members' importance. Ancient wisdom is continuously accumulated and passed down through the generations, to insure a coherent and respected form of governance remains in place. Democracy only works if you have the opportunity to participate and even though you may have the right to participate, circumstances surrounding your ability to do so can leave you out of the democratic process. Leading to the thought "Why should I participate, national and international policies don't care about my indigenous-ness, it is an empty process". In Canada, women received the right to be involved in the democratic process in the 1920's. First Nations received the right to vote in 1960. If the modern form of liberal democracy means everybody must have the opportunity to provide input, than again, the fundamental make up of modern democracy is flawed. Indigenous peoples are too often relegated to the sidelines and continue to protest through peaceful demonstrations, direct action or misdirected action which sometimes leads to incarceration and in some cases death. Democracy is still, and will remain, in too great a fashion, based on class and income. Even in a place as multi-cultural as Canada, where many different cultures and peoples have chosen to live, the democratic framework reflects the unfortunate influence being exerted by class and occupational based privilege.

There is no doubt that the right to life, shelter, identity, language, customary foods, belief systems, ancient wisdom, local economies, natural resources, governance; traditional duties, responsibilities, philosophies, jurisdictions, authorities and obligations is the foundation of indigenous self-determination. But also included are the principles of respect, order, protocols, spoken word, ownership, responsibility, accountability, discipline and preparation. Along with the understanding of where we fit in the universe, our place in the web of life and maintaining our relationships to the earth, lands, waters, air, natural resources and indigenous government structures. All these elements make up the essential infrastructure for the social, cultural, spiritual, physical, psychological and economic survival of indigenous peoples - Indigenous Self-determination.

As Professor Ted Chamberlain of the University of Toronto wrote: "While a certain practicality must bear on these issues there is no mistaking the fact that the peoples of First Nations everywhere are refusing to be practical, if practical means becoming enslaved to a diminished reality"

Respectfully submitted by Tom Mexsis
Founding Chairman, World Council of Whalers

World Council of Whalers



Protecting Mother Earth


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First Nations Governance


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