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Indigenous Governance

Written by: Ashok Priyadarshi Nayak - 5th year, B.A.LL.B. (Hons.), Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
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  • THE WORD INDIGENOUS MEANS originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country.
    When the outsiders met indigenous peoples for the first time over five centuries ago, their concept understanding on indigenous peoples was very disparaging and called them aborigine, natives, tribal, schedule tribes, ethnic minorities and ethnic nationalities, connoting backwardness and primitiveness. With such a concept, indigenous systems including governance, culture, social, legal and judiciary, philosophy, economic systems were replaced with supposedly more advanced systems to assimilate and "modernize" indigenous peoples.

    However, when excessive exploitation of natural resources resulted in almost the degradation of the environment, affecting all livelihoods, the international community started to think about sustainable utilization of resources in which they realized and gradually recognized the sustainability of indigenous systems.
    The historical background of Indigenous peoples relations since the Spanish Conquest has been marked by violence between two forces, namely Amerindian societies and the Conquerors. This struggle led to subjugation, defeat, servitude, expropriation, as well as to the ethnic and cultural annihilation of large numbers of this continent's native societies.

    The differentiation—partly created by Indigenous peoples themselves—was and still is a form of cultural resistance and strategy for survival, enabling them to reassess the notion of self against the nation-state's view of assimilation. This strategy fragmented the Indigenous nations during Colonial and Republican periods; while at the same time helped to rebuild, empower and assert their own internal governments, often by using another survival strategy, namely invisibilization.

    “Indigenous governance is defined as the sphere of self-administration by Indigenous peoples that, in harmony with applicable law and with Indigenous peoples’ own organizational structures, contemplates: (a) the recognition of the special relationship that exists between the land and ethnic and cultural identity; (b) the recognition of the autonomy in the management of Indigenous lands within the States of which they are part; and (c) the effective participation of Indigenous peoples within local, provincial, and national government.”

    Indigenous Governance: Spheres, Scope, and Limits

    Indigenous governance has different spheres, scope and limits, depending on the particularities of each national or regional history.

    One specific area of Indigenous governance is that of multinationality as conceived by Indigenous peoples who traditionally live in more than one country.
    This sphere has prompted bilateral or multinational agreements on the rights of Indigenous peoples who share more than one nationality. So far, this has been mainly an area of easy governance, good neighbours, and scarce hostility. This does not mean that the globalization principles of universality of rights have taken hold here, nor has the impact of being fragmented by national and territorial borders on Indigenous peoples been recognized. However, to date these cases have not involved major governance conflicts. On the other hand, Indigenous peoples have learned how to re-establish links above and beyond national borders, and rebuild their cultural units and internal government as a people.

    Another aspect of Indigenous governance takes place at the national level. In these cases, tensions have revolved around the rights exercised by the Indigenous peoples' internal government and those that are recognized in the national laws and constitutions or de facto. It is mainly in this sphere where Indigenous governance has developed. In keeping with similar regional market and capital trends, the near future will surely witness a growth of regional, bi-national or multinational.

    Indigenous governances

    Indigenous governance tends to be more internally focused when they are a demographic minority and when the cultural effects of discrimination have a strong hold on the actions of Indigenous communities. But as the grip of cultural submission begins to loosen, and as the awareness of being a demographic majority increases, Indigenous governance reaches out seeking access to the political and governmental structures.

    Thus, Indigenous governance is a bi-directional process that operates both internally and externally. On the one hand, it involves the exercise of traditional systems of authority, and on the other, to the inter-relations of these systems with national, regional, and local governments.

    Indigenous authority is not based on the democratic principles of representation and majority, but rather on each community's own traditional criteria. Indigenous leaders, who act as cultural intermediaries with mainstream society, are entrusted with a mandate from their communities and peoples. Contrary to western democracies, Indigenous leaders are not independent authorities, but rather spokespersons on behalf of Indigenous internal authorities and the mandate and assembly given to them by their people. This particular issue has become particularly relevant with the creation of special districts in some countries and the opening of legislative and executive spaces, which has led some Indigenous leaders who have either been elected or appointed to take on their role in an individualistic way as in the Western tradition.

    Indigenous autonomy began gaining recognition in several countries during the 19th century, and later reinforced by constitutional and legal reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. It has been further reinforced by Agreement 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples, the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Durban Conference, among others.
    Latin American systems have superimposed their governance on Indigenous governance. In every country, Indigenous peoples are deemed special nationals, and have either been granted, or governments have been pressed to grant them, certain administrative functions of representation and participation.
    One of the reasons for the lack of understanding in certain areas is the fact that Indigenous governance systems precede the republican government systems and do not respond solely to present needs. Indigenous peoples’ demands today are a consequence of the exclusion they were forced to in the past as well as to the current growing threats to their ethnic and cultural rights and their very survival. Thus, the confines of Indigenous governance may be defined by the legislation, constitutions, or national governance agreements, though Indigenous peoples do not internally apply these unilateral definitions.

    Indigenous governance system

    Administrative System
    Traditionally, the unit of administration and governance among the indigenous peoples was restricted to the village level. However, after means of communication developed, the sphere of administration and governance were expanded in which a number of villages came partially under one administrative system. Before colonial rule, indigenous peoples were effectively independent. Generally, four major institutions of authority governed indigenous political and administrative system: the Village Head or Chief, the Council of Elders, the Priestesses or Priests, and the Warriors. The four institutions worked closely together to safeguard the interest of the community. Customary law was used to govern and control the behavior of members of the community.

    Because various tribes or communities were often at war with one another, prosperity, harmony and security were major considerations in the selection of community leaders. Thus, community leaders usually comprised of individuals who were knowledgeable about customs and tradition, have certain specialized knowledge, were wealthy, generous, brave and physically strong. Furthermore, personal integrity, reliability, honesty, wisdom and a sense of justice were valued as personal characteristics when selecting leaders.

    The Chief or Village Head held the highest authority in term of hierarchy. She/he was responsible for the overall administration of the village and management of resources. She/he was also responsible for maintaining law and order in the village. The Chief or Village Head presided over village meetings and hearings and played a major role in ensuring that the traditional land boundaries, customary laws and rituals were followed. The Chief or Village Head was usually inherited as long as his/her personal integrity was fit enough in the eyes and standards of the villagers. In most cases, the Chief or Village Head was selected for his extensive knowledge of the custom, wisdom as well as his prowess and organizational ability to protect the village from raids.

    The Council of Elders comprised of members of the community who were usually 40 years old and above. The Council advised the Chief or Village Head on all important matters concerning the village. The Council of Elders was the village administrative body, which made important decisions pertaining to security, development, justice, health, moral, spiritual standards of the community.

    The Council of Elders sought their advice from the village Priestesses or Priests. The Priestesses were involved in most aspects of village life: birth, marriage and death as well as other daily activities such as farming, hunting and fishing. Besides being a medical specialist, the Priestesses were also ritual specialists who ensured moral and spiritual integrity. Tradition and custom formed the basis of individual behavior and it was believed that non-adherence to these traditional customs would bring diseases, sickness and natural disasters. To restore harmony, appropriate rituals had to be performed by the Priestesses. They were thus very influential and powerful figures in the community.

    The last of the major institutions of authority was paramount leader or warrior who was responsible for security of the community by leading his group of warriors in protecting the village from outside intruders. The paramount leader or warrior was chosen for his prowess in war and in the defense of the community. He represents the higher authority but still seek the advice and assistance from the Priestesses to ward off enemies.

    Socio-Economic system

    The key characteristics of indigenous economic system are its subsistence nature, limited goods and services and small scale production. This means that labour is derived locally – usually among family members. Distribution of land, labour and produce is determined to a large extent by social relationships. The tools used are simple and made from locally available resources.

    The economic system is based on the principles of reciprocity, social responsibility and sustainability of resources. In the exchange of goods and services, inter- and intra- community relationships are important to support the mutual need for survival. In terms of practices, these principles are seen in the way communities share what they have caught during hunting expeditions (reciprocity). The principle of social responsibility ensures that all members of the community, particularly those in a disadvantaged position, are taken care of. There should be no exploitation of others, including outside communities that come to trade, by unfair valuation goods. Everyone is expected to assist a member of the community who is in need by giving or making an exchange even if the product being traded is not needed. This is also expressed through the borrowing of land, the hiring of needy members as a farm labourer, or the selling of a calf before it is born at a very low price to the needy person who is looking after the pregnant cow. When someone had a good harvest, the person would throw a feast for the whole community or contribute the surplus for needy families.

    The principle of sustainability relates mainly to the exploitation or collection of natural resources. Customary laws and the social and judiciary systems ensure that over-exploitation of resources do not occur. Indigenous knowledge on resource management is handed down from generation to generation. Small-scale productions and moderate yields/catch using non-destructive tools in farming and fishing characterize the livelihood of indigenous communities. Care is also taken so that only enough food and other needs for the family to subsist are taken from the environment.

    The differences with respect to indigenous systems with the present governance systems, concepts and practices are very obvious. While the present governance systems opt towards globalization, indigenous system is much localized and its sphere is expanded only when there is a common issue to share. Indigenous governance system also is very loose and flexible. The core goals of indigenous systems are prosperity, harmony, peace, sustainability, reciprocity and responsibility for the whole community while globalization budgies moving more towards individualism.

    Indigenous governance goes beyond self-management to include their whole universe as peoples. Indigenous governance indeed includes the management of material and social resources, but its notion of governance encompasses many other aspects of their social and spiritual world. Other analysts define Indigenous governance based on current demands for the recognition of their rights, identities or their desire to help build inclusive, diverse, multicultural and multiethnic national societies. “(...) the notion of governance promoted by Indigenous peoples first requires the legal and political recognition of social, cultural and ethnic diversity, accompanied by the creation of a system that provides for multicultural and multiethnic relations.

    The Indigenous Concept of Good Governance

    International agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank are promoting the concept of "good governance" in the Pacific islands. But indigenous societies in the region have their own ways of governing family and community.

    Governance in the indigenous concept is linked to a belief system that supervises and monitors peaceful co-existence of everyone and everything that share the multi-dimensional natural world that we live in. This is done in accordance with the natural laws of society, which are based on our indigenous creation stories and the protocols that have been made by human beings.

    The role of leadership

    The leader takes responsibility to compensate for breaches of the peace on behalf of his community members. Truth and justice are prerequisites for good governance, social security, economic self-reliance and political stability. Quality leadership, authority and good governance is measured by the ability to uphold cohesive community spirit, with a state of peace and feelings of social security, economic self-reliance and political stability.

    Collective ownership

    One of the fundamental characteristics of indigenous communities is their collective ownership and responsibility to everything.

    Indigenous governance is, above all, a series of dynamics and forces that flow between two or more views of the world, in a constant flux and change, achieving or losing balance, which aims at maintaining unity and an Indigenous ethnic conscience based on consensus and respect. It operates both internally and externally within a wider global system that contains them. Internal Indigenous governance refers to the role that traditional leaders should play as advisors and companions of their peoples. Management and administration are secondary for Indigenous governments. Their main duty is to know of the conflicts and problems that affect social control and regulation; the relations with nature, spirituality and the sacred; the material and spiritual control over their lands and strategies for survival and the future.

    External governance aims at the defence of self-determination (or self-government); the creation and maintenance of mechanisms of intermediation and contact for dialogue and negotiation with national societies and governments; to democratic representation and participation (in legislative or executive domains); the control of natural resources (use, conservation, and exploitation), to the possession and ownership of land and territory; to the development of a chosen way of life and society and the definition of how and to what extent to integrate to capitalist development and the market economy. Indigenous governments have existed within national governments that disown them but make them a part of them.

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