UN hopes to prevent erosion of indigenous cultures

Dear Editor:

I read Julian Hudson’s letter to the editor entitled “UN declaration racist” in the Jan 5 edition of the Ponoka News and would like to put the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in historical context.

There is no denying, and here I’m sure Mr. Hudson would agree with me, that racism has been and continues to be a dark mark in the history of human relations on this planet. There is clearly no justification for denying human rights to people based on their ethnicity. Nor is there, for that matter, any justification for denying human rights to people based on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or religious preference. The very fact that these characteristics are an issue here is because these human attributes have at times in our history been a reason to deny people their human rights. Though we take many of these rights for granted now, they have been hard won. (Two centuries ago in 1811, for instance, slavery was still widely practiced; men and women did not universally have the vote; sexual orientation was not only taboo, same-sex relationships were a criminal offense; disabled people were generally seen a deficient, typically ignored and oppressed; in Europe, Catholic and Protestant groups continued to practice a self-imposed isolation, with a self-righteousness that had led earlier to fierce religious wars.)

What has all this to do with the recent UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Depending on your take on history you could either take the Eurocentric view that Columbus discovered America or you could take the indigenous view that Columbus found there were people already living in North America and the Caribbean. Similarly you could believe that Europeans discovered South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia or that Europeans found people already living in these places.

European countries, of course, were not the only cultures to colonize by conquest but in recent centuries they played a pre-eminent role in that conquest. Conquest and colonization rarely, if ever, recognized the rights of indigenous peoples, valued their cultures, languages or their self-organization. Colonizers almost always imposed their culture, language, and organization on colonized peoples. Many indigenous cultures, languages and ways of organization have subsequently been lost. That erosion continues to this day.

It is my understanding that the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is not only a recognition of the appalling cost of colonization, but an attempt to prevent future erosion and marginalization of indigenous cultures, languages, practices and ways of organization. Unlike Mr. Hudson’s concern that the dominant culture, which he calls the “literate” culture, would be beholden to indigenous peoples, which he calls “preliterate” cultures, history has shown almost exclusively, that the reverse is true. Of the hundreds of indigenous cultures and peoples existing in North America and in the Caribbean at the time of Columbus’ arrival, comparatively few remain. Most have been decimated by disease, forced labour, forced relocation and armed conquest. Many of the indigenous cultures that do remain, have had to endure forced acculturation and a systematic destruction of their cultures through governmental policies, as in the Canadian case, the residential school system. The social issues that aboriginal peoples face globally such as poverty and social breakdown are not accidental phenomena. Their identities, languages and cultures have been devalued for centuries.

Those who forget or do not know our history will repeat old mistakes. Not valuing the unique gifts that indigenous cultures bring to our experience as human beings is a deeply haunting and tragic oversight.

George Jason