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Indigenous self determination the key to struggle against ongoing colonialism

Dean Foley -

Indigenous rights in the Americas are a sensitive issue, given the history of genocide and exploitation by European imperial powers and the colonial states they left behind

But a recent incident in Brazil should serve as a wake-up call to Indigenous peoples everywhere: relying on the people or governments that have been entrenched by colonialism and that perceive Indigenous peoples as a "minority" or inferior is a dangerous proposition.

Consider the case of newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil who appeared to backtrack on an election promise to create a ministry of Indigenous affairs to help restore Indigenous rights and protections that were undermined by the previous government under Bolsonaro's rule.

Indigenous leaders were surprised when Lula said he might instead create a special department linked to the presidential office rather than a fully-fledged ministry, breaking a campaign promise to strengthen Indigenous rights soon after taking office.

While the Brazilian President is more than happy to stand in front of the media and tell the world at the United Nations Climate Change Conference that he vows to undo environmental degradation and halt deforestation, it's hard to take anything a promise-breaker says at face value.

The phrase "Don't be an Indian giver" is used by non-Indigenous people to describe someone who demands a gift back immediately after receiving it which has a derogatory connotation towards Indigenous people. But if anything, it should be at least changed to a "non-Indian giver" since non-Indigenous people are the ones who've historically gone against their promises and treaties.

Even in the twentieth century and "modern era", Indigenous people in many parts of the world continue to experience substantial social, economic and cultural setbacks due to their communities' lack of access to autonomous power.

The case of Brazil exemplifies this point, where decades of sustained colonial occupation, genocide, assimilation and oppression pushed Indigenous people back rather than making progress toward a more equal relationship with the colonial states that occupy their stolen lands. This is not a new phenomenon; violence against the country's Indigenous population and undermining their rights were commonplace during Portuguese rule which their descendants have carried on for hundreds of years.

This is because the government is composed of a ruling class whose interests are (obviously) counter to that of the Indigenous people. The ruling class in Brazil, who hails from rich imperial family bloodlines, have mostly been complicit with loggers, miners, farmers and ranchers and other capitalist industries that continue to encroach on Indigenous territories. The very elites who are interested in protecting their economic interests often do not feel similarly inclined toward protecting Indigenous territory, obviously…

So Indigenous people can't rely on "good" politicians and governments. The colonial state will always be a direct antagonist in Indigenous struggles for land and political autonomy. And colonialism has physically and culturally transformed Indigenous peoples' lives into an unending struggle for self-determination, autonomy, and self-preservation.

But why do Indigenous people even bother approaching colonial-state representatives for any sort of aid at all if we know that most of the time it will be refused or rejected? It makes no sense from any angle struggling for autonomy to appeal to the colonial rulers themselves.

Imagine trying to fight a fire that keeps growing and expanding (colonial states), but you have only a garden hose to put it out… You would certainly need more help than that, right?

Which is why Indigenous reliance on colonial powers and the states they created means that our influence is limited and the power to decide over our territory, culture and resources will remain in their hands.

The time is nigh for the Indigenous movement in Brazil and around the world to begin actively seeking true allies—not just sympathisers—who are not tied to the interests of colonialist and "settler" states.

Dean Foley is a Kamilaroi man and founder of Indigenous business accelerator Barayamal

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