Native America

Indigenous Self-Representation in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico

by Jeanette den Toonder (Volume editor) Kim van Dam (Volume editor) Fjære van der Stok (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 196 Pages
Series: Interamericana, Volume 9


This book focuses on self-representations of several indigenous communities in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. It offers a multifaceted understanding of North American indigenous history, identity, community and forms of culture. Intersecting themes shape the structure of this volume: the first part focuses on the theme of recovery in relation to the literary field, the second part examines the theme of governance through examples of conflict, public government and citizenship, and the final part discusses the theme of increased global movements in relation to the preservation of local traditions. The contributors hope to advance trans-indigenous studies by encouraging productive dialogues across the U.S., Canada and Mexico–U.S. borders.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • New Ways for the Future: Hemispheric Encounters
  • Part I: Literature, Recovery and Space
  • The Social and Cultural Context of Inuit Literary History
  • Erasure and Recovery: History, Identity and Indigenous Epistemology in LeAnne Howe’s Miko Kings (2007)
  • “Ready to Shout of Joyous Things”: Claiming Space for/in Inuit Children’s Literature
  • Part II: Conflict, Governance and Citizenship
  • Perceptions, Emotions and Conflict Resolution: The Northern Gateway Case in British Columbia, Canada
  • Inuit Governance in Nunavut: How to “Inuitize” a Public Government
  • Contesting Citizenship: Educational Practices in an Indigenous Mixtec Community in Mexico
  • Part III: Tradition, Representation and Cultural Expression
  • The Politics of Indigenous Identity and Representation in Twentieth-Century Mexico
  • The Social Life of Berries: Gendered Practices of Picking and Sharing in a Contemporary Context
  • The Importance of Tradition? Analyzing the Struggle for Survival of Pelota mixteca, an Indigenous Mexican Game
  • List of Contributors
  • Index

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Jeanette den Toonder

Centre for Canadian Studies, University of Groningen

New Ways for the Future: Hemispheric Encounters

1.   Definitions and self-determination

The different Indigenous peoples in the world constitute an important factor in redefining global cultural, national and political identities, as they share a common experience of colonization, deculturation and displacement and equally strive to achieve Indigenous rights and political autonomy. Their endeavor to create transnational networks of resistance has resulted in the formation of indigeneity, a notion that allows for Indigenous peoples to be considered as a global community.

In this volume, reflections on the key issues of sovereignty, self-government and self-determination are offered from a variety of perspectives, including political science, sociology, anthropology and literary theory. As Roger Maaka and Chris Andersen have stressed in their preface to the volume The Indigenous Experience, Indigenous experiences are extremely rich and heterogeneous and cannot be accounted for in one single book. This volume focuses on the experiences of several Indigenous groups in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico – in particular, the Inuit in Canada, the Choctaw in the U.S., and the Mixtecos and Tojolabal in Mexico – and strives to offer a more multifaceted understanding of North American Indigenous history, identity, community and forms of culture.

The United Nations Working Group for Indigenous Peoples which was installed in 1982 established a draft declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples in which “common-to-all characteristics are identified, articulated, internalized, and [..] conceptualized” (Maaka and Andersen 11). The draft declaration completed in 1993 was based on the following working definition presented in the Martinez Cobo report of 1986:

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems. (U.N. Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, U.N. Doc E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add.4, at 29, para. 379) ← 9 | 10 →

This resulted in the Declaration for the Protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights approved by the United Nations.1 Even if the Declaration is non-binding for states, it serves as a powerful statement of universally accepted norms and provides a strong basis for arguing for greater legal protection for Indigenous rights.2 However, as Manjusha Nair has argued, the concept of rights itself contains an inevitable paradox in the case of Indigenous peoples. Their legitimacy is based on collective property rights, but the recognition of these rights “originates in the idea of human rights that has the basis in Western liberalism and individualism” (Nair 5). As a result, the lawfulness of the concept of Indigenous peoples is “inherently linked to Western social and cultural changes since the 1970s” (Nair 5). From this Western perspective, Nair claims, a paternalistic and stereotypical image of the Indigenous’ “pure and simplified form of life” (Nair 6) has emanated. This biased image is based on a romanticized idea of the traditional world of these communities and places them “outside the sphere of modernization” (Nair 6). Due to this image of “simple and undifferentiated society in the post-industrial discourse” (Nair 7), the United Nations’ categorization of Indigenous peoples can be considered a-historical. In order for the Indigenous peoples to play a role of equal merit in society, this problem of historicity needs to be addressed.

It is therefore essential to shift the focus of legitimacy from the principle of property – where collective and individual rights clash – to that of historical self-determination. This particular form of self-determination takes into account “the fact that Indigenous peoples lived by their own laws, traditions and customs before they encountered colonizing powers as a crucial basis for a return to that status in the present” (Bennett 74). Mark Bennett, who considers self-determination a political or moral principle that can be applied to Indigenous peoples to justify their claims, also refers to the problems related to this application. Since the notion of self-determination is traditionally connected to nations and national groups, a frequently asked question involves the justification of self-determination. It has been argued that self-determination is indeed justified when considering Indigenous peoples’ remedial right, based on “historical deprivation of territory (in terms of sovereignty or self-government), [..] the breach of autonomy agreements, and often […] grievous breaches of human rights” (Bennett 96). In order to establish self-determination – which is a key element in orienting Indigenous-state relationships – different stages ← 10 | 11 → have to be completed: firstly, it is important to recognize prior sovereignty; secondly, to create an analogy with decolonization; and thirdly, to reorient the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state. Furthermore, this relationship should be based on “mutual respect, consent and continuity” (Bennett 101). Recognizing prior sovereignty includes admitting that these peoples were deprived of their sovereignty by a colonizing power. Their current situation differs significantly from that of colonized peoples in Africa or Asia for example, who have been allowed to restore their different structures and rules through the decolonization process. In the case of Indigenous populations, there is a tendency to legitimize colonial power, as colonization has resulted in a democracy in which these populations are supposed to be “free and equal” (Bennett 107). Or, as Jeffrey Sissons has phrased it, post-settler states “claim to represent, fairly and legitimately, the descendants of both colonizers and colonized” (11). This argument however focuses on individual citizens instead of peoples, thus presupposing integration of Indigenous individuals within the colonizing populations and denying their decolonization. By recognizing prior nationhood and the analogy with decolonization, this situation of internal colonization can be transformed into a relation of equal and self-governing peoples, resulting in a renewed Indigenous-state relationship.

The principle of self-determination is also essential according to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it underlines “the right these communities” have to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. According to the chair of the Working Group, Professor Erica-Irene Daes, this foundational principle of self-determination entails a process “through which indigenous peoples are able to join with all the other peoples that make up the State on mutually-agreed upon and just terms, after many years of isolation and exclusion” (Daes 9). The comparison with “all the other peoples” refers to the existence of diverse cultures within a state. As James Anaya has argued, the increasing acceptance of cultural pluralism in Western societies enhances the possibilities for Indigenous peoples to develop autonomous governance and Indigenous institutions. Essential to Indigenous self-government is the development of these institutions on the one hand, and “their effective participation in the larger political order” (Anaya 111) on the other hand. By stressing this two-fold attachment, Anaya reflects on the way in which Indigenous peoples locate themselves within a global framework. Considering themselves distinct from, as well as part of, larger social and political units, they challenge “traditional Western conceptions that envisage mutually exclusive states as the primary factor for locating power and community, and the view promotes a political order that is less state-centered and more centered on people in a world of distinct yet increasingly integrated and overlapping spheres ← 11 | 12 → of community and authority” (Anaya 112). In order for constitutive self-determination to be achieved, the three conditions as formulated by Bennett – mutual respect, consent and continuity – seem to be vital. A fourth paradigm – constructive engagement – involves a constitutional covenant that may be decisive in changing Indigenous peoples and state relations. Roger Maaka and Augie Fleras have argued that constructive engagement “proposes a constitutional alternative to a colonial social contract” (345). This new constitutional order “secures and promotes indigenous rights, including the right to indigenous models of self-determining autonomy without, however, denying the equally legitimate claims to Crown rule and authority” (Maaka and Fleras 345). They nevertheless add that considerable controversy may be necessary in order to reach such a constructive engagement contract.

2.   Transnationalism and Indigenous methodologies

Shared experiences and overlapping histories presuppose a productive comparison between Indigenous peoples across the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, the examination of connections between these global communities increasingly favors a hemispheric approach to Indigenous studies. As Antonio Barrenechea and Heidrun Moertl have stressed in their introduction to a recent special issue of Comparative American Studies, a growing number of scholars “argue for the planetary character of indigenous culture” (117) and explore the opportunities for considering indigeneity in a transnational context. Interdisciplinary approaches have also been promoted by associations and institutions, such as the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) and the International Association of Inter-American Studies/Asociación Internacional de Estudios Interamericanos (IAS/EIA). Such formal as well as informal affiliations between Indigenous peoples from different states in the Americas highlight “their common objectives in achieving greater cultural autonomy” (Sissons 14). Jeffrey Sissons has emphasized that, on the one hand, “the economic and political issues addressed by indigenous groups were and are depressingly similar” (13), but that, on the other hand, the cultural domain is characterized by its diversity. By opposing international policy favored by state politics and the form of modernity pursued by Indigenous peoples, Sissons contrasts the tendency towards homogenization in the first case and the need for cultural diversity in the second, a contrast necessarily including a duality between state and local interests. This perspective calls for a cautious application of the transnational approach, as each Indigenous group is (re)defining its cultural identity in its own way. This process of identification necessarily includes the re-appropriation of possessions taken from them by settler states. This ← 12 | 13 → re-appropriation of material culture, local customs or knowledge always involves a “renewed significance within alternative cultural frames” (Sissons 15), frames that should not be neglected. A number of critics have indeed stressed the existence of a certain tension between the nationalist orientation on the one hand and the transnational approach on the other, a strain that is primarily related to the global/local discussion. Furthermore, the transnational engagement should not exclude “internal transnationalism”, a term referring to American native “national” spaces existing “inside the geography of the United States” (Huang et al. 8). Jessica Horton for example wonders if Native subjects “can simultaneously participate in transnational processes […], and continue to form and maintain deep local attachments” (3).

In her study Mapping the Americas, Shari Huhndorf focuses on the continuities and contradictions between these national and transnational orientations that have shaped Indigenous cultural production in North America. As discussed in the first part of this introduction, legal grounds for asserting self-determination and political sovereignty rest on the assumption that Indigenous communities are nations. This is particularly apparent when considering the term that Canadian Indigenous groups have proposed to identify themselves with the term “First Nations.”3 Even if “nationalism is an essential anti-colonial strategy in indigenous settings” (Huhndorf 3), it should be stressed that this nationalist approach is too restrictive from a scholarly perspective as many issues, such as gender, cannot be addressed by this method. The editors of the special issue “Charting Transnational Native American Studies” of the Journal of Transnational American Studies also consider the pragmatic importance of the nationalist approach as well as the risks of “oversimplifying complex tribal identities, erasing broad networks of interaction and community, and smoothing indigenous histories that have always included transnational elements” (Huang et al. 2). Their goal is to examine in what way transnationalism can be a useful analytical tool “for providing a deeper understanding of contemporary Native American Studies” (Huang et al. 1) by also considering in what way Indigenous conceptions of nationhood question Western understandings of the nation. Similarly, while scrutinizing the limits of nationalism, Huhndorf acknowledges the fact that the works of her corpus – Indigenous literature and culture of the 1980s and 1990s – “illustrate the enduring importance of indigenous nationalism” (Huhndorf 7). In her analyses of Indigenous cultural production, she insists on the interplay between tribal concerns ← 13 | 14 → and transnational dynamics, thus connecting the local and the global. If the tribal and the transnational are inseparable entities, Huhndorf’s cross-border analysis does conclude that “transnationalism has come to occupy ever more expansive ground in Native cultural practices in recent decades and will likely continue to do so in the years ahead” (117). The editors of the special issue of the Journal of Transnational American Studies push this idea further by considering Indigenous experiences and realities as essential factors for restructuring the notion of transnationalism. Their focus on “Indigenous-to-Indigenous relationships and connections” (Huang et al. 3) establishes a comparative paradigm in which the traditional binary oppositions of center-margin, major-minor and center-periphery are replaced by a transnational turn. The transnational offers alternative geographies and histories in which national maps and histories are part of a large-scale global perspective.

Even if “persuasive arguments can be made” to embrace the transnational, Chadwick Allen doubts in his article “whether the ‘nation’ in ‘transnational’ can ever mean other than the settler nation-state” (2012.1: 17). By re-routing this thinking to center on Indigenous intellectual production, Allen proposes a trans-Indigenous methodology that he further develops in his study Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. Instead of focusing on the relationships between Indigenous nations and settler-states, Allen examines connections and crossings from Indigenous nation to Indigenous nation. By acknowledging the “mobility and multiple interactions of Indigenous peoples, cultures, histories, and texts” (Allen 2012.2: xiv), Allen distinguishes two related terms, “recovery” and “interpretation” (Allen 2012.2: xv), that have the potential to establish methodological approaches. The development of global Indigenous methodologies based on “juxtapositions of distinct Indigenous texts” (Allen 2012.2: xvii) should, however, not be at the expense of the diversity and complexity of Indigenous identities. Indeed, in Allen’s study, distinct traditions and knowledge are respected by means of refined textual interpretations. As a result, multiple perspectives of divergent communities, languages and cultures meet within a trans-Indigenous framework. This constant dialogue between the local and the global does not prioritize the one over the other, as global Indigenous studies bring together “multiple distinct cultures and histories on a truly equal basis” (Allen 2012.2: xiii).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
self-government trans-indigenous studies literary space tradition and global culture cultural expression Indigenous self-representations
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 196 pp., 2 fig., 2 tables

Biographical notes

Jeanette den Toonder (Volume editor) Kim van Dam (Volume editor) Fjære van der Stok (Volume editor)

Dr. Jeanette den Toonder is Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at the University of Groningen. Dr. Kim van Dam is Associated Researcher at the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen and Coordinator at the Energy Academy Europe. Fjære van der Stok holds a Bachelor degree in Romance Languages and Cultures.


Title: Native America