The International Indigenous Movement for Self-Determination (Part I)

In North America, gaining Indigenous autonomy from the colonial powers of the United States (US) and Canada has involved efforts at state-formation, that is, tribal governance. For decades, Indigenous activists and organizers in North America have worked tirelessly to assert the validity of treaties and establish the sovereignty of tribal nations. These nations seek to gain control over their social and political institutions without compromising what they consider unique and essential cultural markers.

In Latin America, Indigenous efforts to combat colonialism have taken a different strategy. These peoples have organized into movements against racialized social hierarchies, and have agitated for increased rights. They have overtly challenged the state and contemporary capitalism, drawing upon an ethical reading of Marxism that calls for improved social rights and economic justice.

Within international discourse, new Indigenous alliances have found resonance in Indigenous claims against the states that act as their colonizers. In response to Indigenous movements around the world, even the United Nations (UN) has been compelled to formally recognize Indigenous rights. The UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) has provided Indigenous peoples with legal grounds from which to argue for increased autonomy and recognition of their social, cultural, and political practices in places where they have been historically exploited and marginalized.

As long as they are located on other continents, the North American Left is usually comfortable with Indigenous politics. However, when Indigenous movements are located closer to home, people on the Left tend to have more difficulty accepting the politics of self-determination. The function of tribal governments is considered to be problematic. Often, twin emphases on class struggle and environmentalism prevents appreciation of how tribal state-making efforts are part of a larger struggle against US imperialism and militarism in the service of capitalism. In general, the Marxian lack of emphasis or interest in land and land-based peoples is a blindspot, a deficit in imagined futures.

For example, the work of environmental justice organizations in the Southwestern US, where the Navajo Nation is located, largely challenges tribal development policies for being exploitative of the natural environment. Sometimes they do this through characterizations of these governments as a form of neocolonialism. There is little to no recognition of progressive reforms won through struggle during the second half of the 20th century that have ensured greater degrees of control and self-determination for these tribal governments.

It is useful to analyze the differences and commonalities among Indigenous movements in order to gain a better understanding of the complex and contradictory processes of self-determination. In this way we can learn where Indigenous emancipatory projects conflict in approach but converge in meaning. Ultimately, we suggest that more attention should be given to the potentials of Indigenous socialisms of various kinds in global struggles against imperialism and capitalist accumulation. Part 1 will look at lessons learned from Indigenous movements in Latin America. In Part 2, we will explore the Navajo Nation’s experience in nation-building.

Self-Determination in Latin America: A Long History of Struggle

Following the 2005 election of the first Indigenous president of any country in the Americas — Evo Morales in Bolivia — we commented on the fact that many were taken by surprise by this seemingly sudden occurrence out of nowhere. This is because they had not been paying attention to the development of the international Indigenous movement over the previous three decades. We called attention to the Indigenous mass movements in the Americas during the 1960s and 1970s that gave rise to the international Indigenous movement. This movement, in turn, brought pressure to bear on the UN that led to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Our story starts even further back, in the 1920s, with the work of Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui. Mariátegui made the case that the Indigenous peoples of the Andes are nationalities that have the right to self-determination, including independence from the dominant state — although Mariátegui argued that a separate Andean state would not be feasible to achieve.

During that time, the Soviet Union-led Comintern promoted the right to self-determination — including independence — of all nationalities and proposed that an Andean Indian Republic be formed in South America, as well as Black Republics in the United States and in South Africa. However, Mariátegui believed that liberation and socialism — Indigenous socialism — would come not from state formation, but from struggles of the Indigenous nationalities, Mestizo peasants, and urban workers in unison. He was certain that a century of independent state formation in Latin America would not lend itself to separatist movements, nor would such movements lead to authentic liberation. In fact, since that time, even the most militant Andean leaders and organizations have not proposed separate Indigenous republics, but rather plurinational state formations.

However, the dream of self-determination was not to be achieved in Mariátegui’s time. The Cold War affected peoples’ movements in every corner of the world, no less the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. By the 1950s, Marxist-inspired movements were under heavy attack, ideologically, as well as physically. As mild a democratic reform government as that in Guatemala was overthrown in 1954 by the US Central Intelligence Agency, and following the Cuban Revolution, any social movement demanding land reform or workers’ rights was labeled communist. Missionary intervention and assistance in Indigenous movements, particularly following Vatican II, largely replaced the weakened socialist movements.

Following decades of defeats for Indigenous peoples in Latin America, our story jumps ahead to 1989, sixteen years before Evo Morales’ election, in the Andean state of Ecuador. There, Indigenous peoples rose up and paralyzed the country for a week. The protesters blocked highways, halting all traffic in the country, and then massed in the streets of Quito, the capital, presenting sixteen demands focused on land, culture, and political rights.

The pan-Indigenous organization, CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), founded in 1986, provided both leadership and an ideological frame for the future of Indigenous movements in that country, including the extraordinary role of women’s leadership and participation. From its founding, CONAIE had been actively participating in the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, established in 1981. Since 1990, the Ecuadorian government has included Indigenous representatives in its delegations to the UN, although the Indigenous organizations remain active and wary of the national government.

Historian Marc Becker, who has documented the Andean Indigenous movements in books and articles, observes that, following the 1990 uprising: “In a manner rarely seen in Latin America, Indigenous activism in Ecuador spawned an academic ‘Generation of 1990’ with numerous articles, books, and doctoral dissertations on the subject of Indigenous politics. Anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists analyzed the uprising and the ideological shifts engendered within the Indigenous world. Academics came to see the uprising, the organizational process leading to it, and the political negotiations following it as representing the birth of a new Indigenous ideology and organizational structure.”

Now that socialism is back in the forefront of the Indigenous movement in Bolivia with Evo Morales’s political party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), it is time for the Left to comprehend Indigenous struggles and aspirations.

For Part 2 of this article, click here.

Andrew Curley is Diné and a Ph.D. candidate within the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University. He studies coal mining, climate change, and economic development in the Navajo Nation, which is located between Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time writer, activist, and scholar. She was a founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s. Since 1973, she has worked with Indigenous communities for sovereignty and land rights and helped build the international Indigenous movement.