Indigenous Sovereignty — On the Road to Sustainable Development

Ash Layo Maysing

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Subsistence agriculture, self-sustaining economies: To the inhabitants of this modern capitalist world, these sound like new, radical ways of reconceptualising the economy, yet they both predate the rise of modern capitalism. Many Indigenous populations around the world have been utilising and continue to utilize these sustainable practices, which for many result from holding the Earth and Nature at a high regard. Having said this, I want to avoid patronising and simplifying Indigenous peoples’ cultures and socioeconomic arrangements — I want to instead draw focus to the relationship between states and their Indigenous communities and to how governments can better serve their Indigenous populations by providing them with the support necessary to better facilitate autonomous, self-sustaining, traditional economies that have very little negative impact on the environment, which ultimately benefits the goal of sustainable development. I also want to unpack the cultural implications of Indigenous sustainable practice and what this could possibly mean for radically changing the ways modern society approaches sustainable development. Before going any further, I want to point out that I’m writing this not as an outsider, but an Indigenous person whose communities have survived and thrived for centuries before the onset of capitalism.

I’m sure that at this point most readers have heard the story of missionary John Allen Chau, who, believing that the word of his God was important enough to trespass and impose onto Indigenous land, was killed for entering the territory of the North Sentinelese tribe of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a community which has guarded itself from outside contact for 60,000 years. And though you have the right to mourn his death and treat him as a martyr, his intentions are nothing new: Throughout history, the narrative of the Westerner / European ‘explorer’ going on a civilising mission to bring ‘progress’ to the lesser peoples of the world has become permanently embedded into the fabric of our society. Yet, religion is merely a facet of this civilising mission. It’s a veneer for something much greater: the Western ideal of capitalist modernity. News coverage of the Sentinelese tribe often features language that attempts to place them behind the rest of the world on the evolutionary scale: “Palaeolithic,” “Stone-age,” “Pre-Neolithic” are all words that were, at some point in time, used to describe them (Majumdar, 2018). Not only is this a racist depiction of a people who have lived their lives differently from most, it is a symptom of colonial discourse which treats cultures that do not match the ideal of Western capitalist modernity as somehow lesser.

But I would like to pose another vital question. Has Western capitalist modernity been that great for Indigenous peoples such as myself? The answer might shock you: not really. Let’s be honest, capitalist colonisers care very little for Indigenous lives. They have engaged in forced eviction from native land, forced removal of natural assets, and the exploitation of intellectual property, all for the sake of profit-making (First Peoples Worldwide, 2017). And what about the violent, settler-colonial, assimilationist polices placed on Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians in the past or, for that matter, on other groups currently living in post-colonial states? It was never about bringing them into the modern world. It has always been about moulding Indigenous peoples into a Western ideal, to make us compatible with the current capitalist hegemony. When the exploitation of the white working classes in Europe can no longer be exhausted, expansion into other lands and the exploitation of what DuBois (1920) calls “darker peoples” becomes an imperative (p. 24). John Allen Chau wasn’t just introducing Christianity to the Sentinelese, he was trying to expose them to a “religion of whiteness” (DuBois, 1920, p. 18). And the social repercussions are just one dimension of this multi-faceted issue. The environmental degradation brought upon by capitalist development over the past few decades has been astounding: when humans began tapping into fossil fuels as a main source of energy a little over two centuries ago, a “Pandora’s Box of unintended environmental change” was opened up (Jonsson, 2012, p. 680). Not only has this started a process rapid climate change, but, logically speaking, the exponential overuse of finite resources for the sake of profit-making can’t possibly be a sustainable choice.

Going back to the case of the Sentinelese, we can see that their practices do much less harm to the environment than the ideal of modernity put forth by Western colonial thought, and though many of their practices could be extended to other Indigenous populations worldwide, it’s best to avoid the over-simplification of a diverse group of peoples. Firstly, they are a nomadic people, living on wildlife and following the most natural cycle of the food-chain without producing non-biodegradable food waste (Mukerji, 2018). Next, they’re mainly animistic, meaning they fear and respect the spirits of nature, avoiding acts that could displease them (Mukerji, 2018). In addition, they fiercely protect the rich natural resources that make their islands, which is believed to be one of the factors causing their hostile behaviours (Mukerji, 2018). Furthermore, their economies arise out of essential life necessities, such as making cooking utensils, hunting gear, furniture, canoes, etc., rather than out of wasteful extravagance (Mukerji, 2018). Lastly, they make use of a barter system of gift exchange as opposed to the use of paper/plastic money (Mukerji, 2018). Although I’ve previously stated that we should not generalise these practices to all Indigenous peoples, I can see many similarities reflected in the traditions of my own people.

So where do we go from here? Should we immediately abandon all that tethers us to the capitalist system and start self-sustaining communes? As radical as it sounds, some might agree with that option, but for many of us whose livelihoods have become so intertwined with capitalism and its grip, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for most to completely detach from capitalist practice and consumerism. Therefore, to start our journey on the road to sustainable development and the revolutionising of the economy, let’s talk about the role Indigenous peoples might play in this project and how society can stand to benefit from respecting and understanding our ways of living. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I want to draw our attention to what role states should play in serving and supporting the practices of their Indigenous communities as a kind of sustainable praxis. They could take an extreme approach as the Indian government did with the Sentinelese and leave them completely untouched after years of failed attempts, which served to be more beneficial for both parties in the long run. But what about Indigenous communities who have already been exposed and integrated into capitalism? To reverse histories of colonialism and assimilation is a near impossible task, so, in my own opinion, states could at the very least respect the significance of our traditional socioeconomic systems and our desire for some degree of state autonomy by writing policy and legislation that gives us agency over our native lands while providing the general public with education on current issues affecting Indigenous peoples. This would allow us to re-integrate some of our sustainable practices with the way we currently live our lives in modern society without having to worry about any pushback from non-Indigenous citizens, providing us with an alternative to capitalist practice which could only serve to be beneficial in the project of global sustainability.

On a more sociocultural approach to the issue of Indigenous sovereignty and sustainability, learning to understand and respect Indigenous sustainable practice has varying implications for society as a whole. An article by Watane and Yap (2015) perfectly encapsulates this idea. They write:

“First, when we say that Indigenous peoples can contribute to sustainable development, what we ought to mean is not merely that Indigenous cultures (traditional knowledge and practices) support the pursuit and achievement of sustainable development goals. What we also ought to mean is that Indigenous values are able to provide us with different foundations for, and perspectives of, sustainable development…Our second point is that Indigenous contributions to sustainable development presuppose Indigenous self-determination. If we are serious about the contribution of Indigenous peoples, then we must also admit that no serious conversation of Indigenous perspectives of sustainable development can occur without it…Self-determination allows Indigenous peoples to determine the means by which they develop and to be part of national and international decision-making that affects them (now and in the future). Sustainable development for Indigenous peoples is an important part of a broader framework of self-determination.” (pp. 52-53)

According to them, it is one thing to acknowledge and respect the right to self-determination for Indigenous peoples, but that will only take us so far in our struggle for sustainability. States must listen to and understand Indigenous systems of thinking about sustainability and its epistemological value if we truly want to revolutionise our economies and ensure that our systems are more compatible with the environment — Indigenous self-determination is merely the first step to doing this.

To conclude, when we talk about sustainable development and practice, excluding the voices of Indigenous peoples is an unwise decision. Policymakers could stand to benefit from Indigenous ways of knowing when it comes to writing environmental policy, but this is only possible when states recognise Indigenous peoples’ autonomy and sovereignty. But for this to come into full effect, we must try and decolonise the systems of thought thrust upon us by the onset of Western capitalist modernity — if society as a whole continues to treat Indigenous populations as primitive, backward peoples in need of saving, how can we even begin to get governments to listen to us in the first place? In order to combat this prevalent issue, we must fight with the tool of education and decolonise our curricula to better facilitate a cultural openness to alternative ways of understanding economic development. And after garnering deserving respect from the state and its non-Indigenous citizens, only then can we as Indigenous peoples provide the necessary support to start paving the way for global sustainability.


This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”


Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E. (1920). Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. New York: Schocken Books. Print.

First Peoples Worldwide. (2017). The Challenges We Face [Website update]. Retrieved December 16th, 2018, from http://firstpeoples.org/the-challenges-we-face.htm

Jonsson, F. (2012). The Industrial Revolution in the Anthropocene. The Journal of Modern History, 84(3), 679-696.

Majumdar, A. (2018). Why the 'Stone-Age Sentinelese’ is a figment of racist imagination. [web log post]. Retrieved December 16th, 2018, from https://www.dailyo.in/variety/sentinelese-racism evolution-john-allen-chauandaman-and-nicobar-islands/story/1/28278.html

Mukerji, S. (2018). 5 lessons in sustainable living that Sentinelese islanders can teach you. [web log post]. Retrieved December 16th, 2018, from https://www.mynation.com/news/5-lessons-sustainable-living-that-sentinelese-islanders-can-teach-you-pjnr4q

Watene, K. and Yap, M. (2015). Culture and sustainable development: Indigenous contributions. Journal of Global Ethics, 11(1), 51-55.

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