The North American Experience

By The International Labour Organization
Indigenous peoples in North America have had a very long history of managing their relationships with settlers through negotiations. At first, they made treaties with European states. Between 1610 and 1929 they made more than 450 treaties with France, Great Britain, Spain and later the United States and Canada. As the size and military power of the settlers increased, however, indigenous peoples were subjected to relocation, containment in supervised settlements, and interference in their political systems, economies, religious practices, and cultural life. The lowest point was reached in the period 1910-1930 when there were fewer than 350,000 indigenous people left in Canada and the US, out of an estimated 3-5 million just two (2) centuries earlier and nearly all of the remaining indigenous communities were under some degree of government supervision.

Since the 1930’s, however, there as been a dramatic resurgence of indigenous peoples in terms of their numbers, rights, and influence on national society. The indigenous population of Canada and the US is now roughly 3 million. Indigenous people retain ownership of about 5% of the land in the two (2) countries as a whole, and nearly 15% of the land in Alaska and the northern half of Canada. Some forms of local autonomy has been recognized by US laws since 1934, and by Canadian laws since 1951. In the 1960’s indigenous communities in both countries built effective national political organizations to advocate for greater autonomy, and more financial aid for economic development. One measure of the growth of indigenous organizations’ power was their success in convincing national governments to repudiate longstanding assimilationist policies – in 1968 in the US and 1973 in Canada. The Supreme Court of both countries subsequently affirmed the legal force of treaties previously made with indigenous people (1979 in the US, 1985 in Canada). Today, the right of indigenous peoples to make laws for themselves, and manage natural resources in their own territories, is gaining respect in public opinions as well as law in both countries.

Along with this trend towards greater legal autonomy, the last 15 years have been marked by a new spirit of partnership and cooperation between the leaders of indigenous and non-indigenous government. The first response of indigenous leaders to a dispute over land or natural resources development is increasingly conducted by joint working groups or commissions, and a growing variety of services in indigenous communities, such as schools and hospitals, are managed through inter governmental agreements.

As you will see from the six case studies in this book, there are still many important unresolved disputes between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in North America, and resolving them can be time-consuming, exhausting, and challenging. Confrontations sometimes still occur when negotiations stall. Overall, however, the experience of indigenous peoples in the US and Canada with negotiations have been positive, and the negotiators who collaborate in preparing this book all agreed that indigenous communities are becoming more effective in achieving their goals by this means.

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