Aug 30/98: Clipping-Nisga'a have "a long way to go"


New York Times
August 30, 1998
Anthony DePalma

[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]

Earlier this month, after initialing the first treaty that his people had ever concluded with Canada's Government, Chief Joseph Gosnell Sr. held the document over the seal whiskers of his regal headdress and shouted, "The Nisga'a canoe has returned."

It was a reference to a trip to the white man's capital taken by his native American ancestors a century ago, and it was a way of saying that the Nisga'a's long journey for recognition within Canada was over.

But the Nisga'a in fact have a long way to go, and in that they are little different from other native Americans in Canada, Mexico and the United States. For the treaty, which gives the Nisga'a title to ancestral lands and the right to govern what goes on there, still must be approved by Nisga'a members, the legislature of British Columbia and the federal Parliament. It has already raised objections from other Canadians about the special rights it would give the Nisga'a.

In fact the Nisga'a experience illustrates how much, across all of North America, the original problem that European settlers faced on their arrival in the new world remains largely unresolved.

More than 500 years later, Indians continue to demand recognition that they have special rights to live a special way of life by virtue of their having been in North America first.

And this is more than a simple question of granting justice, as the native Americans see it.

Even where the political will exists to grant such rights, governments and courts struggle to reconcile the needs of Indian cultures with the concept of equality in the constitutions of all three countries.

It is a little like the basic political problem with affirmative action programs: While the central goal of righting past wrongs enjoys considerable support, the formulas being put forward are under attack because they seem to grant special privileges to some, but not all, citizens.

In Mexico, for example, Indians in the state of Chiapas have taken up arms to force the government to recognize Indian autonomy, but officials worry that doing so too broadly could give Indians rights not available to other Mexicans.

And in the United States, tribes are testing the boundaries of their sovereignty by exploiting their land in ways that might not be tolerated off the reservations.


In the Canadian case, opponents object to the treaty because it would allow elections limited by race. So they are preparing to challenge the constitutionality of the Nisga'a treaty before the precedent is followed by dozens of other Indian groups that are also clamoring for self-government.

Despite different histories and vastly unequal populations, these issues all boil down to a demand to control Indian destiny by controlling Indian land.

"What makes Indians Indians is the dream of living on communally held lands," said José Barreiro, associate director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University, who has worked and studied Indian groups across the American continent. "The issue of land is very, very strong in all indigenous communities."

The issue of the land itself has been addressed, fairly or not, in treaties or contracts signed over many years. Now the crux of controversy in all three countries is the way Indians live on the land.

Although they travel in pick up trucks, wear jeans and use the Internet, many Indians lead lives on their reserves and reservations that are different from the societies around them.

The 2,500 Nisga'a who live on their traditional lands are divided into four bands, which correspond to four villages. Patterns of leadership, land tenancy and even marriage are determined to a large extent by participation in the bands.

Some tribes have their own courts, their own methods of punishment and their own preferred style of elections, which is not always democratic. These patterns have persisted despite ferocious attempts at assimilation through residential schools and laws that banned traditional ceremonies.


Over the last 30 years, the recognition of basic human rights around the world has exposed injustices in the way Indians are treated. In the United States, the civil rights movement focused attention on Indians, and affirmative action gave a whole generation of Indian students access to universities and law schools. That generation of lawyers is now testing the limits of Indian sovereignty, and the fight for greater independence is sometimes financed by tax-free revenues from gambling operations.

In Canada, the Government is still smarting from a violent confrontation between soldiers and Mohawk Indians in 1990. A report by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples last year left no doubt about how badly directed Canada's paternalistic handling of Indians had been. Recent court decisions have upheld Indian claims and even the legal validity of Indian oral histories.

In the United States, Indians in Utah, claiming sovereign powers, caused a panic with their plan to accept nuclear waste.

In Mexico, where there are no reservations, the number of full-blooded Indians is estimated to be around 10 million. Their poverty is as extreme as their marginalization from the rest of society. Much of the current tension can be traced to a constitutional amendment in 1992 that essentially privatized Indian land, which until then had been held by the community. The Government believed it was boosting Indian chances of entering the modern economy but Indians have opposed the change. The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas was based on issues of the land and Indian rights.

In negotiations with the Zapatistas, accords acknowledging Indian autonomy were reached in January, 1996. But the government recoiled at what the negotiators had given away. It was particularly concerned that acknowledging the rights of "the Indian people" as opposed to the more limited concept of "Indian communities," infringed on the sovereignty of Mexico and created two classes of Mexicans.

The Zapatistas prefer to see themselves as part of a global tribe of Indians. "We have helped create, at the side of men and women in the five continents, a great network," the Zapatista leader, Marcos, wrote in the Indians' latest declaration from Chiapas, "a network that is fighting to build a new world."

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