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Indigenous Perspective on Colonialism


Tom Goldtooth, Lakota/Navajo (center) with Madonna Thunderhawk, Lakota (far left), Eulynda Toledo-Benalli, Navajo (left), and a Latin American delegate (right).

This speech was given at the Globalization Plenary Session at the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum at the World Conference Against Racism. — Ed.


From the Turtle Island of North America, I am honored to be here in this beautiful land of South Africa. It is truly a land that must be protected, loved and respected, for it nourishes its heavenly children and all life, through an invisible umbilical cord.

All humans have two things in common, and that is, we walk on two legs and on each hand, we have these five fingers that we use in common (raise hand). We are taught from infancy to utilize them as gifts of the Creator of this Universe, to work together, in solidarity, each finger and hand helping each other, in respect of each other.

As two-legged creatures, we also have been provided our mind that has the ability to reason and figure things out for ourselves. This mind is provided to us as a gift of the Creator that allows us to develop ways to live in common with each other and to live in a sustainable way on this planet, which I call - Mother Earth.

We, the two-legged species - the humans - are not here alone. We share this Mother Earth with many life forms, animate and inanimate. From the waters of the great oceans, to the smallest rock, and from the smallest organism to the biggest animals - we are related to one another.

This relationship to the sacredness of our Mother Earth and all her children, defines our spiritual, cultural, social, economic, and even, political relationship we have with each other and with all life.

Hello peoples from all colors! Hello peoples from all cultures and from many different languages. Hello peoples from the cities and hello peoples from the land and from the bush.

What I have said to this point is considered the traditional knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples. This knowledge is no different from the knowledge of the Dine' Peoples or the Dakota Sacred Lake Peoples of the Turtle Island of North America, or this traditional knowledge from the Indigenous Peoples from here in Africa. This traditional knowledge has allowed our Indigenous Peoples to develop certain life ways, values, and philosophies that have allowed us to live in balance and in a sustainable way for thousands of years.

We are people of the land. We are people of the waters. We are the river people. We are the desert people. We are the people from the forests. From the four directions of this world we still are here, despite great obstacles that have challenged our survival. Historically, land-based cultures have always been a threat to colonial nation states throughout the world.

The descendants of colonizers presently occupy our homelands in the Americas, in the United States and Canada. From the onset of their arrival in North America, Spain, followed by English, Swedish, Dutch and French colonists started a conquest that was both physical and psychological. Our Indigenous Peoples, the inhabitants or citizens of the thousands of tribal nations of the Americas, were characterized as "savages", depicted as being incapable of supporting ourselves by agricultural pursuits. We were called illiterate, and our cultural institutions were viewed as being inadequate, and our spiritual beliefs, if not denied existence entirely, were portrayed as being evil.

The conquest of the Americas, led by the so-called discovery by Christopher Columbus, who was financially sponsored by Spain, and sanctioned by the Catholic Church of Rome, defined our Indigenous Peoples as "Indian" and used the concept of "race" in this colonial conquest. There was the question of how to invade a whole continent with inhabitants and lay legal claim to their land. How do you do this, even under the international laws that existed in those days? How can you claim a "discovery" of "new lands" and "new men?"

This was accomplished by the classification of our tribal nations as a "race" of "Indians". The "new men" would have to be "classified" as some other then Jew, Christian, Muslim or other faiths of the time. For the church to legally be involved, it must justify its moral obligation to evangelize the Indians or to save our Indigenous souls.

As many of you know, this isn't the first United Nations gathering to address this issue of racism. This isn't the first time Indigenous participants addressed this issue, bringing our perspective on how Indigenous Peoples rights to self determination, rights to our traditional lands, and the right to practice our culture are still viewed as threats by neo-colonialism and the racist policies of nation-states.

In spite of the first two World Conferences to Combat Racism and their calls that Indigenous Peoples have a right to our lands and natural resources that must be protected, Indigenous Peoples continue to lose their lands at an alarming rate, seemingly a continuation of the "Conquest" or frontier mentality of the Americas.

Ever since Pope Alexander VI's 1493 Papal Bull "Inter Caetera," calling for the subjugation of the America's "barbarous nations" and their lands, first colonial and then successor states have forcibly and violently destroyed Indigenous Peoples, as a "race" of people. To this day, the racist discrimination and cultural denigration established by Pope Alexander VI are engraved in the mentality of the Americas and continue to underlie the rational for racial discrimination against Indigenous Peoples globally. The religious imperative of conversion and annihilation have been replaced by assimilation, "development schemes", international trade systems, privatization of land, and economic globalization as the most desirable end for Indigenous Peoples. The nation-state economic elites and transnational corporations have replaced the earlier conquistadors and colonists as the beneficiaries of Indigenous lands, knowledge and resources.

The proposed Organization of American States (OAS) Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples would declare that the state has the right of ownership over the resources of the soil and sub-soil of Indigenous lands. Many states of the Americas, ever since the first two World Conferences, have amended their Constitutions and laws to facilitate the privatization of Indigenous lands. It must be mentioned, that the CERD (Committee, in General Recommendation XXII) would require states to return stolen lands and territories to Indigenous Peoples, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) 169 would prohibit their continued theft.

Many United Nations experts have reflected, that the loss of lands and resources described by CERD General Recommendation XXIII as a violation of the CERD Convention, is the machine that drives racial discrimination against Indigenous Peoples. Gross and massive, pervasive and persistent violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including genocide, ethnocide, forced removal and forced assimilation are somehow justified by the devaluation of Indigenous Peoples, our cultural and world-views.

Described as "stone age" by anthropologists, accused as pagans and practitioners of black magic and witchcraft by dominant religions, our destruction as Peoples is taken by most dominant societies in the Americas as necessary for "progress."

Yet, Indigenous Peoples seek only to be left alone, to be who we are, to remain on our lands, to practice and live our traditional cultures, languages and religious practices. These are human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the United Nations International Bill of human rights.

There are among many states, policies that have the effect, if not the intent, of forcible assimilation of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples continue to suffer forcible and violent mass relocations, as well as denials of our land rights and ruination of our environments. In the United States, institutional racism prevails throughout federal policies that fail to protect the environment, our natural resources and lands that we hold sacred.

Forced relocation is also found in the economic need to migrate to urban areas caused by the loss of lands and territories and means of subsistence. Within these pockets of urban cities, Indigenous Peoples join the great mass of undereducated and unemployed to try to survive without the support of family, community and culture.

It is no secret that social discrimination against Indigenous Peoples is deep, pervasive and rampant in all Americas and in fact, throughout the world where Indigenous Peoples exist. In most dominant cultures, to be called an Indian is the grossest form of insult. Popular media throughout the Americas, particularly television, portrays Indigenous peoples as ignorant and so backward as to appear mentally retarded. The U.S. professional baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, have as their logo a caricature of a buck-toothed Indian wearing a feather. The Atlanta Braves, have the tomahawk chop. These harsh and racist realities are particularly painful for our people and children.

Socially ingrained attitudes of racial superiority and inferiority, which were given birth during historical colonialist attitudes, are now buried into the very fabric of the Americas and the collective unconscious of all Americans. The continuing denigration of our cultures and traditions, sanctioned by the state, serve only to damage and destroy our identity, our children, our lands and our future.

All these factors, from loss of land and culture, to nation-state politics that fail to recognize the inherent right for Indigenous Peoples to have self-determination over our lands and waters create a survival mode for our Indigenous Peoples. Environmental racism exists throughout the Americas creating an injustice that fails to protect the environment and health of our communities. Environmental racism creates climate injustice where nation-state energy policies allow CO2 greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to destroy the lands and culture of our Indigenous Peoples. Oil development from the regions of the Arctic to South America is promoted by nation-states at the expense of Indigenous rights to land and our human rights. Environmental racism allows toxic and nuclear waste dumping in Indigenous lands as well as unsustainable mining developments in our lands that leave poisoned bodies, broken spirits and lands that cannot be adequately reclaimed or restored to its original form. The list of these neo-colonial practices that are racist in nature is endless, from deforestation to the privatization of our sacred waters. These are causal factors of the lamentable state of the health of the world's Indigenous Peoples.

From the Gwith'in, tribal peoples that have resided in the Caribou birthing grounds of Alaska since time immemorial, to the Mapuche traditional territories in Chile, Indigenous lands are subject to pressures precedent by this continued Conquest. The Katio Embero tribe in Colombia to the Cree tribal nation in Canada is threatened with continued displacement and loss of traditional homeland as their rivers are dammed. In this brief presentation I cannot adequately describe the situation of militarization and terror that Indigenous Peoples live throughout the continent, particularly in Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala.

There is reason why the Declaration and Programme of Action of the first Two World Conferences to Combat Racism call upon the nation-states to respect Indigenous lands and cultures as a matter of racial equality. These World Conferences as well as the CERD Committee recognized that land is essential to the survival of Indigenous Peoples and that a denial of Indigenous Peoples' right to land is racial discrimination. Land is central to the spiritual and physical well being of Indigenous Peoples. The CERD Committee again came to this understanding when it found that Australian legislation facilitating loss of Indigenous Aboriginal title violated the CERD Convention (CERD/56/Misc.42/rev.3)

Internationally, the persistent refusal of many nation-states to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples as "peoples" serves to underpin, if not justify the deplorable state of human rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although the first World Conference to Combat Racism freely used the word "peoples," the 2nd World Conference only used the word "peoples" once, in the context of Indigenous Peoples.

Within the United Nations, the name of the Working Group, formed by resolution in 1982, is called the Working Group on Indigenous "Populations." The newly established Permanent Forum avoids the word completely and is called the Permanent Forum for Indigenous "Issues." Strange world we live in.

In order that the World Conference Against Racism address racial discrimination against Indigenous Peoples with the required reality and urgency, it must recognize the human rights and fundamental freedoms that are impaired or denied by racial discrimination. It would be lamentable and a shame if this WCAR in Durban, South Africa fell below existing norms in fashioning its recommendations.

As I mentioned in the beginning of my presentation, I talked about the common feature we all share with this hand (raise hand). As human beings, we are all related to each other. We are the Five-Finger-Clan of Human Beings. We must learn to work together as members of the two-legged peoples. Like the five fingers on each hand, we have different features on each finger and each finger is used differently, but they are all connected to each other and have to learn to help each other. Let us learn to work together as people of many colors and cultures. We don't have much time. Thank you.


TOM B.K. GOLDTOOTH, a Lakota-Navajo, is the National Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) at Bemidji, Minnesota, located near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. He has been awarded with recognition of his achievements throughout the past 30 years from his college student years to his adult years as an activist for social change within the Native American community. From the strength of his community organizing experience he has brought the issues of environmental justice and the rights of indigenous peoples to the international level through United Nations treaty-making bodies and conventions on issues of climate change, persistant organic pollutants, and protection of biodiversisty. He is active in many environmental and social justice organizations, such as The Environmental Justice Fund, Honor The Earth Campaign, Just Transition Alliance, and others.


Conference delegates Madonna Thunderhawk, Lakota, and Leonard Foster, Navajo.

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"As we see all around us, racism and racial discrimination continue unabated. Although we refer to our world as a global village, it is a world sadly lacking in the sense of closeness towards neighbour and community which the word village implies. In each region, and within all countries, there are problems stemming from either a lack of respect for, or lack of acceptance of, the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. Our world is witness to serious ethnic conflicts; to discrimination against minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants workers; the accusation of institutionalized racism in police forces; harsh immigration and asylum policies; hate sites on the Internet and youth groups promoting intolerance and xenophobia."
– Mary Robinson,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
24 March 1999



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