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Reviewed by:
  • Indigenous Rights in the Age of the UN Declaration ed. by Elvira Pulitano
  • Keri E. Iyall Smith, Associate Professor of Sociology (bio)
Indigenous Rights In the Age of the UN Declaration (Elvira Pulitano ed., Cambridge University Press, 2012), 352 pages, ISBN 978-1-107-02244-7.

As experts in indigenous studies already know, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has probably produced more questions than outcomes since its approval by the General Assembly in September 2007. Here, Elvira Pulitano gathers scholars in law, literature, and anthropology to examine the potential effects of the UNDRIP for indigenous peoples. While ideas in the book may apply more broadly, chapter authors tend to focus on the US and Canadian contexts.

The editor’s introduction familiarizes readers with the history and context of indigenous rights within international law. What follows are three chapters that are heavily legal and conceptual, identifying key issues in state and international law relevant to the UNDRIP. The book begins with a chapter by professor of law, Siegfried Wiessner, “Indigenous Self-Determination, Culture, and Land: A Reassessment in Light of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Wiessner examines the marginalization of indigenous peoples, the reshaping of sovereignty via self-determination, internationalization of the indigenous rights movement, and finally the progress thus far and next steps towards the flourishing of indigenous peoples and cultures. I found this chapter to be very slow reading. Many pages boast as much text in the footnotes as in the body of the paper. While this is an important contribution to the volume, reading it can be like moving through quicksand and the key points are easy to lose track of along the way. Dear readers: Do not read this chapter first. [End Page 252]

In “Treaties, Peoplehood, and Self-Determination: Understanding The Language of Indigenous Rights,” Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff makes a powerful case rejecting “indigenous” rights in favor of “minority rights.” In international law, minority rights will provide recognition of collective rights and international standing, whereas indigenous rights limit the right of indigenous peoples to truly decolonize their lives and may limit indigenous rights to rights that are attainable within the state body (rather than internationally). Schulte-Tenckhoff arrives at this conclusion after analyzing indigenous rights, minority rights, and human rights. While the argument may be sound in legal theory, the history of protecting the human rights of indigenous peoples suggests that indigenous peoples are not human. Appealing to indigenous peoples to advocate for their human rights as members of a minority may not resonate well within the indigenous activist community, for whom being indigenous (not minority or human) is the essence of their lives.

In a chapter comparing the UNDRIP with the 1993 Draft Declaration, “Talking up Indigenous Peoples’ Original Intent in a Space Dominated by State Interventions,” Irene Watson and Sharon Venne find that the UNDRIP approved by the General Assembly in September 2007 was a colonized version of the 1993 draft. Looking at the process of the editing of the Declaration, Watson and Venne identify the key role of indigenous peoples in crafting the Draft Declaration. They then uncover the careful editorial changes made to the Declaration shortly before it was presented to the General Assembly, which were heavily influenced by states. The resulting UNDRIP has several weaknesses: it is not clear to whom the declaration applies, there are no mechanisms to promote indigenous peoples concerns, and there is no place for indigenous peoples to present complaints. The resulting UNDRIP is silent on fundamental issues that it was meant to address.

At this point, the volume transitions from critical examination of legal doctrine to case studies that reveal important lessons about UNDRIP. In these chapters, authors give the reader a sense of why UNDRIP matters, and how it may change lives on a daily basis. Sheila Collingwood-Whittick (Chapter 4) looks at new policies in Australia, which threaten ethnocide in response to “dysfunction” in the aboriginal communities in the Northern Territories. A study of creative, culturally relevant modes of state building in the Cherokee community is presented by Clint Carroll (Chapter 5). With Carrie E. Garrow (Chapter 6) and the Haudenosaunee we...


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pp. 252-254
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