The 1977 UN Conference On “Indigenous Populations”

The International Indian Treaty Council’s Intervention

In September of 1977, representatives of Indigenous nations and peoples from around the world traveled to the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. They went there to attend the International NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations held at the UN Palais des Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland. Now, forty-three years later, it is fascinating to read the document that the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) prepared for and delivered to that conference.


Back in the mid-1970’s, those with the skill to write such a document for circulation in the international arena had a particular worldview. They saw the planet as being divided into different “States,” a word typically spelled with a capital ‘S’ as a honorary device used to denote a “higher level status.” In his essay “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), German sociologist Max Weber explained the nature of “the State.” He called the state “a relation of men dominating men.” “In order for the state to exist,” he said, “the dominated must submit themselves to the authority claimed by the powers that be.” As a result of that domination-oriented worldview of “the State,” the International NGO Conference held in Geneva in 1977 was centered on “Indigenous populations” rather than “peoples.”

Each “State” was framed as having an overall “population” that was obligated to live “in” or “within” a “civil order.” This meant they were considered obligated to live subject to the ultimate authority or system of domination of the “State.” The entire population of “the State” was seen as being divided into different “sectors,” and one of those “sectors” that was regarded as being “subject to the authority of the state” was called “indigenous.”

This sense of “sectors” is illustrated by the more contemporary UN description of “indigenous peoples,” which depicts them as considering themselves to exist “distinct from other sectors of the society now prevailing,” meaning “now dominating.” This wording presumes that those termed “indigenous” are not separate from the “body politic” of a particular “State,” but are rather sort of politically integrated in some sense into the conceptual fabric of the “State.”

The UN experts who wrote about “indigenous populations” in the mid 1970s wanted to guard against giving the impression that the people(s) who were termed “indigenous” had the right to one day free themselves from the claim of a right of domination by “the State.” Those experts believed the term “peoples” was to be avoided, or carefully contained within strict limits, because otherwise use of the term “peoples’ might be interpreted to mean that each distinct “People” called “indigenous” had a body politic that was separate from, and rightfully independent of, the body politic of “the State.

The 1977 IITC document provides an early example of the kind of wording that was being used back then to advocate on behalf of those people around the world who were categorized as “indigenous.” Now, more than four decades later, we are able to read the IITC document with a critical eye, and identify the patterns of domination and dehumanization found in the essay. We are able to reach the conclusion that the word “indigenous” means “dominated” or “those who are forced or compelled to live under a system of domination.”

Using the Framework of Domination and Dehumanization

When we search the IITC document for patterns of domination and dehumanization, we find some fascinating examples. The document opens with a quote from an 1837 report of the Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes to the British House of Commons:

“Savages are dangerous neighbors and unprofitable customers, and if they remain as degraded denizens of our colonies they become a burden upon the States.”

Notice the use of the dehumanizing term “savages,” which is derived from the French term “sauvage,” meaning “forest dwellers.” The term “degraded” is past tense of the word “degrade,” which means “to reduce from a higher to a lower rank or degree; to deprive of office or dignity.” Those termed “indigenous” were thought of as having been “reduced” from their original free existence to a lower level and subordinated existence subject to foreign control.

Another meaning of “degrade” is, “to lower the physical, moral, or intellectual character of.” Denizens are inhabitants. And the phrase “our colonies” refers to the colonies of an empire that is working to forcibly take over and, by various processes of domination, help itself to the lands and resources of the continent.

Rene Maunier was a professor at the University of Paris, and a member of the French Academy of Colonial Sciences. In 1949 he published In The Sociology of Colonies, Vol. I. The title of chapter two reads: “Definition of Colonies: Domination and Government.” On p. 14 he writes, “A colony is a tentacle of the colonising [sic] State.” He continues: “When we speak of the power which a State exercises, we may imply an actual domination, what the chancelleries call an “influence”, and “expansion”, a “penetration”; an actual bond, at least at the beginning, which asserts and paves the way for a legal imperium, a domination, or a subjection in the proper sense. . .”

Interestingly, the papal bull Inter Caetera dated May 4, 1493, calls for “barbarous nations” to be “reduced,” meaning “degraded” or “dominated.” This suggests that the term “indigenous” as used in the IITC document, at least from the perspective of the dominating society, is a synonym for those who are regarded as being “barbarous” or “savage” and existing under an invading and colonizing claim of a right of domination by the imperium, “of, the Christian empire” as Pope Alexander V put it (“Christiani imperii” in the original Latin).

The IITC document makes the following comment about that above sentence from the 1837 document: “The observation above expresses the general recognition among national governments, then and now, that the existence of indigenous populations in a country represents a significant problem.”

Three phrases in the above sentence deserve closer examination: 1) “national governments” 2) “the existence of indigenous populations” and 3) “in a country.” The phrase “national governments” is referring to systems of domination called “governments.” Those “populations” called “indigenous” are framed as existing “in” or within the “country” of a system of domination called a “national government.”

As we shall see, the prepositions “in” and “within” are connected to the metaphor “IN OR WITHIN IS UNDER.” In other words, if the originally free and independent “Indigenous population” is considered to be “in” or “within” the domain of a “State” or “national government,” then that “population” is interpreted as being “under” the control or domination of that “State” or “national government.”            

Populations called “indigenous” are framed as “existing” in or within the claimed domain of a “State,” which is called “a country.” That part of the opening quote which reads, “they become a burden upon the States” lets us know that “States” (or an individual “State” of domination) is the context for the discussion of “populations” termed “indigenous” or “Indigenous.”

The “Significant Problem” of “Populations” Termed “Indigenous”

After mentioning the “significant problem” that the existence of indigenous populations pose for “States,” the IITC document continues as follows:

“Theoretically, two broad solutions are possible: the raising of the ‘savage’ to full social, economic and political equality with the ‘civilized’ citizens of the nation, or the complete eradication of the indigenous population groups. Historically, the practice of nations has tended toward the latter policy, either through indifference or neglect, or through deliberate efforts at liquidation.”

Let’s examine the patterns of domination and dehumanization in the above paragraph. To propose that an effort ought to be undertaken to “raise” the “degraded” “savages” ignores the fact that prior to invasion and colonization the so-called savages (“forest dwellers”) were still living their original free existence. They had not yet been “reduced” down by a process of domination and thereby relegated to a “degraded,” dominated existence.

Furthermore, the proposed “solution” mentioned envisions an outcome in which the people termed “indigenous” would one day be experiencing social, economic, and political “equality” as “integrated” individuals along with the “civilized citizens” of a dominating “state” or “nation.” This would have to be accomplished by means of a specific process, or set of processes, the goal of which would be to one day assimilate or absorb those people termed “indigenous” into the body politic of “the state.” Think of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act passed by the Congress of the United States.

The second proposed solution of “complete eradication” and “liquidation” would result in those termed “indigenous” no longer existing because they would have been physically killed off and annihilated. Notice how the IITC report does not explicitly call attention to the fact that a system of domination is being forcibly imposed on the Aché people or other peoples called “indigenous.” And yet, using other synonyms, the report proceeds to describe patterns of domination and dehumanization forced on the Aché people:  

“One particularly well-documented situation . . . that of the Aché (Guayaki) Indians in eastern Paraguay, includes such inhumanities as the sale of adults and children for slavery and prostitution, massacres through systematic “manhunts by hunters and slave traders, withholding of food and medicines from the reservation Indians resulting in death by starvation and disease, the denial and destruction of their cultural inheritance (use of their language, religious rituals, and traditional music), and discouragement of the Indians from seeking education.”

These are all examples of domination and dehumanization, which the report author calls “inhumanities.” Later, the IITC report continues to describe other examples:

“To be fair, the continuing flagrant injustices done to indigenous populations cannot be blamed entirely, or it would seem, even mainly on government malevolence or callousness in failing to protect the indigenous populations under their jurisdiction.”

Because the phrase “flagrant injustices done to indigenous populations” describes a situation of domination and dehumanization, it would be accurate for the IITC report to have used the phrase “the continuing domination and dehumanization inflicted on indigenous populations.” It ought to seem obvious that such “injustices” put the original nations and peoples termed “indigenous” in danger. Interestingly, in his Dictionary of Word Origins (1955) (Littlefield: Adams & Co.) (p. 107), Joseph T. Shipley makes note of a connection between domination (dominium), “danger” and “jurisdiction.”

Under the entry “danger, dangerous,” Shipley writes of “the accepted etymology of danger, from OFr. dangier, from L.L. dominarium, from dominium, rule, English dominion; the early sense of being in danger of being “subject to the jurisdiction of”. The domination/subordination structure is revealed in Shipley’s statement that “this derivation shows how the subjects feared their over lords: power indeed spelled danger to those beneath it!”

The word “danger” in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Second Edition (1953) traces to “L. dominium lordship,” and lists as “archaic,” “Authority; jurisdiction; hence, reach or range, as of a missile.” Also, “Exposure or liability to injury, loss, pain, or other evil.” Additionally, “dangerous” is defined as applying “to that which should be dealt with most carefully.”

The issue of domination comes into focus when we compare the initial free existence of the original or indigenous people to an existence that has been “reduced” down and forced “under” a claim of a right of domininium and thus considered subject to the “jurisdiction” (system of judgment) made by an invading and foreign “state” system. The IITC report continues by describing additional examples of domination:

“Indigenous populations are caught in the wider dilemma of rapid, uncontrolled technological development of resources, with resulting commercial penetration into their lands, exploitation of their labor, and a general clash of cultures unevenly matched in terms of asserting their respective rights. Acute and wide-spread poverty and underdevelopment in many countries with indigenous populations accentuate these tendencies.”

As a consequence of a process of domination “Indigenous populations are caught in the wider dilemma of rapid, uncontrolled technological development of resources, with resulting commercial penetration into their lands, exploitation of their labor, and a general clash of cultures unevenly matched in terms of asserting their respective rights.”

Three examples of domination in the above wording include:

  1. penetration into their lands
  2. exploitation of their labor
  3. a general clash of cultures unevenly matched

What is being described as a “clash of cultures” is the contrast between the culture of the original nations or peoples (“populations”) of the continent and the foreign “culture” of domination that was being forcibly imposed on the original peoples. The report continues: Nevertheless, these are not sufficient reasons for ignoring the human rights and needs of the indigenous populations concerned.

This mention of “human rights” merits further examination and discussion. From the viewpoint of the colonizing empires and nations from Western Christendom, those peoples termed “savage,” “barbarous,” and “indigenous” were considered to be living a non-human existence. By what means were they going to be “made” “human”?

Their savage and barbarous existence was to be converted into a human existence by the invaders imposing a system of domination on them, under the euphemistic guise of “civilizing” the “savages” and “reducing” the “barbarous nations” to the system of domination of the Christian empire.

As a result of that dominating process, the original or “indigenous” peoples (“populations”) would suffer all the oppression and abuse that the domination system could inflict on them, all in the name of “converting” their lives into a “human” existence, and by imposing Christian domination on them starting with a ritual baptism and by giving them a Christian name.

Instead of accurately identifying “States” as perpetrators of a dehumanizing process of domination, the IITC report refers to “the failures. . .of the States of the world to institute progressive, comprehensive measures to safeguard and advance the indigenous populations within their boundaries. . .” (emphasis added)

Once again we see a use of the metaphor IN OR WITHIN IS UNDER, meaning that “indigenous populations” are framed as being “in” or “within” the boundaries of the different “States of the World,” and, therefore, also framed as subject to the domination and control of whatever particular “State” happens to be claiming those geopolitical boundaries.

The IITC report then states: “. . .this paper proposes to focus on the efforts of the international community and international law in the area of the protection of indigenous populations.” It continues:

As a foundation for the study, indigenous populations will first be defined, and their particular problems and the issues involved will be briefly outlined.

Later we find the heading: “DEFINITION OF INDIGENOUS POPULATIONS.” The IITC document then refers to the International Labour Organization’s (the ILO’s) 1957 “Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations.”

Article I of that Convention uses the phrase “independent countries” and uses the preposition “in” in the phrase “in independent countries” so as to utilize the metaphor IN OR WITHIN IS UNDER. In other words, the “States,” otherwise known as “countries” are considered to “independent.” Those regarded as “indigenous” are judged as not “independent” and not entitled to exist in their original non-human state of independence because they are presumed to now be subject to the dominating political control and jurisdiction of “the State.” The key phrase of the definition reads: “a) members of tribal or semi-tribal populations in independent countries . . .”

The next section of the definition says that those “populations” that were living on the continent “at the time of conquest or colonization” are regarded as, or defined as, “indigenous.” When we recognize that “conquest” and “colonization” are two synonyms for domination it then becomes clear that domination is the Frame for the term “indigenous.” This further clarified in the IITC report as follows:

“Building on this ILO definition, the Special Rapporteur for the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities special study on indigenous populations proposed the following ‘working definition'”:

“(Indigenous populations are) those descended from peoples who inhabited a land when outsiders came and reduced them down to a non-dominant condition. . .in a State structure . . . of the predominant segments of the population.” (emphasis added)

In other words, those defined as “indigenous” are the descendants of the peoples that were living a free existence on the land when outsiders invaded them and then “reduced them down” to a colonized condition under domination. Despite there being this very clear way to Frame the word “indigenous” in terms of domination, the IITC report goes on to say:

“The Special Rapporteur goes on in this preliminary report to point out that there is no unanimity at the national level regarding what kinds of groups are to be regarded as indigenous.”

The IITC report goes on to clarify that:

“Both of the above definitions . . . emphasize more or less that indigenous populations: (1) constituted the original inhabitants of a region; (2) [they] experienced conquest or colonization [i.e., domination] by an [invading] outside culture. (3) now live in a special type of non-dominant relationship with that [invading] culture, (4) continue to conform to their own customs and institutions rather than to those of the dominant culture [emphasis added].”

Notice the number of times that the theme of domination is mentioned in those four points. Those said to be “indigenous” were originally living a free existence. Then, an invading outside culture or empire imposed a system of domination on them. They now live in a “non-dominant” or subordinate position within that overall framework of the domination of “the State.” They seek to live in conformity with their own customs and institutions rather than in conformity with the invaders’ imposed system of domination.

Further Analysis of the IITC’s Intervention at the UN in 1977

At the opening of page 3 of the IITC document we find:

The Special Rapporteur goes on in this preliminary report to point out that there is no unanimity at the national level regarding what kinds of groups are to be regarded as “indigenous.”

Despite this, the IITC intervention says that both of “the above definitions…emphasize more or less that indigenous populations: (1) constituted the original inhabitants of a region, [and] (2) experienced conquest or colonization [domination] by an outside culture, [and] (3) now live in a special type of non-dominant relationship with that [dominant] culture, [and] (4) continue to conform to their own customs and institutions rather than to those of the dominant culture. “ (emphasis added)

The above four points provide the accurate context for every discussion and analysis regarding original nations and peoples termed “indigenous,” with a lower case ‘i’, or “Indigenous” spelled with a capital ‘I,’ depending on who is doing the writing. That context can be summarized as follows: A nation or people called “Indigenous” consist of those people who were living free and independent in a specific geographical area, which they knew to be their land of origin, and their territory, if you will. At some point in time that free Nation or People was invaded by the representatives of a foreign nation or empire that intended to overrun their territory, and capture, vanquish, and subdue them, or altogether destroy them, by establishing a system of domination on top of them, and thereafter framing (interpreting) them as having been “reduced” to a subordinated (sub-order) existence.

(Notably, U.S. government officials often use the term “sub-national” as a synonym for sub-order or subordinated existence. That breaks down to “sub,” meaning under, down, or below, and “national,” which is an adjective of “nation,” and refers to the “nation” of the United States or the American empire).

Those nations, peoples, or individuals termed “Indigenous,” in other words, are those who have lived and continue to live an existence marked by domination and dehumanization. Once we know this, in any discussion of those called labled “indigenous,” the accurate focus becomes the phenomenon of domination and dehumanization. By explicitly and openly naming that phenomenon in this manner, an entirely new insight emerges. For as Richard Brown states in his A Poetic for Sociology (1977), “The thing itself becomes emergent in the process of being named.” In other words, a “thing” or phenomenon enters into human consciousness through the metaphorical act of naming.

The heading of the next section of the IITC intervention: “Problems of Indigenous Populations and the Issues Involved.” The section begins by using “non-dominance” as a clever maneuver that draws the mind away from the specific phenomenon and issue of domination: “Their [the domination society’s] position of dominance . . . place[s] indigenous populations at a great disadvantage in the modern world . . . in relation to the dominant population.”

When decoded, the above sentence reads: The predicament those peoples termed “indigenous” face on a daily basis of living subject to a system of domination places them at a great disadvantage in the modern world . . . in relation to the dominating population or society.

The next sentence lists a number of the predicaments faced by dominated peoples in the late 1970s as a direct result of the phenomenon of domination and dehumanization: “fundamental threats to their life and physical liberty,” “massacres and enslavement,” “indigenous populations struggle with a wide range of economic, political, and cultural problems.” When we think about it, however, it was as a result of domination and dehumanization that Indigenous “populations” were struggling with a wide range of problems. Although the IITC intervention stops short of explicitly saying this, it does go on to provide a long list of the problems that we now know are evidence of domination and dehumanization:


  1. LAND:  restrictions on right of ownership of land, removal to reservations with inferior land and resources, and no modern agricultural training or equipment, disruption of environment by commercial interests, government leasing of land without the indigenous populations consent.

CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS: preservation of cultural heritage forbidden or hampered, religious freedom and observation denied.


  1. JUSTICE SYSTEM: victimization by police and jailers, ignorance of the law and their rights, lack of indigenous lawyers, non-use of lack of legal aid societies, unequal protection of the laws, norms of indigenous law not recognized by dominant legal system [of domination].
  2. ADMINISTRATION OF INDIGENOUS POPULATIONS: abuses of power by officials, lack of regard for indigenous customs, lack of government money for programs, lack of relevant training for officials concerned with indigenous populations.
  3. POLITICAL PROCESS: disenfranchisement of indigenous populations—denial of participation and representation in political office and parties.
  4. RIGHTS OF CITIZENSHIP: denial of equal rights with the rest of the population (i.e. restrictions on movement), no effective legislation to make rights in the Constitution of the country a reality.

The above section is followed up with this quote: “Needless to say, one handicap reinforces another in the indigenous population’s clash with industrial society and a dominant, alien culture.”

The latter part of that sentence is accurately restated as: “one handicap reinforces another as a result of the destructive and dehumanizing effects of the system of domination’s dominant, alien culture.”

NOTE: This completes my analysis of the first 5 pages of a 40 page document! There is also an 11 page ANNEX with additional sources.

(To Be Continued)–Steven Newcomb