First Nations

Kaieteur News
November 15, 2006

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Last year, the “Amerindian Bill” was passed under very contentious circumstances. Most of the Amerindian organisations objected to the very name of the Bill and declared that “Indigenous Peoples” better describe their reality. This is not a unique claim, and in many other countries, “First Nation”, Aboriginal Peoples” etc. have also been proffered in the struggle of the peoples who preceded the Europeans in lands that were `discovered' by the latter. These Indigenous peoples, like our own, are asserting their rights within the claims of those who control power to engage in the imperatives of “nation-building.”

Nation-building is a normative concept that means different things to different people. The latest conceptualisation is essentially that nation-building programmes are those in which dysfunctional or unstable or “failed states” or economies are given assistance in the development of governmental infrastructure, civil society, dispute resolution mechanisms, as well as economic assistance, in order to increase stability. Nation-building generally assumes that someone or something is doing the building intentionally.

But it is important to look at the evolution of theories of nation-building and at the other concepts which it has both supplanted and included. Many people believe that nation-building is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, that it takes a long time and is a social process that cannot be jump-started from outside. The evolution of the Italian city-states into a nation; the German city-states into the Zollverein customs union and later a nation; the multiple languages and cultural groups in France into the nation of France; the development of China from the warring kingdoms, took a very long time, and were the result, not only of political leadership, but of changes in technology and economic processes (the agricultural and then industrial revolutions), as well as communication, culture and civil society, and many other factors.

But nation-building by one nation may destroy others. In the building of the US nation and others, aboriginal nations were erased or marginalised. The Six-Nations Confederacy of the Iriquois had existed before the US nation (and was thought by some to be a model for it). Today, many “First Nations” are in the process of nation re-building, re-building the social, cultural, economic and political foundations for what is left of self-governance. First nations seek to re-build cultural identities as nations in order to challenge their disintegration by others in the creation of their own states.

Association of First Nations National Chief Matthew Coon cited the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (released in 2001 by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) proposal of a Nation Building Model of Economic Development. The project defined Nation-building as: “Equipping First Nations with the institutional foundation necessary to increase their capacity to effectively assert self-governing powers on behalf of their own economic, social and cultural objectives.”

The study identified four core elements of a nation building model: 1) genuine self rule (First Nations making decisions about resource allocations, project funding and development strategy), 2) creating effective governing institutions (non-politicised dispute resolution mechanisms and getting rid of corruption), 3) cultural match (giving first nations' institutions legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens), and the need for a strategic orientation (long-term planning).

One of the reasons for the difficulties of what many consider “failed states” is that some peoples who had been integrated were taken apart by European colonialism, while others who were separate peoples were integrated together in new states not based on common identities. Particularly in Africa and the Middle East , new political borders paid little attention to national identities in the creation of new states.

Thus the notion of nation-state, a nation which developed the governmental apparatus of a state, was often nonsense. While in Europe nation-building historically preceded state-building, in post-colonial states, state-building preceded nation-building. The aftermath of colonialism led to the need for nation-building, but we cannot proceed blithely ahead and ignore the rights of the Indigenous peoples or First Nations who preceded the premises of the Europeans. We have to find a middle ground.