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Examining Indigenous land rights through legal frameworks

Examining Indigenous land rights through legal frameworks

The last panel in the webinar series on Indigenous peoples and community-engaged research in Asia Pacific discusses Indigenous rights to land and resources and the legal policies that shape governance today.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Dynamics of interaction

"At the very core of the issues we are talking about today is the extraction of resource and appropriation of land," began moderator Dada Docot, assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University.

In the final panel on November 18, 2020 in the "Indigenous Peoples, Heritage and Landscape in the Asia Pacific: Knowledge Co-Production, Policy Change, and Empowerment" series, academics, lawyers and anthropologists gathered to discuss the national and global legal approaches to indigeneity. Hosted by UCLA Department of Anthropology, UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and UCLA Asia Pacific Center for International Education Week 2020 at UCLA, this conversation focused on legal and structural mechanisms through which Indigenous peoples are stripped of their land, heritage, language, and autonomy.


The series was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Henry Luce Foundation and cosponsored by UCLA Asia Pacific Center, UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of New England First Peoples Rights and Law Centre, and National Cheng-chi University Center for Taiwan-Philippines Indigenous Knowledge, Local Knowledge, and Sustainable Studies (CTPILS).

"It’s important that research is done in a way that is community-driven," said Georgina Lloyd, regional coordinator for environmental law and governance in Asia and the Pacific for the United Nations Environment Programme. "Part of my work is now supporting the translation of community engagement at a local level to the regional and international forums."

Lloyd urged that data is collected in dialogue with local community, ensuring that Indigenous peoples have ownership over traditional knowledge, resources, land, and "tangible and intangible heritage."

Language, Heritage, and Land

"What happens when language is viewed as a resource and the ability to speak one’s heritage language is lost?" asked Neyooxet Greymorning, a political anthropologist at the University of Montana. Working to pass on language knowledge from elder speakers, Greymorning seeks to disrupt colonial and ruling powers to challenge how the law decides who is Indigenous.

Western beliefs of conservation insist upon "fortress" systems that are devoid of people and discriminates against Indigenous communities, added Lloyd.

"The law has been used as a tool for the reduction of rights for Indigenous groups," she said. "In order to claim community land title, Indigenous peoples have to first be certified as belonging to an Indigenous group and have to prove their identity through a specific legislative approach." These bureaucratic systems often result in expensive, long, and limited processes, according to Lloyd.

In Australia, Marcelle Burns, Gomeroi-Kamilaroi first nations' woman and lecturer at the School of Law, University of New England, noted several legal and land rights mechanisms through which land titles are claimed. Even if Native titles are recognized, she warned that national interests can override Indigenous rights to culture and the burden of proof is quite heavy. Cultural heritage laws also still remain quite ineffective, stated Burns.

Using the global resistance at Standing Rock as an example, Greymorning showed how companies consistently ignore federal policies when it comes to Indigenous rights, such as the continued drilling despite President Obama’s moratorium.

"People fail to look at how all these cases integrate across time and space," said Greymorning.

Moving Forward in Institutional Spaces

To enable effective community participation, Lloyd suggested that the process needs to interrogate what engagement actually means for the community and demand action following the experience.

"It’s about building mutual respect and developing a long-term relationship," said Burns. "For a long time, research has been imposed from the outside and the main beneficiaries have been the academics. We really need to turn that paradigm around."

Indigenous wisdom and experiences are increasingly brought into institutional spaces and dominant discourse, such as when it comes to environmental stewardship. However, Burns added that respect and acknowledgement for Indigenous rights must also be strengthened outside of institutions because those systems are constantly changing and "fickle."

"I believe the answer lies in connecting internationally across borders to raise international pushback to help Indigenous communities across different countries and create a global awareness of the problems and contradictions that governments are upholding," said Greymorning. "Governments believe they’re not accountable."

Burns mentioned that at the individual level, she asks her law students to look beyond the media "to listen more deeply to Aboriginal people’s stories" and find emotional connections to frame how they think about the law and colonial histories.

"Land is seen as a gift, but really, it was stolen," summarized Docot.



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Published: Friday, December 4, 2020