‘Unless we affirm our culture and right and language, we won’t live. We have to say, by ourselves at least, ours is good: our colour is good, our language is good, our art is good, our way of living is good. If we can respect your religion and your practices, why can’t you respect ours?’
— G. Thenadikulam, Wayanad District, India
Tribal peoples have the right to choose the life they want to live, but many governments – with notions of tribes as ‘backwards’ – demand that they change and ‘fit in with the mainstream’ society.
‘First they make us destitute by taking away our life. Then they say we are nothing because we are destitute.’
— Jumanda, Bushmen, Botswana
Assimilation policies have been disastrous for many tribes: they lose their independence, self-sufficiency and – all too often – their health.
Attempts by the Canadian government to assimilate tribes such as the Innu have devastated communities. Children were sent to residential schools where they were made to feel ashamed of their culture and which cut them off from their traditions. Rates of substance abuse and suicide soar among young people in tribes that have been forced to assimilate.
UNICEF has reported that the strain put on tribal communities when governments try to make them ‘homogenize and assimilate’ leads directly to suffering of tribal children .
Assimilation policies effectively lead to the extinction of peoples, languages and cultures. On paper, most governments have rejected assimilation by signing the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Forcing tribal peoples to integrate was, in colonial times, common policy. The first international agreement on tribal peoples has since become an embarrassment due to its assimilation focus. It has been replaced by ILO Convention 169 – the strongest international law for tribal peoples – but many countries have not yet signed.
The UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, which most states support, states that ‘indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture’. Yet in some states that voted for the Declaration, such as India, tribal peoples are still pushed to join ‘the mainstream’ – this must change.
Proud, not primitive
One thing that these policies often destroy is the pride that tribal people have in themselves, their way of life and their land.
‘We are happy here, as we have our land and our forest. I am proud of my way of life. Here we are living all on our own land. Each homestead is set in its fields, with our cattle, our crops and the forest nearby. We want to stay like we are, here, on our land. Money would be no good for us. We would just become mad and fly in aeroplanes and spend it all and then we would all become beggars.’
- Elder, Bhil, India
Tribal people, living on their own land, are thriving all over the world. They know what they need and want and their choices must be heard and respected.
‘We are not poor or primitive. We are very rich. Rich in our culture, our language and our land. We don’t need money or possessions. What we need is respect: respect for our culture and respect for our land rights.’
- Davi Yanomami, Yanomami, Brazil