Modern nations such as Australia, Canada, and the United States have struggled in their efforts to establish a fair and stable relationship with aboriginal, or indigenous, groups. In the past three hundred years, the aforementioned governments have often abused these groups through unfair and broken treaties, reckless dissemination of disease, and often direct violence. Consequently, these groups make up a small portion of the population today and are often plagued by problems with substance abuse and poor quality of life. Governments also struggle to establish a fair level of jurisdiction over said groups; while these nation-states recognize that indigenous groups were forced to submit to the government's authority, they are not willing to let indigenous groups break any law they dislike. This debate centers on the question of whether governments should act to preserve indigenous culture; this protection can take the form of land reservations set aside for aboriginals. However, it can also include language programs or funding for the arts so that, despite heavy losses in numbers over the generations, the remainder of these indigenous groups is able to pass down their culture. Protection of indigenous culture may also include special legal exemption from particular laws that are contrary to indigenous traditions. While many argue that aboriginals are entitled to special treatment because of a blemished past, others argue that this past is not a valid reason for special cultural protection.
Across the United States, Australia, and Canada, native customs are often tied closely to the land. For example, while descendants of the Sioux Indians of the American Midwest may no longer hunt buffalo, learning about traditional means of hunting, animal use, rituals involving the surrounding wildlife, means of ensuring a sustainable food supply, and other cultural norms related to the land gives people a greater appreciation for the land they now inhabit. Exposure to traditions that have been practiced in one's land for thousands of years helps us to appreciate the legacy we have inherited. This does not just benefit the direct descendants of those practicing these traditions but the whole of society.
Protecting indigenous culture is unlikely to have a significant impact on the general population. Native groups often live in relative isolation, thereby having little contact with people outside the community. Furthermore, antiquated forms of hunting and cultivating food that were used over a hundred years ago have little relevance to the modern environment in which people live. Learning about these traditions is unlikely to impact the public's perception of its environment because the public is unlikely to make an emotional connection between these traditions and their modern homes.
The Indian Removal Act of 18301, the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act, and the 1887 General Allotment Act are just a few examples of legislation used to destroy Native American communities in the US2. Settlers in Australia are similarly responsible for a multitude of massacres3, as well as several decades of forced separation of aboriginal children from their parents in an effort to "Christianize" them4. While the current citizens of Canada, the US, and Australia are not guilty of the crimes of their predecessors, they nevertheless reap the benefits of those atrocities while today's indigenous populations still suffer from the lasting impact of oppression. When chemical companies make huge profits at the expense of damaging the surrounding community's environment, those companies are expected to pay reparations. A government that destroys an indigenous culture must similarly work to reverse their destruction.
1Indian Treaty and Removal Act of 1830, U.S. Department of State.
2Preamble to the Trail of Broken Treaties 20-Point Position Paper: An Indian Manifesto. American Indian Movement, 1972.
3History of Australian Aboriginal Massacres, Treaty Republic, 2011.
4"Living With the Past," FOCUS September 1997, Vol. 9, Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center.
Indigenous populations have no more right to special government treatment than other minority groups. Even indigenous populations did not inhabit their current territory from the dawn of time, and many ethnic groups around the world live where they do because they were pushed out of some other territory hundreds or thousands of years ago. Virtually every ethnic group in the world has been conquered and abused by some other group. Tracing the entirety of human history to determine which group owes reparations to which other group is unproductive; rather, governments should move forward to promote a better standard of living for all citizens.
Notions of cultural superiority virtually always influence displacement and abuse of indigenous cultures. For example, when the government of Botswana expelled the Kalahari Bushmen from their land in 2002, President Mogai defended his actions by describing the bushmen as "stone age creatures."1 This cultural insensitivity, in addition to the incentive of material gains, led the Botswani government to violate the tribe's rights. By preserving indigenous culture, governments recognize the value of these groups and prevent future hostility.
The government should rely on just legal systems to protect the rights of indigenous people, not cultural preservation. A constitution that enumerates rights and a court system that scrutinizes government activity is a much more direct and reliable venue of protecting indigenous rights than sporadic funding for cultural programs.
Governments already protect culture so it is not a big step to apply the same protections to aboriginal culture as well. In school, students learn about traditional art and their national history. For example, the state of California compiles reading lists that largely include Shakespeare, Virgil, and John Steinback, though also including ethnic authors like Maya Angelou1. Governments recognize days like Christmas and New Years and fund programs that promote the arts. States recognize marriage and structure divorce and custody laws based on cultural norms of gender roles and family responsibility. If a government can protect the norms on one culture in society, there is no reason that the government should not also protect the culture of those who first inhabited the land. This current protection makes it easy to build on, to make highlight more aboriginal culture, recognize their festivals etc.
Governments also ignore or destroy culture all the time. Historic and significant buildings are built to build infrastructure, traditions are lost through an unwillingness to provide funding to prevent it from dying. When governments protect culture they inevitably protect one over the others. This is nearly always the culture of the majority. Instead it is not for the government to promote or protect any culture over others rather it should be left to private individuals and each cultural group to promote their own culture.
If indigenous populations feel strongly that their unique culture is worth preserving, they may direct their attention and funds towards this endeavor. However, a government's first priority must be services that improve the standard of living for its citizens. Society, including indigenous people, would be better served if tax dollars were spent on services like healthcare and law enforcement.
Cultural preservation enriches society; just because it cannot be measured quantitatively does not mean it is not worthwhile. Without government assistance, many museums and theaters would have to close down, or would be too expensive for the general public to access. Government support for cultural enrichment contributes towards the public's education and allows citizens to develop an appreciation for traditions other than their own. This does not mean arguing that the government should abandon its basic duties, but simply that a small portion of the budget be dedicated to preservation of indigenous culture.
Plenty of ethnic groups immigrate to countries like Canada and the US and preserve their culture without government aid. They do so through religious education for children, speaking their native language at home, schools at the weekends that teach their culture and communication and cooperation within the ethnic community. This cultural preservation demonstrates that government assistance is unnecessary and thereby a form of excessive government involvement.
Immigrant populations generally do not retain their cultural distinctiveness in the long run; while the first generation may be heavily influenced by their parents' culture, this influence fades by the second generation. Immigrant assimilation is actually proof that government assistance would be useful to native groups.
Virtually all cultures around the world have changed radically over the past two hundred years; if a government takes action towards "preserving" an indigenous culture, it is interfering with the group's ability to mold their identity to fit the modern world on their own terms. For example, the Australian and American governments have tried to appease native groups by offering land for reserves where they may lead a traditional lifestyle. Native individuals, however, often do not want to live in isolation, and would rather adapt their culture to an urban environment where they can have a higher standard of living.
Mainstream cultural norms are so pervasive in every aspect of society that without an active effort, indigenous values and traditions will be lost. Preserving culture often involves funding- whether it is for a theatre group, art show, language program, or other means of cultural expression. In countries like the US and Australia, indigenous groups make up less than 3% of the current population; 1;2 without assistance from the government, it is unlikely these groups would be able to sustain such cultural efforts and as a result their culture would not have any chance to evolve.
1Race- Universe: Total Population, U.S. Census Bureau American Fact Finder, 2009.
2Experimental Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 1991, to 2021, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009.
Culture contains many elements; it is the food one eats, the clothing one wears, the holidays one celebrates, and the names of the spirits one worships. However, it is much more than that; culture dictates parent-child relationships, courting customs, family size, gender roles, healthcare, education, and every law, regulation, and standard a society holds. Governments rarely give blanket approval to an indigenous customs; children are often compelled to attend school and receive vaccines, substances used in religious rituals may be banned, and customs that infringe on the rights of group members are not permitted. These restrictions may be reasonable, however, they create a false sense of cultural preservation. Rather than ostensibly protect aboriginal culture, governments should leave it alone.
Anarchy is not necessary for culture to exist. Legal restrictions do impact cultural norms; for example, Native American use of peyote for religious ceremonies is permitted only at the discretion of state governments1. However, restrictions on drug use have not turned native cultural expression into a meaningless practice. Rather, the fact that native groups must conform to external standards is more reason for the government to make an active effort to protect indigenous culture. In the previous example, the US government acknowledged that Native American use of peyote in religious ceremonies is different from typical drug use, and consequently permits such peyote use (with limitations). It is this active effort to respect native culture that allowed Native Americans to preserve their religious practice.
1Elijah Sweete, "Peyote in Short Supply," The Moderate Voice, 2010.