Assimilation policy contra cultural viability in the North


Historically, indigenous people in the Arctic have been subject to assimilation enforced by and in the interest of majority societies, a process of change that has caused severe most detrimental effects on indigenous people and their cultural viability. This process, which indicates domination, is referred to as Norwegianizing, Japanizing and Canadianizing, a process which turned out to be explicit attacks especially on hunting-gathering and pastoralist ways of life, where a settled way of life by the majority society was considered a predefined ideal. In the same fashion the school system, the language and traditional beliefs had to be adapted to mainstream practice and norms.

The issue of assimilation is of moral-philosophical order and is still discussed and actualized among indigenous people in the political domain, not the least in the North. What is at stake is the right to their own life style. It is a human right to enjoy and preserve cultural distinctiveness, to be culturally unique in the world of peoples. This opens for a discussion of law in a broad sense, i.e. in both philosophical and anthropological terms.

Assimilation as a common feature and its consequences will be discussed based on three different ethnographic cases, the Sami, the Ainu and the Nisga'a. A variety of strategies have been used to come to terms with and counteract the negative effects of such assimilation policy, strategic moves as a rule initiated by the indigenous people themselves. Such strategies refer to the use of the legal arena of the dominant society focusing on their historical, inherent rights. The demand for substantial negotiation is another tactic being used. The overall objective is the issue of recognition, i.e. formal acknowledgement of the majority society that the indigenous peoples are entitled to territorial rights, essential for the sustenance of their way of life, their livelihood. Rights to self-determination, i.e. increased autonomy concerning their own affairs, and cultural rights emphasizing their language, their school system and their ritual practice and belief system are equally significant. Only by

1 Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway, This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

means of such recognition will it be possible to meet the future as a distinct people regardless of number and where cultural diversity is key.[1]

The cases that follow give substance to a more general discussion of the most topical issue at present, truth and reconciliation, which will be covered in some detail. In this way the current position between the majority and the indigenous minority in the North will be informed, built on a process away from assimilation and towards recognition of the ultimate value of cultural difference.

The chapter presents legal, philosophical as well as anthropological dimensions of assimilation policy contra cultural viability in the North: a state of conflict between majority and minority.

The use of the legal arena - a strategic choice

In most parts of the Circumpolar area noticeable changes can be recorded, in particular from the World War II era to the present day. One thing worth paying attention to is the increased contact and collaboration between various indigenous peoples, where sharing experiences turn out as a decisive additional asset.

A set of fundamental rights appear to be critical if these usually small groups of people are able to achieve the ultimate goal of cultural survival. And as long as cultural diversity is associated with definite meaning, a political agenda is required where law is a superordinate factor. In trying to counteract assimilation, the use of the legal arena of the majority society, including its court system, is mandatory if any change and improvements of the position of indigenous people are able to occur. To reach such a goal, legal pluralistic thinking is required. International law, specifically human rights, and customary law, including peoples’ own legal perceptions, are key factors to convey and actualize the value of cross-cultural understanding of rights. Legal pluralism does not necessarily assume two parallel courts or systems of law, but it asserts a dialogue on legal matters based on an open understanding of cultural difference. Such understanding is the opposite of assimilation and is indispensable for cultural continuity.

Cultural survival relates to the perspective of ethnic boundary, a situational construction which in the main is a social concern. Defending rights to land which are traditionally used by indigenous people and which are subject to marked encroachments from the majority society, gives particular meaning when such boundaries, culturally defined, are strengthened. Such a boundaryis a dynamic concept situationally constructed depending on needs, where recognition of cultural diversity, including indigeneity, appears as a key factor. The question remains, in confrontations how effectively can indigenous people articulate the question of ethnicity?

In the legal arena, the use of a proficient translation which transforms culture-specific thinking about rights into a legal language acceptable in court is required. To reach a legally binding verdict in a cross-cultural confrontation on rights calls for a mutual understanding to become law. And this is what the use of the legal arena is aiming at, where respect for legal pluralism is essential.

In general terms, the discussion so far can be exemplified with a set of court cases dealing primarily with rights in principle, because it is in such cases that the articulation of cultural difference is fronted. The process of negotiation leading to final agreements, even treaties, and parliamentary inquiries turn out to be supplementary strategies, either as follow-ups from court cases or as independent actions aiming at a similar objective, i.e. change based on extended recognition and clarification of rights.

  • [1] For a more extensive account of the three ethnographic cases, see T. Svensson, ‘Reconciling divergent normative orders: The struggle for recognition regarding customary law among indigenous peoples’. Arctic/Antarctic International Jrl. of Circumpolar Sociocultural Issues, 2, 2008. 2 F. Barth (ed). Introduction Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1969, 9-38.
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