Terra Nullius: “Nobody’s Land?!”

Terra Nullius: “Nobody’s Land?!”

There are an estimated 476 million Indigenous Peoples spread across 70 countries worldwide. I lack the space to map the torturous route of finding a day for the US government to honor them, or for The United Nations to recognize their rights in a declaration.

Suffice it to say that the UN endeavor began around 1914 (already as an old idea), and was finally passed by the United Nations in 2007. The United States has still not got its act together. Individual states observe the day, usually October 12, but that’s tricky because it’s also Columbus Day and Italian Americans get cranky at the notion of losing their day. Each year another state stumbles in one by one. In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to replace Columbus Day with Native Americans’ day as an official state holiday; in 1992 Berkeley, California became the first city to officially observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day—which coincided with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Hawaii cleverly changed the name to Discoverers’ Day, in honor of the Polynesian navigators who originally peopled the islands. A growing list of state and local governments acknowledge it in some form; I won’t list them all here but you can find them easily online.

Oh, and while Indigenous Peoples Day remains a non-federal holiday, it is federally recognized as a national holiday—and if you can work that one out I salute you.

Indigenous peoples in Canada comprise the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Metis. Such descriptors as “Indian” and “Eskimo” have fallen into disuse in Canada and the US; these, and the term “aboriginal” are being replaced with indigenous. The Inuit have achieved a degree of administrative autonomy with the 1999 creation of the territories of Nunavik in northern Quebec, Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador, and Nunavut which was formerly part of the Northwest Territories. In the United States, populations of Native Americans, Inuit, and other Indigenous designations total 2,786,652 — constituting about 1.5 percent of 2003 census figures. Some 563 scheduled Nations or Tribes are recognized at the federal level and a number of others recognized at the state level.

Globally, however, the population is enormous. In most parts of Oceania, Indigenous peoples outnumber the descendants of colonists. Exceptions include Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii; in Aotearola-New Zealand the Māori population estimate in 2021 was 17 percent of the population.

Among Africa’s many indigenous peoples are the hunter-gatherer forest peoples (“pygmies”) of central Africa, nomadic pastoralists such as the Maasai and Samburu in East Africa, the San in Southern Africa and the Amazigh people (Berbers) of North Africa and the Sahel. Masai women in Kenya rallied to protest their political marginalization and the sale of their communal lands.The San, the Indigenous People of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, won a major victory in December 2006, when The High Court ruled that the state had wrongfully evicted them from a reserve four years earlier and that they could return home: a historic precedent for the rights of Indigenous People everywhere, especially in Africa, where many African governments have been reluctant to recognize the concept of Indigenous rights. Recently, Burundi amended its constitution to guarantee representation in the national assembly to the indigenous Twa people, who live in several countries in Africa’s Great Lakes region. In neighboring Rwanda, the government is working with the main Twa organization to investigate war crimes perpetrated against them during the 1994 genocide, in which an estimated one third of all Twa in that country were killed.

In some countries (particularly in Latin America), Indigenous peoples form a sizable component of the overall national population — in Bolivia, they account for an estimated 56–70 percent of the total nation, and at least half of the population in Guatemala and the Andean and Amazonian nations of Peru. Indigenous peoples make up 0.4 percent of all Brazilian population (about 700,000 people), and are found in the entire territory of Brazil, although the majority live in reservations in the north and center-western part of the country. In 2007, The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted peoples in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition, Brazil has now overtaken the island of New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted peoples. But Asia contains the majority of the world’s present-day Indigenous populations, about 70 percent, according to The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) figures. In The Philippines, there are 135 ethno-linguistic groups, the majority of which are considered as Indigenous peoples by mainstream Indigenous ethnic groups in the country. The Indigenous people of Cordillera Administrative Region and Cagayan Valley in the Philippines are the Igorot people; the Indigenous peoples of Mindanao are the Lumad peoples and the Moro (Tausug, Maguindanao, Maranao and others) who also live in the Sulu archipelago. The Philippines has one of the largest indigenous populations in the world.

Not that this is always dealt with intelligently: The Vietnamese viewed and treated the indigenous Montagnards from the Central Highlands of Vietnam as “savages,” which caused a Montagnard uprising against the Vietnamese. The Bangladesh Government has chosen to ostrich the situation, shrugging that that there are “no indigenous peoples in Bangladesh,” which has, not surprisingly, angered the indigenous peoples of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, collectively known as the Jumma. The Hmong people of China, and the Karen, Burman, and Arakan of Myanmar have staged revolts against the government at times. And so forth, ad nauseam. Humanity will always find some group as a target for bigotry, it would seem.

We might lay a fair amount of responsibility if not outright blame for the colonialism and exploitation suffered for centuries by indigenous peoples on the Doctrine of Discovery, which emerged in the 15th century. Haven’t heard of it? Ahhhhha.

The Doctrine of Discovery was/is a concept of public international law promulgated by the papacy and Christian European monarchies to legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside Europe. Between the mid-15th century and the mid-20th century, this idea allowed European entities to seize lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples under the guise of “discovering new land,” meaning land not inhabited by Christians. Terra nullius, meaning “nobody’s land,” land empty or void, was the justification for European groups to claim that land for their country, despite the many Indigenous groups already present. (This same justification was later promulgated about Israel — “a land without a people for a people without a land” — although there were of course Palestinians living on that land for centuries.) A series of Papal Bulls cemented the concept that allowed outright confiscation of the “property and sovereign rights of heathens,” or at minimum that conquests could “legally” occur if non-Christians refused to comply with Christianization.

Translation: peoples considered not “civilized” by European standards of societal normality (suppression of women), economics (private property), leadership (monarchy), and general culture (ownership of natural resources), was let loose on the world in the “age of exploration.”

So Portugal was granted permission by the Papacy to expand in Africa, Spain was urged to move westward across the Atlantic to conquer and convert Indigenous peoples in the new world, and the beginnings of European colonialism were effectively formalized into international law—“protecting” any land that had been discovered or previously possessed by any Christian owner. The Spanish Requirement of 1513 further emphasized that it was a “divinely ordained right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit and, when necessary, to fight the native inhabitants,” or else they would be annihilated. The document was supposed to be read to Indigenous peoples so that they theoretically could accept or reject the proposal, because refusal meant that war could justifiably be waged against them. (Many conquistadors apparently feared that if given the option, Indigenous peoples would simply accept Christianity, which would legally not permit invasion of their lands and the theft of their belongings–so this commonly resulted in Spanish invaders reading the document aloud to the night sky or to the trees with no one else present.)

As Catholic countries in 1493, England as well as France worked to reinterpret the Doctrine of Discovery to serve their own colonial interests, and the new theory argued that Henry VIII of England would not violate the 1493 papal bulls that divided the world for the Spanish and Portuguese and effectively set a precedent among European colonial nations that the first Christian nation to occupy land was the “legal owner and had to be respected by international law.”

This rationale was used in what was to become the American colonies. James I stated in the Virginia Charter that colonists could be given property rights because the lands were not now actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. It was considered the duty of English monarchs to spread Christianity “to those who as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God and to bring the infidels and savages living in those parts to human civility into a settled and quiet government.” This blatant, brutal, openly admitted approach to colonization of Indigenous lands resulted in a huge acceleration of exploration and land-claiming, particularly by France, England, and Holland. In 1792, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that this European Doctrine of Discovery was international law applicable to the new U.S. government as well–and he damned well should have known better.

The Doctrine and its legacy continue to influence American imperialism and treatment of Indigenous peoples–who have suffered the results. Although the Indigenous make up just 6 percent of the global population, they account for about 19 percent of the extreme poor. Indigenous peoples’ life expectancy is up to 20 years lower than the life expectancy of non-indigenous people worldwide.

Yet they are the ones who know, the Indigenous; it is not new-age sentimentality or romanticism to note that. While Indigenous Peoples own, occupy, or use only a quarter of the world’s surface area, they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, and have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. That ancestral land has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples. Indigenous populations hold their own diverse concepts of development, based on their own values, visions, needs and priorities. They hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks. Most of their process and their substance is women’s leadership.

And how does the rest of the world respond? Within hours, or so it feels, this culture attempts to use, exploit, commercialize indigenous, well, anything — except indigenous truths. A recent issue of The New Yorker featured a piece on how the modern indigenous kitchen became the best new restaurant in the United States, highlighting its menu — every dish made without wheat flour, dairy, cane sugar, black pepper, or any other ingredient introduced to the continent after Europeans arrived. That’s the brain-child of Sean Sherman, a 48-year-old Oglala Lakota chef. Almost overnight it became the most prominent example of indigenous American cuisine in the United States. In June, the prestigious James Beard Foundation named Owamni the best new restaurant in the country: it’s in Minneapolis, it’s gourmet, and it’s very expensive. As is Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California. As are websites beginning to advertise indigenous fashion, indigenous jewelry. This even trickles down to the decidedly uncommercial world of poetry with the monthly journal once titled Poetry Chicago, now simply called Poetry, the venerable publication founded in 1912, coming on board to field an entire issue devoted to indigenous poets. Which is deserved.

How can we begrudge this to a people silenced and strangled for so long–and why should we? But how, in fact, do you tell the difference between being co-opted and winning? How do you know when you’ve sold out or bought in? I believe if anyone knows how to navigate that slippery terrain, it would be indigenous women.

Terra nullius. Empty land, void land. That’s how the papal powers and monarchs of Europe in all their resplendent Christianity described the New World: a pure, undiseased, unpolluted, empty land rich with abundant fish, fowl, game, fruits, lumber, and everything else.

Yet today it is the Indigenous who rise from it, as it from seeds they themselves once gathered and sowed, as if they were flowers opening their buds to the sun, as if they were crops ripening to feed their children.

These women are still too close to these roots to be cut off, lost.

Today, they are the land defenders, like the Natives at Standing Rock, the historic gathering of tribes in solidarity to halt the Dakota access pipeline that would spill oil across the land. They are the water defenders of El Salvador who rallied to prevent a global mining corporation from poisoning the country’s main water source. They are the Aymara women, the “Cholitas” who climb the highest peaks in Bolivia (in their native dress at 4 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures!) to show their support for women’s reproductive rights. They are the champions of biodiversity, the ones who confront the killers of entire species, the ones staving off environmental collapse.

In the past 10 years, an environmental activist somewhere in the world was killed every two days. In 2021, three-quarters of such murders were committed in Central America, mainly by organized criminal groups and governments that want to destroy land for profit, through mining, logging, and extractive industries like oil and gas. A recent report from the international NGO Global Witness published these statistics, and more: last year, of the 200 environmental defenders killed, 54 were in Mexico. About 40 percent of the murdered were Indigenous — although Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population. In Brazil, since tracking the deaths of land defenders began in 2012, 343 people have been killed, with 83 percent of them dying in the Amazon.

These activists are the crucial first line of defense against ecological collapse, yet these murders occur in silence. Besides Brazil and Mexico, the deadliest countries for environmental activists were Colombia, Honduras, and The Philippines. Widespread underreporting means that in Mexico alone, Global Witness notes, 94 percent of such murders go unreported, and less than 1 percent of cases are resolved.

We are nowhere near demands based on actual justice, yet. Far from, for instance, demands for sovereignty of indigenous territories, in North America or the Philippines. How naive that sounds when you pose it against the background of global climate change, moving at faster rates than anticipated, soon to reach the point of an absolutely no return!

This is a fight for survival, a fight with which the Indigenous are tragically familiar, but one they are uniquely equipped to lead–if we would only follow.