Survival and Transformations: The Ongoing Struggle of Tribal Societies

Rene Wadlow*

Gravieres, August 8, 2014 (Alochonaa): As Paulo Freire has written “While both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is man’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.”

The world society is filled with many different types of collective actors: clans, tribes, castes, ethnic groups, cities, races, social classes, religious organizations, nation-states, multi-state alliances for military or economic goals, transnational corporations and associations. Each is the creation of individuals who have grouped together − or have been grouped together − to achieve goals considered common to the group’s members. All such collective groups have techniques to socialize new members to share the common values, to accept the ideology and beliefs of the tribe, the nation-state or the association. This socialization process goes so deeply that a person’s sense of identity becomes associated with these collective identity, the school, the army, the church, the political process and institutions − each propose a sense of group purpose.

Yet none of these groups is static and unchanging. Even clans and tribes whose members often consider that they have a common ancestor do, in fact, change. Tribes merge and divide; new identities are formed; new ancestors are created to justify the new groupings.

Some types of collective belonging are more easily left than others. One can move relatively easily from a city and take on the character, the values and the goals of a new city. Social mobility can produce changes in social class, and even caste lines become blurred. Persons change nationality or acquire new nationalities as frontiers are modified. Race is less easily changed but definitions of what constitutes a race do change. Ethnic identity is often associated with birth, but parents can belong to different ethnic communities, although the child is usually raised as belonging to the more dominant group. However the socialization process of group identity goes to the level of sub-conscious behavior and is not easily set aside.

Int Ind Day

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 9 August – Google Image

Today the nation-state claims to be the dominant collective association − setting the boundaries of loyalty and identity. The State claims the right to set out the major collective goals and values. Through laws, the State claims the right to set out the rules by which other collective entities may pursue their goals; through taxation the State draws the resources to further the goals it has set, and the State claims to have the only legitimate use of violence to punish those who break the laws and rules it has set.

There have always been tensions between these collective groups for their spheres of goal-setting and value-setting have overlapped. Thus there have been tensions between religious organizations and the State as to who should set what goals and the means to achieve these goals. There have also been tensions between economic classes and the State when it was felt that the State was dominated by another economic class who used its power within State institutions not for the good of all but only to advance class interests. The same is true of other collective units − races or ethnic groups − excluded from power within State institutions.

Today in many parts of the world those most excluded from power within State institutions are people living in alternative structures of authority, goal-setting and rule-making: persons living in tribal societies.

Tribal societies predated most of today’s nation-state. A tribal society usually has all the same functions as the nation-state: it sets out membership, loyalties, common goals and rules of behavior. It has sanctions against those breaking the laws of the tribe and has − or had − the monopoly of the legitimacy of using violence against those breaking the laws. Tribes are, in fact, more realistically “nation-states” if one defines nation as a common language, a common history and a common will to act together.

Thus because the tribal society is the closest in function to that of the nation-state, it is also the most feared. Tribes are institutions with whom it is difficult to compromise because they have the same pretentions as the State. It is relatively easy for a government to offer higher wages to the industrial worker or higher prices to the farmer as these social classes do not claim to carry out an alternative way the functions of the State. It is more of a challenge to the State’s image of its role to allow tribal societies to set out a land policy or fishing rights or trans-frontier trading rights because these activities conflict directly with the functions that the government has set for itself.

Thus there has been a long history of the State destroying alternative institutions of governance on its territory. The nation-states of Europe were built upon the ruins of feudal institutions; much of Asia on the destruction of local rulers. We see the pattern today as we watch traditional chiefs in Africa loose their authority to the heads of State and the military. In the Americas, many of the indigenous tribal societies were destroyed. Others were pushed into areas that those who controlled the government did not want − the “reservations” of the USA and Canada.

In Latin America and Asia, there is still active struggle going on between those trying to preserve their tribal institutions and homelands and the State which claims complete authority over all its territory and who often wished to put new settlers on tribal lands.

The amount of violence and suffering is considerable. Slowly, the fate of tribal societies has come to the attention of the United Nations. The UN was set up to facilitate relations among nation-states. However because wide-spread violations of individual rights had been one of the consequences of the Second World War, a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948. The aim of the Declaration is to stress the rights of the individual − a natural consequence of the philosophy of the drafters. The rights of collective bodies with which the drafters were familier are also protected: trade unions, churches, professional associations. However tribal societies were not particularly thought of as one sees by reading the drafting negotiations. Thus, the Universal Declaration protects the rights of all individuals − including, of course, individuals living in tribal societies − but there is no direct recognition of the functions of tribal societies.

Thus for many years, indigenous and tribal peoples were the forgotten stepchildren of the UN system dealing with human rights. Yet they needed protection at least as much as those on whom the political limelight had focused. The situation began to change with the publication by the International Labour Organization’s study Indigenous Peoples: Living and working conditions of aboriginal populations in independent countries (1953). This was followed by the study by Jose Martinez Cobo Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations of the UN Commission on Human Rights (1986). While the Cobo study was being written, a Working Group on Indigenous Populations was set up under the then-existing Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities under the dynamic leadership of Erica-Irene Daes.

From the Working Group, with a good deal of interaction with the representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations and tribal groups came a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (A61/295) in 2007 after some 20 years of efforts. The Declaration sets out a useful framework for action.(1) A UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been created and meets once a year in New York. Conditions “on the ground” change slowly but there is now a UN institutions where issues can be raised. It is still the task of non-government organizations and tribal groups to continue to draw attention and to seek cooperation with governments.


  1. See the useful Making the Declaration Work published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (Copenhagen) available on their website:


*René Wadlow, PhD is President and Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva, Switzerland.  He can be reached at

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: Indigenous, Nation-State

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