Another American Dream
How do North America's aboriginal communities approach the global challenges of the 21st century?
December 10, 2011
What might North America have been like if none of the ten Euro-Atlantic nations, all of which sprang up after 1492, had ever been established? What would this territory be like if the original Indian nations — the “First Nations,” in Canadian parlance — had avoided the devastating epidemics of the 16th and 17th centuries and had continued to develop on their own terms? What might this nation be like today?
The North American continent comprises 11 distinct regional cultures, ten of them the result of distinct Euro-American colonization efforts. (An overview of the paradigm — and the salient characteristics of the “nations” I call Yankeedom, Tidewater, New Netherland, the Deep South, Midlands and so on — can be found here.)
The 11th distinct culture is found in the far north of the North American continent. There, a very old nation is reemerging after centuries in the cold. Across the northern third of the continent, aboriginal people have been reclaiming sovereignty over traditional territories from northern Alaska to Greenland and nearly everywhere in between.
In this sprawling region of dense boreal forests, Arctic tundra and treeless, glaciated islands, many native peoples never signed away the rights to their land, which they still occupy and, to a surprising degree, continue to live off using the techniques of their forefathers.
They have won key legal decisions in Canada and Greenland that give them considerable leverage over what happens in their territories, forcing energy, mining and timber companies to come to them, hat in hand, for permission to move forward on resource extraction projects.
In 1999, Canada’s Inuit (they don’t want to be called “Eskimos”) won their own Canadian territory, Nunavut, which is larger than Alaska. Meanwhile, the Inuit of Greenland control their own affairs as an autonomous, self-governing unit of the Kingdom of Denmark and are moving aggressively toward full independence.
What most people don’t realize is that, together with the Innu, Kaska, Dene, Cree and dozens of other tribes, the northern aboriginal people have cultural dominance over much of the northern part of the North American continent. It extends from Alaska, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Labrador, and includes all of Nunavut and Greenland, northwestern interior British Columbia and the northern swaths of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Québec.
This 11th nation — which I call First Nation — is far and away the largest of all by geography (it is much bigger than the continental United States), but the smallest by population (with fewer than 300,000 people).
Intriguingly, on a continent so possessed by a focus on one’s own material belongings, the First Nation is a highly communalistic society. Most tribal land in the far north is owned in common under a form of title that prevents it from ever being sold to an individual or exploited in such a way that diminishes its value to future generations.
In Greenland, there is no private property at all. Everyone is allowed to responsibly use the people’s shared land, but it is thought the height of absurdity that any one person should “own” it. In fact, it would be comparable to someone asserting ownership of the wind.
Inuit — whether dwelling in Labrador, Nunavut, Greenland or Alaska — still hunt, fish and gather a substantial amount of their food, and all of those “home foods” and the implements associated with them are generally regarded as common property as well. If a hunter kills a seal, it’s handed over to whoever needs it.
Villages have communal freezers that anyone can access — free of charge or accounting — because food cannot belong to one person. If the tribe engages in an industrial enterprise, the proceeds belong to everyone.
Not surprisingly, First Nation has an extremely strong environmental ethic. In Canada — where a landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision recognized Indian oral histories as legitimate evidence in establishing pre-colonial territories — aboriginal people are setting the terms by which oil, gas, mining and timber companies have to abide.
The 2,000-person Innu nation in Labrador has created a top-notch, ecosystem-based forestry management plan for their ancestral lands in Labrador which, at 17.5 million acres, are larger than West Virginia.
They hired professional forest ecologists to identify areas that shouldn’t be cut for the good of wildlife and water quality, and added their own hunting, fishing and trapping grounds. In the end, 60% of their territory was placed off-limits to loggers. The rest is sustainably harvested for the good of the collective nation.
In both Canada and Greenland, the Inuit have been at the forefront of the climate change battle, as warmer temperatures are already disrupting their way of life. Alaskan villages have already had to be moved to escape the advancing sea and melting permafrost. Polar bears and other game are vanishing. Meanwhile, drug abuse, alcoholism and teen suicide have become endemic.
Greenlanders, for one, have decided the best way to move forward is to be masters of their own destiny. In 2009, they achieved a state of near-independence from Denmark following a self-rule referendum supported by 76% of voters.
Greenlanders now control the criminal justice, social welfare and healthcare systems, as well as land-use planning, fisheries management, environmental regulations, education, transportation and even the issuance of offshore oil exploration contracts.
“It’s a natural thing for a population to run their own country,” says the island’s foreign minister, Aleqa Hammond. Securing independence won’t be easy, she admits, given that the country is still dependent on Danish government subsidies to maintain its government, hospitals and generous social welfare system.
But, she believes, Greenlanders have a secret weapon: women like herself. “You’ll notice here in Greenland that the women are very strong, not only physically strong, but in all respects: in politics, business, education level and everything,” she says, adding that roughly half the island’s parliament is female.
“Our bishop is a woman, most mayors are women and so forth. There’s never been a fight for gender equality in Greenland. Women have always been powerful in our society. Our God was female, and when the Christians came to Greenland in the 18th century and said, ‘Our God is mighty and great and he looks like us,’ our first reaction was: a He? Because not only are our women smarter and more pretty than men, they also give birth, they give life, and when there are problems in society, the women are the ones who are fighting to be sure the society survives. The Inuit language has no difference between he or she, or between mankind and animal,” she adds. “They’re all equal.”
Starting in Greenland, First Nation is building a series of nation-states of its own, giving North America’s indigenous peoples a chance to show the rest of the world how they would blend post-modern life with pre-modern folkways.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt is reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from AMERICAN NATIONS by Colin Woodard. Copyright © 2011 by Colin Woodard.
The northern aboriginal people have cultural dominance over much of the northern part of the North American continent.
First Nation is far and away the largest of North American regions by geography, but the smallest by population (with fewer than 300,000 people).
On a continent so possessed by a focus on one's own material belongings, the First Nation is a highly communalistic society.
In Greenland, there is no private property at all. It is thought the height of absurdity that any one person should "own" land.
Author and journalist Colin Woodard, an author and award-winning journalist, is a foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Chronicle of Higher Education and a contributing editor at Down East magazine. A native of Maine, he has reported from more than 50 foreign countries and six continents, and lived for more than four […]