Humanist Policy Series: The Indigenous Futures Act

Humanist Policy Series: The Indigenous Futures Act February 14, 2021

Image of a flooded village in Perú near the Amazon, Deb Dowd,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with an update. Today’s post is part of a series in which I’m exploring possible reframing of public policy to be more expressly humanistic. I gave one concrete example, in the form of a Social Impact Visa, and outlined the overarching destination for this policy package here. Two key points need to be remembered, as we head into today’s proposal: 1) these are intended to open a conversation, rather than be definitive — and for this reason I strongly encourage engagement in the comments; and 2) these policies need to be seen as integrated; we cannot afford to act as though the success of specific policies is ever contingent on their own, internal perfection.

I’m also going to add one thought that emerged while seeing the shape of discourse around the Social Impact Visa: We really have a tough time breaking out of our preconceptions in Western cultures. Despite talking about a smoother path for immigration, the comments I received reflected ongoing scepticism that immigrants could contribute to Western countries (reflecting a common conviction in our cultures, that immigrants are solely burdens), and an insistence that the most important issue was forcing other countries to shape up, irrespective of climate change crises and proxy wars causing instability in other countries in the first place (i.e. denial that migration is a key facet of our world, in lockstep with a common Western fantasy of rigid nation-state borders).

Meanwhile, here in Colombia, a 10-year temporary residency was just granted to all Venezuelan refugees, automatically allowing around 1 million undocumented people to contribute to Colombia’s formal economy, and access healthcare services. The policy extends to those who enter over the next two years as well. It’s really that simple. This choice cuts off criminality at the pass, by providing people far more opportunities to contribute through legal avenues instead. It takes away insecurity (such as I currently experience — minor envy afoot!), and allows families to start planning for a real future.

In other words: It’s only unfeasible to imagine better, more humanistic futures if we’re committed to not imagining the possibilities.

And if we’re always assuming that we in the Western world “know better” to begin with.

We don’t. We really, really don’t. So let’s try to keep an open mind, shall we?

On to New Business

Today’s discussion, then, relates strongly to the Social Impact Visa, because while I was discussing our displacement crisis and possible solutions to ease surrounding border tensions, I had in the back of my mind the importance of integrating those who no longer have much say about how their traditional lands are used. This is an insidious topic, because a great deal of racism and xenophobia arises within Indigenous communities, precisely because many see this prejudiced vocabulary (the vocabulary of the dominant forces on their land) as necessary in order to attain breathing room, safety, and security for their own communities.

I’ve had difficulty explaining this concept to folks who don’t stay apprised of racialized justice issues, because they tend to see anti-Black or anti-immigrant sentiment among certain Indigenous persons as little more than “proof” that white people are being unfairly “picked on” for racism discourse. This interpretation comes down, ultimately, to a poor education in the fact that racism is not simply about [X] person saying [Y], but also involves the intuited and leveraged systems of power in a given cultural context. As such, an Indigenous person who invokes anti-Black or anti-immigrant sentiment while living among white institutions is doing so because they know the power of that kind of rhetoric to effect systemic change — as opposed to many of their communities’ own, direct protests of government encroachment, violence, and oppression.

In other words, systems of white supremacy routinely invite marginalized communities to turn on one another. The prevalence of racist and xenophobic commentary among certain Indigenous persons is a sign of not seeing any better way to get white-Western institutions to respond to Indigenous injustices visited upon their communities.

We as humanists therefore cannot reimagine our visa system to improve the lot of displaced persons, without also talking about how to improve the agency of persons with histories of generational trauma within a given land. In keeping with parameters discussed in my last essay, for any policy developed as part of the Social Wellness Package, we must treat these as linked humanist actions for the creation of a better world.

Enter the “Indigenous Futures Act”

In a recent conversation with fellow SF&F writer Ray Nayler, we talked about some of the cultural exploitation issues that I advanced in “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan”, a story published in Analog in 2016. In that tale (spoiler!) a person who left a community with brutal cultural traditions learns that the only reason their community still has those traditions in the first place is because another culture, ostensibly in the name of “preserving” traditional ways of living, has kept the world trapped in that cultural moment for tourists’ enjoyment.

(A little like, say, an alien power doing everything it can to keep North American settlers adherent to their traditions from four centuries ago; or expecting Christians to follow the Bible with perfect fealty to second-century-norms.)

This is a common way of approaching Indigenous issues in the world today — and it speaks to a world poorly educated in how many different ways oppression and other injustices manifest.

It is not good enough to focus on “preserving” Indigenous histories, and “upholding” Indigenous traditions.

And it is especially unacceptable to make the marketing of Indigenous traditions the core means by which Indigenous persons are able to participate in our global economy.

Either Indigenous persons have self-determining agency, or they don’t.

And absolutely, one need look no further than the egregious ways in which, say, the RCMP (in Canada) and equivalent U.S. policy and military forces defend multinational companies’ invasion of disputed or plainly Indigenous territory, to see that Indigenous persons do not, by and large, have sufficient agency in our “shared” world.

We’ve also made an egregiously racist mess of our legal parameters for indigeneity, such that many Indigenous persons have internalized the horrific by-blood or sexist-marriage systems that white-Western countries established to categorize indigeneity for easier “assimilation” into our own cultures.

None of this is ancient history, either. In Canada, the last residential school closed in 1996. Until 1960, Indigenous persons could not vote in Canada without losing their treaty rights. In Australia, a General Certificate of Exemption from 1951 plainly admits to the Aborigines Protection Act being an oppression, when it includes the line: “This is your chance to be free of the Aborigines Protection Act and live like a white man.” In the US, the 1924 Snyder Act, ostensibly granting voting rights to Indigenous persons, wasn’t accepted by all states for another forty years — and even after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it took further legislation (notably in 1970, ’57, and ’82) to fight the state-specific tricks being used to keep Indigenous votes uncounted. (An issue the US currently struggles with, too, because members of its Republican party have come out expressly in favour of reducing the number of people able to vote in any of its supposedly free elections.)

A scan of the General Certificate of Exemption issued to one Joseph Edwards by the Australian government, granting him the ability to leave the reservation and enter into local businesses, so long as he does not speak his native language, engage in native customs, or associate with fellow Indigenous persons. Dated March 10, 1951.
In the above General Certificate of Exemption, Joseph Edwards is granted the ability to “leave the reservation or mission at which they live – to go to work”. Additional benefits include the ability to “[w]alk freely through town without being arrested … [and e]nter a shop or hotel” (though being served is up to the proprietor’s discretion. “Special conditions” for these rights are: “Speaking in native language – Prohibited, Engaging in dance, rituals, native customs – Prohibited, Associating with fellow indigenous people (including family) – Prohibited”). The document declares, “Assimilate into the wider community. … This is your chance to live free of the Aborigines Protection Act and live like a white man.” It’s dated March 10, 1951.
Worse yet, one needs only look at recent UN briefing papers about Indigenous outcomes for 2030, to see that self-determination is still not a key issue in global institutions. The plan is to leave no one behind, but in a manner very much of a caregiver with a child: providing nutrition, education, healthcare, information to reduce internal sexism and injustice… but all by what others have preconceived as success-metrics within neoliberalism. The individual Indigenous person, in such UN documents and visions of “aid”, is not permitted the collectivist and environmental views of self that define a great many of their communities.


So, what do we do?

Imagining Better Futures from Current Legal Nightmares

Our mess of legal precedent and history around Indigenous rights has made a clean break from the past impossible. We can’t just halt the bloodline system overnight, despite its entrenchment of racialization, because whole generations have been raised up in it, and will see its elimination as a different kind of disenfranchisement within an unjust world. This also makes reparations work extremely complicated, because when restorative and rehabilitative justices are reduced to monetary offsets, we’re of course going to see an internal policing of indigeneity, so that a limited number of persons are maximally receiving capital gain from surrounding economies.

Any meaningfully healing policy, then, has to be longterm. It has focus on the kind of healing that can only happen when whole generations are raised up together in a culture of greater agency, away from thinking that they have to rely on bloodline tests and the commodification of tradition to have any chance at surviving in the present world.

Moreover, any meaningful healing policy must treat the Indigenous person as someone with a heritage of relational selfhood, the healthy individual intertwined with notions of both healthy land and healthy community.

The funny thing is, then… good policy, when it comes to Indigenous futures, should also be policy that’s good for us all as human beings. Most of us may not come from cultures that use the same terminology with respect to selfhood, after all, but none of us are islands, either: we too are healthiest when our communities and our lands are healthiest.

An Indigenous Futures Act, then, is one that sees and pursues the shared human interests of Indigenous and non-Indigenous human beings — and simply reframes the narrative about how all of us stand to be healthiest when we seek to center more Indigenous integrationist wisdom into our better-world-building.

To this end, the Indigenous Futures Act would call for the development of specific initiatives, including:


Advocating for the integration of environmental wellness as a key metric in the Human Development Index. The current version has three dimensions: life expectancy, education, and income (or more specifically, purchasing-power parity). It needs a fourth. It needs what Indigenous communities have been shouting from the rooftops for decades about the central importance of the health of our land to personal and social thriving. When we naturalize this priority, we shift future generations from seeing the world in the isolated and purely economic way that neoliberalism encourages — that is, as a matter of discrete individual outcomes magically separated from broader cultural context — into the realm of human welfare as a far more collaborative affair.

This advocacy pathway allows for a more seamless integration of Indigenous perspectives into mainstream discourse, and offers a path to improved social wellbeing for us all.


Establishing more processes and criminal code changes that center the environment-as-actor in our legal discourse. This relates to the Speaker for the Earth Initiative, an impending policy on my list–because none of these policies will ever work on their own. That initiative, in brief, would naturalize another type of democratic agent in all our elections, which would in turn raise up whole generations to expect environmental representation as naturally as we currently do other state offices.

For now, though, we can start with a baseline of better criminal-code and legal-process agency for the environment. Colombia is one of the first countries to move in this direction: to have legal cases where the traumas of the Amazon are ruled upon, and judgments issued on its behalf. That move has happened here precisely because Indigenous cultures are still enduring the lion’s share of ongoing gang violence, so they must be centered in any meaningful longterm solutions.

Because this reframing of the legal sphere is so new, there are of course growing pains in its execution — both within the courts, and after the verdicts — but that’s to be expected. What matters more is that it’s possible to think about the law and governance systems this way. It’s just not being enacted by most Western countries at the moment.

However, we in North America sorely need this kind of advocacy, too, because of how much multinationals are currently bypassing direct democracy by, say, tying provincial governments into longterm natural resource contracts that the next sitting government can’t undo. (Looking at you, B.C.!)

And yes, it obviously won’t be easy to change the current power structure. I can already anticipate fatalism in the comments: the insistence that multinationals can’t be stopped from stripping democracy of all its power via lobbying and manipulative government contracting. But again, the point of the Indigenous Futures Act is not to offer quick fixes; I’m proposing a way to raise up other generations more naturalized to different legal and government arrangements. Maybe then they can do better than we ever have, in halting the encroachment of neoliberalist rule.


Creating local Educational Futures Advisory Councils drawn from elders elected by Indigenous communities, to develop policy directions in lockstep with experts on the future of jobs and jobs training. These councils will collaborate to identify the following:

  1. skills vacuums that would integrate well with many Indigenous communities’ values and insights;
  2. metrics that would need to be attained at every growth/educational stage to cultivate those essential skills;
  3. market vacuums that will exist irrespective of society’s best efforts to find work for all; and
  4. alternative, self-sustaining skills that will become vital for future citizens to make work and meaning for themselves.

That council would then be able to shape curriculum development in a way that turns Indigenous education into a standard-bearer for the rest of society. The self-sufficiencies and greater-community-driven skills-training that would emerge out of this council’s reports would invariably yield insights and road maps of great use to all, as we try to train up future generations for a world that might have less to give them in the way of direct, job-oriented purpose… but can still teach them how to make meaningful lives for themselves in the economies to come.

The Take-Away

The main idea of the Indigenous Futures Act is three-fold:

  1. To speak on Indigenous futures in a way that does not infantalize Indigenous populations, or otherwise entrench helplessness by failing to recognize that selfhood manifests differently in Indigenous rhetoric and heritage.
  2. To instead recognize the supreme benefit, for all of us, of centering Indigenous rhetoric and heritage in more of our democratic, legal, and educational processes, especially with respect to seeing the Self as healthiest when its surrounding human and environmental communities are healthiest.
  3. To activate initiatives within democratic, legal, and educational spheres that allow for these reframings to do their transformative work not so much on our generation, but on the imagination of generations still to come.

As always, kind readers, the components of this Social Wellness Package are all ambitious first stabs into sweeping and complex conversations.

I make these draft ideas available — uneven and flawed as they may well be — so that we might all be able to think more expansively, critically, constructively, and above all else humanistically about which policies stand the best chance of building us a better world.

Let’s keep pushing the limits of what’s possible, shall we?

And let’s not ever assume, in the process, that just because a Western country hasn’t done something yet, it’s not worth trying at all.

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