Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen, The Colonial Politics of Hope: Critical Junctures of Indigenous-State Relations (London: Routledge, 2022)

The volume is edited by Routledge, the British publishing house founded in 1951 and now a safe haven for many publications on Arctic studies.

The authors are Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen, both affiliates of the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi and University of Lapland. As the title “The Colonial Politics of Hope” suggests, the volume deals with the relationship between Indigenous communities and the state, offering a comparative overview between Australia, Canada, Finland, and Greenland/Denmark.

The main theme is “hope“. The authors trace the sources of this concept to the colonial era in which the only “hope” for Indigenous peoples to survive was integration into Western society. The empirical and conceptual analysis of hope follows three thematic paths: the constitutional recognition of indigenous rights, the ratification of ILO Convention 169, and the creation of self-governments such as the one established in Greenland in 2009. The decolonization process by the Nations Unite began in 1960, when several declarations were stating that “natural heritage and political determination belong to all individuals”. These rights were not to be influenced by diplomatic relations between states and were to be respected in all member states. As the book points out, not all states adopt the new provisions easily. Since the declarations of the General Assembly are not legally binding, in the 1970s the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) came into force. Even today, these conventions play a role of absolute importance in disputes involving cases of inequality, discrimination, and racism.

In the 2000s, the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP) sought to establish and enshrine the principles and prerogatives that Indigenous communities demanded that states respect them. However, some countries did not immediately acknowledge the value of this instrument, which was once again not legally binding, and did not accept the declaration. Among these was Canada which in the UNDRIP article on the FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) saw the possibility of granting the right of veto to the Indigenous communities on the exploitation of natural resources. In reality, the Declaration recognizes that international relations between states is also based on economic well-being and leaves ample room and priority to national economic initiative.

The United Nations monitoring system has revealed many situations where Indigenous peoples’ rights are not respected. The authors refer to the 2019 case, when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination request Canada to respect the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people before the construction of a pipeline.

The second chapter is dedicated to how the concept of hope has been developed in the social sciences. In recent decades, academic literature has focused on the analysis of hope, especially in times of instability and crisis. The authors have chosen 4 channels of analysis of hope: philosophical (through Bloch’ theorisation), analytical, hope as an effect and how hope has become a political conduit. In the first philosophical approach, the authors build a theoretical bibliography in which hope and being hopeful are compared. The approach to utopian thinking in times of crisis as a weapon to be “hopeful” is interesting. The analytical approach is based on the anthropological work of Hirokazu Miyazaki. Miyazaki identified hope as a method of knowing. In his studies, Miyazaki referred to hope as a means of legal recognition of the land ownership of some Indigenous communities in the Fiji Islands. Another important contribution is that of Nauja Kleinst who associated hope with mobility referring to the phenomenon of great migrations. The third category underlines how many aspects of human life are the effect of emotions arising from hope. Anderson’s theory reconstructs the economic, political and social arrangements between actual and possible reality (which is possible to do) through the strong feeling of hope. The fourth category is represented by the hope and power connection. Also in this case, the authors have reconstructed a dense philosophical literature in which hope is analyzed in different positions of power and subjection.

The third chapter is entitled “Battlefields of recognition” and concerns the inclusion of Indigenous peoples within national policies (Australia, Finland, Greenland/Denmark). The analysis in this case retraces the events and the “empty and silent” moments that led to important amendments in the various national jurisdictions. The amendments mentioned in the volume concern the inclusion of Indigenous rights through the ratification of treaties and judicial amendments (cases that have led to the reformulation of some norms). Despite legislative efforts, even today it seems that Indigenous peoples still suffer from the problems presented decades ago. This phenomenon can be explained by the cautious national political will to recognize these rights, as dubious mechanisms of democracy and decision-making. What seems to emerge is that what is legal is not said to be right. Geographical areas clearly represent different political and social arrangements. For example, the issue of inclusion and recognition of Indigenous rights in Finland is advanced through the awaited ratification of ILO Convention No. 169, while the situation in Greenland through the timeline that saw the creation of a self-government in 2009. Despite the creation of a self-determined body, the dream, or rather the hope, for complete independence has never died out. To date, a form of administrative regionalism exists between Greenland and Denmark, in which some matters are the responsibility of the island and others of the central state. Some of these areas do not rise from the possibility of overlapping creating crises of competence. The largest is between natural resource management (Greenland) and foreign affairs (Denmark). The Greenlandic social fabric is quite homogeneous with some more remote communities in North and East Greenland. The question of Greenlandic indigeneity in the event of full independence is still unresolved. Finally, Australia has demonstrated a certain constitutional dynamism through a series of referendums related to the Indigenous situation on the territory.

The authors denounce that in all three countries there is the promise of a process and greater recognition of Indigenous rights. The authors criticize how such promises have always been broken due to lack of political will. Greenland appears to be the most virtuous having placed the protection of Indigenous rights as the cornerstone of internal politics. In the face of states’ reticence, Indigenous peoples instead lead decisive campaigns of awareness and legal change. An example reported in the volume concerns the declaration of intent that the Indigenous community of Torres Strait presented to the Australian Government. The declaration referred to the Government’s intervention requesting a new referendum and greater organization in the hearing processes.

The fourth chapter ” Fickle contractuality” is the most interesting. This part is about how the Western concept of “contractuality” emerged in the relations between Indigenous communities and the state. The contractual form of relationships is a crucial and common aspect in the Western mentality. Through various contracts it is possible to negotiate and agree many aspects of human life: from work, to property, to the more private aspects. The contract that includes two or more parties inspires division. And it is precisely the division that clashes with the community of Indigenous rights who often suffer from the disproportion of power with the state (which has the last word on the decision). Although the Indigenous populations find themselves in a political, negotiating, economic system very distant from their own, the states are still very reluctant to recognize their rights for fear that this will create a decrease in their sovereignty.

The fifth chapter is entitled “Colonialism in the grammar of hope” and reconnects the common thread between colonialism and hope. According to the authors, this correlation also exists with postcolonial theories, despite the protracted violations of Indigenous rights suggesting that we are actually in a “contemporary colonialism”. Despite the emphasis that the volume has dedicated to the analysis of the politics of hope, colonialism has resisted its power. However, this does not hide the fact that hope has not also brought benefits. The current policy has shown a certain “care” and attention to the Indigenous issue, adopting more inclusive initiatives. In various countries such as Canada and Finland work has begun on the Reconciliation and Truth Commissions. These commissions have the objective of “healing” relations between the state and Indigenous peoples. The major concern is that these Commissions have only a symbolic meaning without having any practical repercussions and compensatory initiatives for past mistakes. Another concern is related to the limitations of this state “cure”, especially if the recognition of Indigenous rights is still linked to Western political and legal systems. In fact, it appears that only legal recognition is the only way for Indigenous populations to feel “included”, affected signed and recognized. Despite these critical issues, Indigenous peoples still continue to fight for their rights, demonstrating an indomitable resilience in the face of marginalization and attempts at assimilation. Resilience has been the manifesto of recent times. This attitude recalls the individual’s ability to face and overcome a traumatic event in life. The authors also underline the difference between hope and resilience: the former is the sentiment with which we look confidently to the future; while the second is fortitude with which we overcome the traumas suffered. Indeed, hope operates on the present (violence, dispossession and marginalization notwithstanding), while resilience seems to be eternally tied to the past. Indigenous political hope is not only aimed at compensation or compensation for past traumas, but at the construction of a more equitable and inclusive political and legal system.

The analysis of hope as a driving factor in relations between the state and Indigenous peoples also branches out in economic matters. The authors reconstruct a vast bibliography on liberalism and on how the state, in the inclusive claim, has advanced economic agreements with Indigenous peoples in order to actually profit from them. Such agreements have often resulted in the legalization of land dispossession and monetary compensation as the only method of compensation. Has hope become the “currency” for economic relations between the state and Indigenous communities?

I would like to dedicate the last few lines to the final considerations on the volume. I think the topic is very interesting because it is little explored at an academic level. Hope usually exudes a poetic vein in literature, so a political technical examination was wholly unexpected. Especially, if that analysis has been applied to Indigenous peoples and their struggles for rights. The content of the volume is very rich, but the structure is not very intuitive if you don’t fully know the subject. What I appreciated most is the rich refinement of the bibliography. Hope is analyzed from many points of view and the argumentation is never trivial. The analysis seems to suggest a negative and compliant note of Indigenous affairs with respect to state policy and priorities. At the same time, I don’t think the authors wanted to leave the reader with certain answers or results, but rather to invite him/her to reflect on hope from both an academic and an introspective point of view. The project lends itself to greater developments in the future, considering the growing interest in environmental issues and increasing inclusiveness of Indigenous people in climate litigations. Due to the quality and complexity of the contents, I suggest reading this text to both experts in the field and students in Philosophy, Comparative Law, Political Sciences, especially if they include a focus on the Arctic and Nordic diplomacy.

About Sara Fusco

Ph.D. student in Environmental Law and Indigenous Rights at the Faculty of Law of the University of Lapland and researcher at the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law. Her research focuses on the Concept of Environmental Justice in Arctic Constitutions from the Indigenous rights perspective. She currently lectures at the University of Akureyri and she collaborates as Research Assistant at Stefansson Arctic Institute and Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network. She joins the Icelandic academic E-Journal Nordicum- Mediterraneum as Special Editor for Legal and Arctic studies.