Peter d'Errico: Chief George Manuel broke new ground with 1974 book

Reissue of George Manuel's The Fourth World Aids Indigenous Scholars and Activists

Secwépemc Shuswap George Manuel's The Fourth World: An Indian Reality burst onto the international stage in 1974. The book tells the story of Manuel's years-long leadership and activism among Indigenous communities worldwide. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press, it is once again in print.

As a measure of the wealth of Manuel's experiences, consider that one year after publishing The Fourth World he founded the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), the first worldwide Indigenous rights organization. WCIP quickly achieved NGO-status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council. In 1982, WCIP efforts brought about the first-ever meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, leading ultimately to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Meanwhile, Manuel remained active in the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, serving as its president from 1979-1981, and in 1979 co-founding with Cowlitz Rudolph C. Ryser the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS), an independent non-profit organization of activist scholars.

The Fourth World stands as evidence that George Manuel's knowledge, perspectives, persistence, and organizing abilities helped create the global stage for Indigenous discourse that continues today. Manuel's efforts are what Anishinaabe White Earth Ojibwe Gerald Vizenor calls acts of Indigenous survivance—survival and resistance. Yellowknives Dene Professor Glen Coulthard, in his introduction to the new edition, describes The Fourth World as a "crucial Indigenous intervention" into the discourses of decolonization and self-determination.

The Fourth World makes lively reading. It emerged from a series of recorded conversations between Manuel and Canadian journalist and researcher Michael Posluns. The narrative is by turns personal and political, with reminiscences about struggles, planned next steps, calls to action, and so on. The book richly deserves its status as a foundational work.

The Fourth World was initially received as a harbinger of world-wide change in Indigenous peoples' politics. At the time, conversations about Indigenous resistance intertwined with Third World decolonization movements. International associations and local actions alike pointed toward a resurgence of Indigenous nationhood in opposition to nation-state assimilation and termination programs. Much of this initial promise disappeared relatively quickly in the face of Third World retreat from confrontation with former colonizers. Indigenous resistance turned toward an independent stance.

Manuel sometimes uses the language of "recognition" to frame demands that Indigenous concerns be treated with respect and urgency. He recounts innumerable meetings with Canadian officials where he brings his considerable skills to educate bureaucrats and politicians about Indigenous realities. Occasional significant results buoyed his approach: For example, the National Indian Brotherhood successfully opposed Canada's assimilationist 1969 Indian Policy statement. In 1982, Section 35 was inserted in Canada's constitution to protect "existing aboriginal and treaty rights." Some court decisions were helpful, such as the 1973 Canadian Supreme Court Calder decision reassessing legal concepts of aboriginal title.

But instances of success in Manuel's time did not culminate in secure international status for Indigenous peoples. These are ongoing struggles. Recognition has morphed into "reconciliation," with an agenda similar to claims commissions in Canada, the US, and elsewhere—namely, pay some money to make Native demands go away. Courts have limited aboriginal recognition to "cultural" rights under nation-state claims of sovereignty. Even the UN Declaration has been treated as an "aspirational" document rather than a set of recognized rights of Indigenous self-determination. Notwithstanding these historical disappointments, George Manuel's story bears reading today.

A prime example of the continuing relevance of The Fourth World is Manuel's discussion of the pitfalls of Indigenous participation in settler-state elections and political offices. He says Native members of the Canadian parliament have an inherent conflict between representing their own people and their non-Native constituents and the political party itself. He differentiates the example of Maori members of the New Zealand parliament who are elected from Maori districts. He criticizes the common assumption that the presence of Native people in electoral politics is an unequivocal good. His statement that Indigenous peoples cannot "be brushed off with the multicultural broom" is a forerunner of Kahnawake Mohawk Audra Simpson's differentiation between "a people with a governmental system" and "a minority within an ethnocultural mosaic."

The electoral recognition game captures Indigenous energy and talent that would be better deployed to achieve self-determination. Simpson's dismissal of "mosaic" rhetoric implies a clash with Manuel's suggestion that the goal of the National Indian Brotherhood was "to participate in the Canadian mosaic." But Manuel's book is no less radical than Simpson's. He discusses "the difficulty of developing a new language" to speak the truth of Indigenous realities and aims. He repeatedly calls for something more profound than "cultural rights"—namely, "land title" as the "mainspring and material base" of Indigenous existence.

In short, The Fourth World is a vibrant historical record of Indigenous mobilization and a touchstone for contemporary thinking and organizing. Its reissuance is a boon to Indigenous Studies and Indigenous activism.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.

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