The Fourth World: Struggles for Traditional Lands and Ways of Life

By Ward Churchill

Published on: June 16, 2007
    Our conceptions of “First-”, “Second-”, and “Third-” world nations dates back to the theories of Mao Zedong. Although instructive, this framework did not account for subsequent neocolonial strategies, puppet governments, and the Indigenous peoples in “First world” settler states and those whose land was dissected by emerging “Third world” nations. In this article, Ward Churchill writes about the indigenous “Fourth World” and the hopeful implications of idigenist resistance struggles worldwide.

At the 1963 Bandung Conference, Mao Zedong set forth his famous vision of a planet divided into three “worlds.” In Mao’s view, the “First World” consisted of industrialized capitalist states in the northern hemisphere, overwhelmingly white in racial composition, and pitted—economically, philosophically, and militarily—against a “Second World” of their industrially-developed socialist counterparts. There was as well a “Third World,” he said, composed of countries or “territories,” mostly to the south of the other two and populated almost exclusively by peoples of color, which were either maintained as colonies within the ambit of several first world imperial powers, or had recently freed themselves from colonial domination.

The Third World, Mao asserted, was inherently aligned with neither side in the first/second world conflict. Rather, its agenda was situationally-defined within each colony or former colony in accordance with the requirements of attaining political self-determination and economic development. In other words, the overarching goal of what soon came to be known as the “Third World Revolution” was “national liberation” on whatever terms and by any/every means through which it could be attained. It was a potent recipe, all in all, giving both shape and voice to sustained struggles which led, between 1945 and 1990, to an across-the-board decolonization of Africa and Asia and a corresponding repeal of European imperialism in its classic form.

For all its undeniable triumphs, however, the Third Worldist formulation was afflicted from the outset by many deficiencies. Insufficient weight was placed upon the prospect that the extent of colonialism’s often protracted underdevelopment of the Third World might have created structural conditions within the newly-independent countries that would leave them virtually defenseless against “neocolonialist” exploitation by their former colonizers. Nor—despite the warnings implicit to pioneering studies undertaken by Fanon, Memmi, and others—was the virulence and intractability of the psychological maiming inflicted upon those subjugated under colonialism’s genocidal yoke ever truly taken into account.

Scant attention was paid as well to the implications of the reality that those who typically instigated and led the Third World liberation struggles, thereby assuming control of the state apparatus in the wake of formal decolonization, had themselves been “educated” in imperial institutions. As a result, their perspectives and priorities—even their most personal sensibilities—often displayed a far greater commonality with those of their former colonizers than with those of the grassroots populations whose destinies they now presumed to decide and direct. In short order, the ostensible constituents of many such “revolutionary leaders” had come to complain that they were “more European than the Europeans” and were often “worse than they themselves.”

Perhaps most significant in this regard, little or no consideration was given in the canons of Third Worldism to the fact that the territorial boundaries of what were now proclaiming “sovereign states” had been drawn by the colonizers, not the colonized. By-and-large, the geographical demarcations defining the “possessions” of each imperial power were established in a manner amalgamating/partitioning the homelands of various peoples indigenous to the areas cast as “colonial compartments.” Their right to govern themselves in accordance with their own traditions was usurped by the centralized authority embodied in colonial administrations, their very identities as peoples subsumed under the homogenizing nomenclature of “colonial subjects.”

Self determining

Thus, while “liberation” was seen by Third Worldists as the transformation of Europe’s overseas colonies into states independently governed by their former subjects, the subjects themselves often envisioned it in dramatically different terms, i.e.: the restoration of control over their traditional territory to each of the peoples encompassed within colonial boundaries and, on that basis, resumption of their self-determining modes of governance, social organization, and economy. In substance, these indigenous peoples—nations, actually—comprised a “Fourth World,” unmentioned by Mao, upon the expropriation of whose lands and resources all states depend for their very existence.

It follows that for Fourth World peoples the success of Third World revolutions added up, not to a repeal of the system of subjugation imposed under European imperialism, but instead to something more nearly resembling a consummation of such oppression. Certainly, any difference between the forcible subordination of indigenous nations by a colonial regime imported from overseas and relegation to the same status by a “domestically-constituted” central government was/is negligible at best. In effect, colonialism in its classic form was merely supplanted by a still more insidious “internal” form resembling that which had facilitated consolidation of Europe’s imperial states themselves a few centuries earlier.

The results, while often misinterpreted, were both predictable and soon apparent. In “India,” an entity which did not exist until it was forcibly synthesized by British colonizers from the territories of nearly 300 indigenous nationalities. The Nagas—to provide but one example—were waging what turns out to be an ongoing armed struggle to recover self-governing control over their traditional homeland even before the “broader” society’s independence was announced in 1947. Across the European-drawn border separating India from “Burma,” the Karins had commenced a similar struggle in the south, as had the Kachins in the north. So, too, in what was known until 1954 as “French Indochina,” especially as regards the Hmongs in Laos and the various “Montagnard” peoples of Vietnam’s highland regions.

By the 1970s, such resistance had emerged in Indonesia, notably among the Papuans of “New Guinea” and the peoples of East Timor. In the Philippines as well, native peoples of the more southerly islands like Mindanao had begun to actively pursue agendas of their own, distinct in many ways from that of the maoist guerrillas operating in such locales. Across the vast reaches of Micronesia, from Samoa, Palau and the Solomons in the south, northward through the Marianas, westward to Okinawa and other islands along the Ryukyu chain, and eastward through the so-called Marshall Islands, comparably “indigenist” phenomena could be discerned.

Primary barrier

Much the same process began to unfold in Africa almost from the outset, probably the most notable example being the bloody and protracted effort mounted by Katangese “secessionists” to free themselves from the Congo, created as a personal holding by Belgium’s King Leopold towards the end on the 19th century. During the early 1960s. Scores of similar struggles materialized throughout the sub-Saharan regions of the “Dark Continent” over the next decade—the Ibos’ attempt to separate their Biafran homeland from Nigeria, for instance—a matter that so eroded claims of cohesion both within and between the various components of Africa’s emergent statist system that Kwame Nkrumah, a leading advocate of a Pan-African Union, was led to observe that “tribalism” rather than the ravages of neocolonialism stood as the primary barrier to actualization of the Third Worldist vision.

Nor have North Africa or the Middle East been immune. Since 1948, by far the most visible has of course been the sustained resistance of indigenous Palestinians to the impositions of the Israeli state. Less noticed, but sustained over an even longer period, has been the struggle of the Kurds to free their traditional territory, spanning the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. By the 1970s, Bedouin resistance to statist rule in the Western Sahara had also congealed into the Polisario Liberation Front, a movement aimed mainly at securing the self-determining rights of tribal peoples against the self-anointed authority of Morocco’s central government.

Throughout Latin America, what might otherwise be viewed as typical Third World national liberation struggles and/or their precursors, have all along exhibited a pronouncedly indigenist dynamic. This became apparent at least as early as 1915, with an attempt by the Yaquis to (re)establish their own “free state,” separate from that born of the Mexican revolution. Comparable objectives were apparent in the “Land or Death” program for reorganizing property relations in the Andes advanced by Quechan revolutionary Hugo Blanco during the 1960s, and in the armed resistance of the Miskitos and other native to consolidation of the Nicaraguan state by the Sandinista government 20 years later.

More recent struggles undertaken in the same vein include those of the Mayan population of Chiapas to assert their autonomy from Mexico’s central government, an initiative presently being replicated in the provinces of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Sonora. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, having apparently reconsidered certain tenets of Third Worldism, has become the first self-consciously revolutionary head of state to restore lands and rights to indigenous peoples (whether this initiative was gestural or programmatic remains to be seen). Meanwhile, in Bolivia—demographically, the most overwhelmingly indigenous of all the Andean states—Evo Morales, an Aymara, has been elected president, largely on a promise to usher in a “new day” for the country’s native peoples (what this means, and where it might lead, also remain to be seen).

Settler states

The issue of demographics brings up yet another major mode of colonialism the paradigm left unaddressed in Mao’s “Three Worlds” paradigm. This is that of “settler states,” wherein a colonizing European population, having sufficiently established itself in its new overseas domain, declares itself, or is otherwise declared, to constitute a country in its own right, independent of the colonizing power from whence it sprang. Structurally, settler states—examples include the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Argentina, Northern Ireland, Israel, and, until lately, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa—resemble the above-discussed internal colonial model embodied in Third World states, other than that the dominant population has been imported rather than being of local origin, and must therefore be seen as continuing rather than assuming the role of colonizer vis-à-vis subsumed within the “liberated” state.

To be sure, the latter circumstances have served to foster conditions radically different from those prevailing in Third World settings. Since the society “freed” by the attainment of settler state independence was that of the colonizers themselves—for those actually colonized, colonial domination was not only sustained but in most cases intensified in the “postcolonial” context—there has been sufficient developmental continuity to place virtually every such entity on a First World footing. Nonetheless, Fourth World liberation struggles have been every bit as apparent in the most advanced of the First World settler states as they have in the least developed states in the Third, oft-times more so.

While the efforts of Australia’s aboriginal peoples have been quite fruitful, as have those of the Maoris in New Zealand, the sharpest confrontations have been in North America, a reality highlighted by the American Indian Movement’s 1972 seizure of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C.; AIM’s 71-day armed defense of Wounded Knee in 1973; the ongoing and sometimes armed resistance of the Big Mountain Dine (Navajos) to forced removal from their land, beginning in 1974; the armed occupation of Montreal’s Mercier Bridge by the Mohawk Warrior Society in 1990; the armed occupation of traditional lands at Gustafsen Lake, British Columbia, during the mid-90s; and, currently, the struggle being waged by the Mohawks and others of the six-nation Haudenosaunee confederation to regain control over their traditional territory around Caledonia, in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Other examples abound: the long struggle of the Newes (Western Shoshone), spearheaded by the sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, to assert their right under the Ruby Valley Treaty to most of present-day Nevada; the protracted struggle of the Lubicon Cree to preserve and protect the traditional territory in northern Alberta; the hard-fought campaign by the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) to assert the rights under international law to land and self-governance; the Makahs’ assertion of their right to maintain their traditional whaling economy; the successful drive by the James Bay Cree to block hydroelectric projects that would have submerged their entire homeland under 200 feet of water; the ongoing efforts of the Dine to block the construction of coal-fired generating plants on their land, and to prevent conversion of their most sacred sites into tourist resorts. The list goes on and on, from the Dene campaign to enforce their treaty rights in Canada’s Northwest Territories, to the Mik’maq insistence upon their treaty-guaranteed right to fish and take lobsters off the coast of Nova Scotia, to the ongoing Lakota effort to recover the Black Hills, guaranteed them in perpetuity under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.

Mother countries

Even in the European “Mother Countries” themselves, the Fourth World has increasingly made its presence known over the past 50 years, most spectacularly by a 30-year intensification, beginning in 1970, of the 800-year long Irish struggle to evict the last vestiges of British colonialism from their homeland. Less conspicuously, similar processes have been at work in Celtic Wales and Scotland during the same period. Elsewhere, the Basques have also engaged in an armed struggle to free their homeland, Euskadi, from its status of forcible incorporation into the Spanish state, while the Catalans have recently begun to openly pursue a similar agenda. So, too, the native Corsicans, whose island homeland in the Mediterranean has long been held as a settler possession by France. Far to the north, in the Arctic region of Scandinavia, the Samis (Lapps) are also seeking to resume their traditional autonomy vis-à-vis Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

Where does all this lead? One answer is to genuine and complete rather than partial or figurative decolonization on a planetary basis. Another, is to a redefinition of the relations between peoples in terms of the mutual acknowledgement of fundamental rights—hence, mutual respect—a matter establishing self-determination and free association as the cardinal principles upon which the affairs of nations are conducted. Perhaps self-evidently, such principles preclude the exercise of the kind of centralized, arbitrary, and inherently coercive authority which constitutes the very essence of statist organization. This, in turn, would serve to delegitimate in its entirety the 17th century Westphalian system of international relations, wherein states are the only entities deemed to be legitimate for purposes of deciding questions of world order.

The upshot would be a multiplicity of sociopolitical environments, wherein decision-making processes are inherently geared to what Kirkpatrick Sale once and aptly described as “human scale.” All but inevitably, this would lead to the contours of the resulting societies conforming closely to bioregional realities, a circumstance that would go far towards shaping the nature of their economies and facilitating a high degree of interactivity among/between societies through the medium of satisfying reciprocal needs.

Much more could and no doubt needs to be said, but constraints on length prevent its being said herein. Long story short, however, what has just been sketched goes a long way towards describing the restoration of the Fourth World, the indigenous or “host” world upon which all three of those identified by Mao were built, and without the perpetual subjugation/nullification of which none of the three could/can exist.

My personal preference of a term by which to refer to pursuit of Fourth World restoration is “indigenism,” although it shares much in common with certain variants of anarchism, a promise which seems worthy of further exploration. That too, however, is a discussion consigned by the limits of space to be had another day….

Ward Churchill is an indigenous activist and author. He has written over 20 books, including On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality and A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present.

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