This year, in celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we do not think it is enough to highlight one, or even a few, of the numerous strategies that indigenous communities use to  defend their lands and people in the face of resource extraction or megaprojects; or the immense risk that they face in doing so.

This year, we want to try something different. We want to invite ourselves and our colleagues – fellow activists and lawyers who work in human rights and indigenous rights – to stop for a moment and ask: what do we mean when we say that we support (indigenous) communities in their struggles for justice? And how do we know that we are actually doing so?

In her book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains that the term indigenous peoples is a relatively new term and one which

“internationalizes the experiences, the issues and the struggles of some of the world’s colonized peoples…[who] share experiences as peoples who have been subjected to the colonization of their lands and cultures, and the denial of their sovereignty, by a colonizing society that has come to dominate and determine the shape and quality of their lives, even after it has formally pulled out.”

Significantly, Tuhiwai Smith opens this discussion with a quote by Audre Lorde that reads:

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

All of us should read Tuhiwai’s book. And we should read it before we get on our next plane to Geneva or Bogotá or wherever it is that we have our next conference or workshop on what it means to help communities (often “indigenous” communities) seek justice and hold some of the modern day protagonists of colonialism (often multinational corporations and development banks) accountable.

Tuhiwai challenges us to question how we arrive at what we “know,” what we think we know about indigenous peoples, and also how we research, represent, talk and write about them. This should include how we talk about what it means for indigenous communities to be “affected,” how we talk about what it means to help them seek “justice,” and how we think about our role as lawyers and advocates in our clients’ struggles.

Let’s begin close to home. Over the past ten years, Western “experts” have developed a series of guidelines for the protection and promotion of human rights for “affected communities” fighting multinational companies. As corporate victories in our courts and corporate money in our legislative bodies have closed off avenues for transnational accountability, we’ve seen many in the business and human rights field shift their focus away from targeted advocacy campaigns. We have seen the focus shift away from legal strategies developed in partnership with a community and in service of their specific needs and goals, towards a focus on aspirational principles and voluntary mechanisms.

But frontline communities have not generally played a role in either calling for or shaping the development of such principles and frameworks. While members of our own legal community (ourselves included) close ourselves in conference rooms to discuss the content, breadth, and use of these principles or mechanisms, frontline communities are usually not there contributing to that space.

We are concerned that these conversations and frameworks risk perpetuating the very colonizing methodologies that we set out to challenge in our campaigns or legal cases. Rather than creating a new field for “experts” and expertise, we should help amplify the knowledge and power that communities  have. Rather than focus on how (indigenous) communities are seen from the eyes of experts and expert reports, we should be learning about how they see (the world). And rather than limiting our conversations to discuss how communities are “affected” by multinational companies, we should be asking ourselves how we can learn from the ways in which communities (often indigenous) are already affecting their own change. And if you need an example of this, just consider what the U’wa have been up to this month. And read their “Letter to the White Man.”

We should recall Foucault’s instruction that people are not the targets of power, they are its vehicles. We should remember that if we set out to support indigenous peoples’ struggles, we should take our lead from them; that we still have much to learn about the strategies they have carried out for generations and that they continue to carry out today; that we should only engage in spaces where their voices will be heard; that we should only use strategies where their power will be felt. We should be reminded of the enormous risk that indigenous activists face every day – in their communities and in the streets and the courtrooms – and be humbled by it.