Research Case Study

Protecting the human rights of indigenous people

Why one Essex researcher believes indigenous people continue to be colonised.

  • Tagged under

    Human Rights
    Global perspectives and challenges

  • Lead Academic

    Professor Colin Samson

A child collecting fresh water from a frozen lake in Labrador, Canada

Suicide rates among northern aboriginal communities in Canada are off the scale and Native Americans are the poorest ethnic group in the US. The erosion of their lands, forced assimilation, and even the risk of poisoning from extractive projects made in the name of ‘progress’ are the realities for indigenous people in North America.


It’s a life one Essex researcher argues is “ongoing colonialism” and it’s seen all over the world.

“Indigenous people have long, enduring roots, histories and whole cultures based on the land. They are divided into different tribal groups, language groups and cultural groups. The common denominator is colonialism,” said Professor Colin Samson of our Department of Sociology.

Professor Samson has been documenting the lives of indigenous people for almost 30 years, living with communities in Canada and the US, as well as visiting indigenous groups such as the Maasai in Tanzania, Ju/’hoansi San in Namibia, Amerindians in Guyana, Saami in Norway and Ainu in Japan. 

He has been a vocal opponent of the erosion of land rights, working with groups fighting resource extraction projects including the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Sioux Standing Rock reservation in the US and the Muskrat Falls dam affecting the Innu of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula in Canada. 

Between 2009-2013, Professor Samson collaborated with filmmaker Sarah Sandring on two films: NUTSHIMIT – on the land and NUTAK - Memories of Resettlement for Nirgun films.

Professor Colin Samson
"It's time the tables were turned, there's a lot to learn from indigenous people."
Professor Colin Samson Department of Sociology

A global struggle for land 

Professor Samson argues that struggles over land and corporate and governmental colonialism are what unites indigenous communities around the world.

“These communities often go unheard because they are what anthropologists describe as ‘small peoples’ who don’t have one voice, one culture or one language. Some are hunters, some are agriculturalists, others are pastoralists.

“What they all have in common is colonialism. The Lakota are still being colonised and the Nahuas in Mexico, the Yanomami in Brazil and the bushmen in the Kalahari are all treated the same because what is at stake is land. And land is required by states for other purposes,” explained Professor Samson.

This is the subject of Professor Samson’s latest book, Indigenous Peoples and Colonialism: Global Perspectives, co-authored with Essex colleague Dr Carlos Gigoux.

The erosion of lands at Standing Rock

The Great Sioux Reservation, designated for “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” for the Lakota Sioux by the US Government in 1868 once stretched from the Missouri to the North Platte River in Wyoming.

Today it has been reduced to four reservations in the Dakotas, one of which, at Standing Rock, has had the 1,172 mile Dakota Access Pipeline driven through it.

“In the 19th century the US signed two treaties with the Lakota Sioux guaranteeing them particular lands. Despite this, those lands have been eroded and in 2017 a Presidential executive order allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline project to go ahead, ignoring calls for an environmental review from the US’s own Interior Department.

“If a state does not even attend to the minimum respect for the rule of law I don’t think you can classify it as a democracy,” said Professor Samson.

Writing for The Conversation, Professor Samson spoke out for the indigenous communities and water protestors trying to protect the sacred land. He highlighted the health and ecological risks of water contamination, and suppression of protestors’ freedom of expression by military forces.

Can extractive projects be stopped to protect rights?

At Muskrat Falls in Canada, a controversial hydroelectric dam project on the culturally important Mishta-shipu (‘Big River’) could still be halted believes Professor Samson.

“The rights of the Innu have become marginalised. They don’t want the project to go ahead but they are highly compromised – as we see with almost all indigenous struggles around the world.

“They need the jobs the project offers, even though they know those jobs are creating all kinds of social destabilisation, and many of their leaders have bought into the project,” said Professor Samson.

Professor Samson has seen the impact of projects like this on communities first-hand: the increase in drug and alcohol abuse because of the high pay and shift work patterns; family destabilisation and even child neglect; and high rates of diabetes and suicide.

Despite documenting these shocking realities of life Professor Samson believes it’ll be money that could derail the project: “It is way over budget and the power of capital and money is politically very important, more important than the lives of people.”

What must the future hold? 

Professor Samson argues even those countries sometimes hailed as upholding indigenous rights do not set an example fit for the 21st century.

"Indigenous peoples in Canada for instance must sign over ownership of their lands to be granted rights to them. Even before they ratify a land claims agreement, the land is simply taken from them."

He believes the answer is two-fold – for states to honour their own laws, and instigate open and equal dialogue with indigenous people. 

“I’ve worked with the Innu for a quarter of a century and their understanding of their environment is far more sophisticated than any scientist’s understanding of it, yet instead of asking them what their protocols are for dealing with conflicts over land, states have simply imposed their own laws on these people,” he added.

“It’s time the tables were turned, there’s a lot to learn from indigenous people.”

Research team
Professor Colin Samson, Department of Sociology