CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Urban Indians & Cultural Rights: the Limits of Multicultural Liberalism

March 31st, 2011

On March 28, 2011, the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research (CIPR) welcomed Dr. Daniel Bonilla, Law Professor and Director of the Public Interest Law Group at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia for the final speaking event in CIPR‘€™s Spring semester lecture series. Bonilla‘€™s provocative presentation, ‘€œUrban Indians and Cultural Rights: The Limits of Multicultural Liberalism,‘€ challenged the dominant discourse of multicultural liberalism.

Multicultural liberalism, Bonilla explained, generally describes Indians as inhabiting a rural territory and as committed to cultural practices and subsistent economies. This conceptual understanding of indigenous peoples has aided groups seeking constitutional recognition and protection against majorities.

Bonilla, however, made clear that Indians throughout the world now live outside their ancestral lands and often, in urban areas. A great majority of Indians do not fit the conceptual model set forth by multicultural liberalism. ‘€œWe need a new set of conceptual tools,‘€ he argued. The present multicultural liberalism model ‘€œhomogenizes‘€ Indians, he explained, and ‘€œobscures the diversity that exists within indigenous groups.‘€

In order to account for the great number of indigenous peoples living in urban areas, Bonilla presented a new typology that includes indigenous people living in urban areas: 1) Urban Indians, or those who inhabit ancestral lands that are no longer rural. Most have little or no use of the native language. 2) Metropolitan Indians, or those who inhabit cities outside their ancestral territories. Most are born in urban areas and are integrated in the market economy. 3) Urban Indians in Transit, or those who settle for short periods of time in cities. They often move temporarily to urban areas in order to work for NGOs or study at high schools or universities in cities. They will return to their ancestral territories.

When asked for specific remedies for the discourse of multicultural liberalism, Bonilla made clear that normative remedies depend on precise descriptions. ‘€œWe don‘€™t even have that right now,‘€ he concluded. Bonilla favors a court-led approach for expanding our conceptual understanding of indigenous groups.


Lecture synopsis by: Keri Libby