What is the Fourth World?

The Fourth World: Parallels and Paradoxes

Definitions of the Fourth World seem as different and widespread as the people who compose the group itself: while Native American and Aboriginal Australian groups are traditionally associated with the term “indigenous,” this label in fact encompasses peoples from nearly every part of the globe. The common label, “Fourth World,” is quite surprising considering how distant and vastly diverse groups united by it are, unique communities with extensive dissimilarities in tradition, identity and location. However, the shared issues of identity, common historical ground, and struggle with the paradox of being heard create a category which is completely distinct; it is markedly separate from traditional definitions of the First and Third World. It fits somewhere in between them, lacking the concrete geopolitical and economic distinctions (and resulting political power and recognition) of the former two categories.
Despite the less tangible nature of the defining characteristics as compared to the First and Third World, the characteristics which define the Fourth world are legitimate factors which create a separate group within the two: these defining characteristics are completely unique to the fourth world. Some of the most important of these deal with the complex notion of identity. The process of Indigenity has been greatly influenced by a number of factors, mostly historical and dealing with the balance of power in both colonial and postcolonial society. For example, one could argue that indigenous classification hinges partly on the colonial encounter. Carneiro de Cuna states that this classification, “Like the labels tribal, native, aboriginal, and Indian, is an artifact of the colonial encounter.” However, Indigenous identity goes far beyond being defined solely by the purely political influence of colonial encounters. Certain Indigenous groups are set apart by language, culture, prior inhabitance of a certain area: as stated by Levi and Dean, “Sociohistorical as well as political variables are involved in the designation of indigenous peoples.”  Does this mean that indigenity and the Fourth world are completely synonymous? Not necessarily: the fourth world is tied deeply to indigenous identity, but involves other important factors.
For example, the emergence of a Fourth world also involves the exploration of a shared history and resulting struggle for the formation of a “new history” (Manuel and Posluns). This involves, firstly, a celebration of strength and of survival. Despite the destructive and forcibly, often violently or murderously, oppressive forces of colonialism, the people of the Fourth world share a common historical struggle of endurance, often living through veritable holocausts. Manuel and Posluns acknowledge that this involves more than looking back on history, but looking forward to its effects. The Fourth world involves a celebration of “survival: that we have not forgotten the words and deeds of our grandfathers and that today Indian people throughout North America are undergoing a rebirth, as self-conscious societies aware of our own unique role in the history of this continent.”
Once this self-awareness is reached, there is recognition of the crushing silence forced upon countless indigenous groups throughout time. The denial of certain basic human rights as well as access to cultural rights is also a shared concern of the Fourth world. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states the shared concern that indigenous peoples “have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests.” The process of shifting into a collective battle for expanded rights is also discussed in Niezen, because formerly “there was a lack of awareness among indigenous groups of the widespread, almost global nature of the crisis they faced.” This changed when the Indigenous movements of the 1960s and 1970s became not only more powerful but more communicative and interconnected.
The Fourth World also addresses the tension between indigenity and modernity. The paradox faced by the Fourth world is discussed in Levi and Dean. Indigenous people face a double-edged sword: “they must become activists to protect their rights, yet by becoming activists, they jeopardize their special status as indigenous.” The same tension takes countless forms. Take, for example, technology. By embracing technology, some would call into question the validity and “traditionalism” of an indigenous community. Yet, integrating technology into the traditional framework of ideas held by indigenous peoples is a key element of the Fourth World.
This is the fragility of the concept of the Fourth World: running parallel to the Third and First worlds without ever being allowed to exist beside them as an equal, rather existing isolated within the power structure of the First and Third worlds. Because of this precarious position, the Fourth world faces unique battles which define it. Perhaps, though, the greatest defining feature of the Fourth World is a battle fought for centuries by indigenous groups and still being fought every day: the battle for Survival, not only literally but politically, socially, and culturally.

Published in: on January 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This article takes the important parts of articles we have read so far and weaves them into a very clear exploration of the concept of the fourth world. It tackles the complexity of the concept and the tensions that exist nicely, without losing the reader or the original thought. I thought it was important that the piece mentioned that the presence of colonialism is key in the creation of the fourth world, and then concluded with the idea of survival as one concrete similarity within the disparate communities within it. I feel like this idea could be better explored, perhaps with a mention of how the idea of indigenous peoples came about. The writing is nicely organized and well thought out.

  2. Emily,

    Great Post! You really did a wonderful job of integrating many of the readings while creating a very well organized response to our discussions in class. I am glad that you touched base a little bit on the historical shaping of who indigenous peoples are, and how history has really set those groups of people apart from the rest of the first, third, etc. worlds. It is always important to remember that almost all indigenous peoples have suffered and also that we “celebrate their survival” since, as I said, history has really defined who they are. Also, the other major defining point of Fourth World people’s is their struggle between traditionalism and modernity. As we have learned, one of the major struggles of these people is trying to be activists for their rights and for the survival of their people, while also portraying the “traditional” culture that colonizers (for lack of a better word… I believe Annie asked to redefine this in our last class but I can’t remember what he said)expect of them. Either way, you made some really great points. I suppose the only thing that I think was missing was a clearer definition of what YOU thought the fourth world meant, as opposed to how our readings have been defined it.


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