After spending the week in New York City attending the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and listening to dozens of speakers offering their interventions to the nearly 2,000 delegates and representatives, I have heard a few burning questions asked repeatedly.
The first is: “What do want from the UN or the international community?” Well, that’s a loaded question because there is what we want and what we expect. Plain and simple, many want action. For me, I come back to the warning about being careful what you wish for. I just want some attention paid to our issues and to shame those nations that continue to commit acts of genocide against us – plain and simple.
My expectations are low for anything to have much in the way of fast results. Death may be quick but survival is slow, particularly if we are talking about the survival of an entire people and simply not a generation of them. I give less credit and authority to those who are touted as leaders. I see this stage as an opportunity to produce credible testimony to impact the court of public opinion more than heads of state.
The speakers were from across the globe but the messages were repeated over and over again – loss of land, assimilation, abuse of women, health, poverty and environment. Land claims and environmental protections are the issues that concern the colonial powers most because these directly affect their bottom line as it relates to their economies. So the second question that is quick to be asked by the mainstream media is: “What do you want to see come from land claims settlements? This question is quickly followed up by: “Surely you don’t want all the land back after all this time? Do you?”
Some of the Indigenous people are quick to respond, “Oh, no. We wouldn’t do that to you!” But they never quite get around to answering just what they would like to see as a resolution to long-standing battles over land. In 1922, the Chairman of the New York State Indian Commission, Edward Everett, wrote in his report to the State Legislature of the unlikelihood that Native people would have ever shared lands had we known what the white man would do with it.
Ninety-two years later, as we observe economic collapse, aged or decrepit infrastructure and man-induced climate change, all I can say is that we love what you have done with the place. And this goes to the heart of another question: “What would we do with title to lost lands?” My answer begins with another question; this one to the people living and/or working on our lands. “How are you doing under state and federal oversight? Over taxed? Roads and schools in the crapper? Unemployment? Environment? How is that working for you?”
Considering the bleak outlook for even the immediate future, I would not shy away from the assertion of Native stewardship and sovereignty on much of this conflicted land. But the fact of the matter is that many of our people never quite get past the racial bias at the core of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. And even with repudiation and clear condemnation from the international community, this remains at the foundation of US and Canadian “Indian law” and is still being used by courts today. With no clear path for reclamation, most of our people never look that far down the road and certainly never develop comprehensive land use plans. Perhaps a higher level of discontent with the state and feds will pave the way for the “clean slate” approach to land use and just one or two examples of business success stories and higher quality of life, would certainly change the conversation. But these can’t happen if we don’t really have a vision for our future.
If one thing is learned from hearing so much testimony on Indigenous issues, it is that capitalism and imperialism got it wrong and buying into their failed systems for modeling our own is just absurd. We need to assert our presence, fight for our regulatory advantages and market these as building blocks to regional development.
I am extremely disappointed to say that no one brought up trade and commerce as a specific area of concern for this world stage. Not one Native voice took the opportunity to cite the articles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that specifically support our inherent rights to trade, commerce and our own economic development. The absence of that conversation only adds to the question as to what we are there for. If not there, where? If not then, when?
Minister of Human Rights, Purifacione Quisinbine told me more than 20 years ago at the UN that we needed trade relations. That, she said, was the expression of sovereignty. She, like me, viewed treaties as weak, one-sided documents. Contracts and invoices represented equitability and it establishes relationships, not just between governments but also between peoples.
Many good and important issues got well warranted attention on this world stage but the real life impacts to local and global economies caused by racist dogma cannot and should not be down played. Two weeks, once a year with a few more annual events thrown in is not enough to affect change. These issues have to be a drumbeat that becomes deafening with international attention and takes full advantage of the media attention that comes with it.
Our small corners of the once vast lands which we tend to need to be a reminder to all those who are growing discontented with their lives – of what once was. We really don’t like what you’ve done with the place.