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2013 Was a Breakthrough Year for Tribal International Engagement

I’m not one to make resolutions for the upcoming new year but I do think the end of the year is a good time to reflect back on the news that came out of Indian country. What was news this year is now recent history and the gift of hindsight helps us to better understand where we stand in any given moment. Our perspective depends on the angle we are looking from and forms what we call truth. Another way of saying this comes from the Star Wars movie “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” when the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn tells the young Luke Skywalker, “your focus determines your reality.”

If, therefore, what we focus on is negative then the reality we live with as Native people is disempowerment and victimization. On the other hand if we focus on the positive then we create for ourselves a reality with recognizable signs of liberation and self-empowerment. While we must acknowledge the history of the former I sincerely believe we are generally headed in the direction of the latter.

From my perspective the most important news from Indian country in 2013 is what I would call decolonizing events—especially those that indicate movement toward self-determination and autonomy for tribal nations. Based on that criterion one of the biggest successes was the passage of VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) with its clause that defers jurisdiction to tribal courts for non-Indian offenses, bypassing the Major Crimes Act. This was a huge victory for Indian country not only because it addresses one of the biggest problems in Native communities (gender-based violence), but also because the Major Crimes Act is one of the primary impediments to true tribal self-government. VAWA thus indicates a strengthening of self-determination.

 In terms of advancing self-determination, however, I believe the biggest news is what happened with Native nations on the international front. Six years after its passage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is proving to be an effective framework to engage such efforts. This year saw preparation conferences for the upcoming 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in April, marking the first time that tribal governments (as opposed to Indian civil society groups) in the U.S. organized in unison to participate in a United Nations conference on Indigenous issues. While the conferences (one sponsored by NCAI for tribal governments and one organized for civil society groups) demonstrated a significant level of contention between the two groups it nonetheless opened a dialogue between them and was a landmark event for tribal governments’ assertions of self-determination. Evidence for this is the statement issued by 72 Indigenous nations.

In Native nation governments’ international engagement efforts were fueled in part by the abuses of the IRS and conflicts over the General Welfare Exclusion rule and the need for trust reform. Although the conflict resulted in the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act of 2013, it remains to be seen how effective the law will be in curtailing IRS intrusions into Indian affairs. And there is still a long way to go before any meaningful articulation of trust reform is manifested.

Big strides were made in the realm of international relations by a handful of tribal nations, most notably the Quinault Indian Nation. Behind the scenes QIN quietly made history by hosting a reception for a handful of UN member governments during the annual meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May and later in the year when they met with the ambassadors from Germany and Lithuania in New York. The precedence-setting reception in May made waves in the US State Department, who hadn’t been invited. Their attention gotten, the Department responded with a hap-hazard last minute call for a listening session for all interested Indians to be convened in early August (in Washington DC, at the expense of those attending) to prepare for the WCIP in 2014. Native governments had called for an intergovernmental meeting, not a listening session and thus rejected the proposed meeting.

With the diplomatic process between the State Department and Indian country momentarily broken down, QIN was again in the news later in the fall when they held a press conference at the National Press Club. Held in conjunction with the fifth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Fawn Sharp called on President Obama to establish a formal intergovernmental framework between tribal nations and U.S. government, mincing no words that the White House conferences and listening sessions are not enough.

It is only a matter of time before the U.S. Department of State attempts to reengage with Native governments, especially in the lead up to next September’s WCIP. Native nations engaging with the State Department is new territory for both the U.S. and tribes. There is no doubt in my mind that 2013 will be written about in the history books as a turning point for Native governments and their assertions of self-determination as nations in the international community.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.