A Response to Glenn Morris’s Column


Glenn Morris’s recent column concluded that the United Nations high-level plenary meeting, which was called a “World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” should be considered a failure from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. Morris asserted that the fundamental framework of the international movement of the right of Indigenous peoples (self-determination, treaty rights, control of territory and resources through free, prior and informed consent, and repudiation of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery), had been betrayed in the HLPM/WCIP.

Professor Morris’s article critiqued what he termed the “indigenous gatekeepers within the UN system.” He described certain UN members “privileging those who were in favor of” the UN high level plenary meeting. He said that those favoring the UN HLPM/WCIP were deemed “good/reasonable Indians.” Those deemed to be the “bad/hostile Indian” for opposing the UN high level plenary meeting were marginalized in the lead-up to the convening of the meeting on September 22-23.

Perhaps Morris’ most controversial position was his naming of specific organizations, such as the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) for their participation in the HLPM. Why would he specifically name the organizations instead of referring to them through generalities or euphemisms?

Unfortunately, those organizations helped to give the false appearance of a consensus of North American Indigenous peoples’ support for the UN high level meeting, which the UN insisted on inaccurately labeling a “UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.” The named organizations provided the false appearance of a consensus of support from North America for a UN outcome document (now a problematic UN resolution) that was fundamentally flawed. This resulted in a huge set-back for the advancement of the international rights of Original Nations and Peoples now commonly called “indigenous.”

Importantly, those organizations completely disregarded the decision made on March 2, 2014 by the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC) to withdraw completely from the Global Coordinating Group, and to call for a cancellation of the UN high level plenary meeting. Since all of those organizations attended the 2013 NAIPC gathering at Sycuan, they knew of NAIPC’s cautionary stance toward the UN high level meeting process and the state controlled outcome document.

The NAIPC’s 2014 position calling for a cancellation of the UNHLPM/WCIP was an effort to prevent the world community from being given the false impression that there was a consensus of support from North America for what was foreseen as a damaging outcome document, the final text of which was to be and was ultimately controlled by international states.

Even though those organizations knew full well that there was no North American consensus for the Top/down and Dominance/subordination structure of the UN high level meeting, they were not forthright about this in their communications with the world community. Those organizations ignored the NAIPC position by pretending that it did not exist.

As an alternative and transparent approach they could have publicly respected the NAIPC decision by simply and candidly acknowledging a key point: namely, that although the NAIPC reached a consensus in rejecting the UN high level plenary meeting, those other organizations operating outside of the NAIPC, and outside the formal framework of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, decided to not accept the NAIPC position.

Not once, however, did those Indigenous peoples’ organizations from North America that were intent on participating in the UN high level plenary meeting candidly, publicly, and respectfully acknowledge the NAIPC position in relation to the UN HLPM. We can only surmise that they refused to do so for fear that global publicity about the lack of Indigenous peoples’ consensus from North America would somehow weaken an outcome document that, as they saw it, would be used as a basis for states to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP). It would appear that those organizations wanted to leave the impression that theirs was the default North American position in lieu of the NAIPC position.

Additionally, the high level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly was an opportunity for a consolidated show of resistance to the federal Indian law and policy system of the U.S., with its assertion of dominating “plenary power” over Indian nations. What we saw instead was an expression of acceptance and acquiescence by those participating in the preparations and convening of the UN high level meeting. Why? Because those organizations from North America that put themselves in the forefront on the world stage allowed their diminished “domestic” U.S. federal Indian law and policy political identity and status to be reinforced in the international arena. They went to the high level meeting asking for that diminished political identity to be given “an appropriate and dignified” status in the United Nations.

To sort this out, it is senseless to take an undignified and inappropriate domestic dependent nation status, invented by the US and imposed on originally free and independent nations, on the basis of the claimed right of Christian discovery and domination, and ask for that undignified and inappropriate status of subjection to be given a dignified and appropriate status in the United Nations.

The US—the country responsible for imposing that undignified and inappropriate status on our originally free and independent nation—fully supports, and advocates having the US-imposed domesticated political status recognized in the UN. Why? Because this is an approach that supports the US’s false, self-serving claim, which it made in 2010, and reaffirmed at the UN high level meeting on September 22nd, that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “calls for a new concept of self-determination for indigenous peoples that is not the same as the right of self-determination in international law. To be clear, there is no new, reduced right of self-determination for Indigenous peoples. There is only the same right to self-determination for all colonized and “dependent” (dominated) peoples, including peoples termed “indigenous.”

The call for the United Nations to recognize and find a place in the UN for the domesticated political status that has been imposed on our originally free and independent nations leaves the US system of domination that created that imposed political status un-resisted, unchallenged, and in place. It makes sense for the US government to attempt to maintain its domination system because that is what empires do. What does not make sense is for those upon whom the empire’s domination system has been imposed to participate actively in a course of action and “advocacy” in the international arena that acquiesces in and accepts that system in the name of implementing the UN DRIP.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.