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A Response to Rudy Ryser, ‘I Write to Solve Present Day Problems’

On August 3, 2014, Dr. Rudy Ryser, Chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, published a response to my recent column “Some Questions Regarding the UN High Level Plenary Meeting.” He said that my column “reflects the view” that “the World Conference is supposed to be a panacea to all of the past wrongs done to Indigenous Peoples.”

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RELATED: Some Questions Regarding the UN High-Level Plenary Meeting

Funny, but I have never held such a view and thus it has not been expressed in any of the several articles that I have written about the United Nations High Level Plenary Meeting (U.N. HLPM), including the article to which Dr. Ryser has responded. I have never thought or written in terms of “correcting past wrongs,” which is an impossibility (they’re called “past” for a reason).

Instead, I think and write in terms of efforts to solve the present day problems faced by our nations and peoples. I have never said what the U.N. High Level Plenary Meeting ought to be, let alone that it ought to be a “panacea.”

What I have done for quite some time now with regard to the UN HLPM is raise questions. I have done so ever since first hearing about the HLPM, and finding out that it is not a World Conference, but only “to be known as” one. Dr. Ryser, disregards such nuances by continuing to call the HLPM a “World Conference.” Thus, for example, he claims that I “ask if the World Conference will reverse ‘the domination/subordination framework of U.S. federal Indian law and policy that has been and continues to be used against our originally free nations and peoples?’”

Ryser’s rhetorical question implies that I have accepted the charade that the HLPM is a “World Conference,” when, in fact, I asked: “Will the U.N. High Level Plenary Meeting, which is falsely being called a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (see my column of April 6, 2014) and its outcome document work toward ending the domination/subordination framework of U.S. federal Indian law and policy that has been and continues to be used against our nations and peoples?” (emphasis added) Notice that I also mention the U.N. HLPM “outcome document,” a topic that Dr. Ryser has entirely ignored in his response to my column.

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Additionally, Dr. Ryser did not quote a second question: “Or will that [HLPM outcome] document serve to accept, and purport to ‘work within,’ the domination/subjection framework?” Regarding my question asking whether the HLPM will end the domination framework of U.S. federal Indian law?, Ryser replies: “The answer is ‘not likely,’ but that doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling reasons for participating, or that there aren’t other ways to address the relationship between the U.S. and Indian nations.”

Yet, if the HLPM outcome document that is being controlled entirely by states—and now ironically called the “Zero Point” document”—merely accepts the domination/subjection framework of states (e.g., U.S. federal Indian law and policy), that outcome document is obviously not a solution to the foundational problem of domination that besets our nations and peoples. This is why I wrote: “If the U.N. HLPM is not going to move us toward ending the domination/ subjection system being used against our Originally Free Nations and Peoples, then what specific positive end-result is being envisioned by those Indigenous Peoples’ representatives who are actively participating in the preparations for the U.N. High Level Plenary Meeting?”

In his article, Dr. Ryser has framed the U.N. HLPM as “a small opportunity to press for a long-delayed dialogue and future negotiations that can, among other things, begin to define and formalize an appropriate political status for indigenous nations in the global arena that simultaneously doesn’t threaten states’ stability.”

Of course, Dr. Ryser’s phrase “states’ stability” is a euphemism for the dominance of states over nations and peoples termed “indigenous.” This is because, as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, the U.N. working definition of the term “indigenous” means ‘under state dominance’ or ‘under domination of states,’ as a result of being characterized as having been “reduced” by colonization down to a status or position “under dominance” from the starting point of an original free existence.

In keeping with that U.N. working definition, an “appropriate” political status for “indigenous” nations and peoples from the viewpoint of states, is one that does not threaten the domination/subjection system currently being wielded by states over those nations and peoples being called “indigenous.” Dr. Ryser neglects to address this deeper dimension of the problem of being saddled with the U.N. term “indigenous.”

Given this overall context, the question Dr. Ryser has posed is accurately re-expressed as follows: What status within the United Nations will states view as “appropriate” for those nations and peoples that states have deemed permanently ‘reduced down to’ a status and existence under or beneath state domination? Additionally, what is the appropriate place in the United Nations for the “governments,” of peoples that are deemed by states to exist under the dominance of states?

Finally, Dr. Ryser quotes Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons as having said, “If we aren’t at the table we will definitely be on the menu.” Yet that brings to mind a cynical definition of majority rule “democracy” that seems apt here: Two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Sometimes you can be “at the table” and still be on the menu, such as in the case of the U.N. HLPM and its “Zero Point document!”

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.