Activists hope for UN indigenous forum

NEW YORK ? The United Nations is paying more attention to the native populations of the world, with the recent inauguration of the Permanent Indigenous Forum, the Aug. 8 celebration of World Indigenous Day and on-going sessions of the Subcommission on Human Rights. But indigenous activists are watching its activities warily and calling for a permanent staff structure dedicated to their concerns.

Ali El-Issa, founder of the Flying Eagle Woman Fund, said in an interview at his New York headquarters, "Up until this moment, we have just been beginning this work. There is a long way to go. The next step is a permanent Secretariat and funding sources, so that the daily things function in the right way."

Joseph Jeffers, Haliwa Saponi, and clinical director of the American Indian Community House, said, "The first thing that needs to be done is to educate people about what's happening. Many people are in a daze. Native communities are each one for itself, struggling to survive as a group; pushed onto reservations, sacred sites desecrated, survivors of massive acts of genocide, destruction of land, water and entire species of life."

A permanent Secretariat, he said, would ideally, "be able to exercise intervention in cases where urgent and irreparable damage is occurring." He gave the example of Nigeria where nine activists have been hanged for protesting oil and natural gas extraction that they accused of devastating lands and peoples.

El-Issa warned, "Remember, this is just one step. The U.N. still deals with us through the High Commissioner of Human Rights. We need to put pressure on the U.N. to deal with the Indigenous Peoples as Sovereign Nations."

He cited constant pressure on native populations around the world. "For example, a few months ago an African indigenous leader was shot 25 times. Last month a native leader in Bolivia was publicly slashed with a knife. At any moment the U.S. can give the green light to drill for oil in the Alaska Refuge. In South America, if you try to keep a big company from drilling for oil, they shoot you. They killed my wife for trying to help the Indians in Colombia."

El-Issa sits surrounded by the photos of his wife, Ingrid Washinawatok, who was murdered in Colombia.

Flying Eagle Woman Fund was created by El-Issa in her memory; "I lived with my wife for 19 years. She was struggling for Indigenous Rights and since she was killed and went to the spirit world, I pledged to continue her work here. I've learned that the UN is not going to smile and solve our problems. All the brothers and sisters of Indigenous peoples must see it is our land, our culture, our language. It is our past and our present and our future. For the UN it is just a job."

El-Issa said, "This is a spiritual battle, and it is changing the balance of the earth. We need more indigenous youth to be involved."

El-Issa stated that, "though it is not enough, the forum is one step forward in a thousand mile journey."

"For us it is the struggle. It is for the People that my wife said, 'Native Peoples have the opportunity to provide leadership in breaking down the monopoly of the controlling nations and to push the United Nations toward truly becoming the forum for all peoples of the world, a forum with an identity transcending the boundaries set by lines drawn on maps.'"