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Briggs: Indigenous on offense: Treaty gathering, U.N. vote coincide

On Sept. 13, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Sources privy to an intervention by Mexico, Guatemala and Peru with African states that have opposed the declaration say they have reached a set of small revisions that leave key tenants of the declaration in tact.

Speaking as recently as one month ago at a treaty gathering of indigenous nations at the Lummi Nation in Washington state, Oren Lyons, Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper, was concerned. He told those assembled, ''We have worked since 1977 on the draft declaration, and it's about to be shot down by four African nations under the direction of the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

''They're going to try to change the language on self determination, on collective rights and about all the rights concerning the natural world.''

The declaration drafted by American Indians 30 years ago was intended to recognize indigenous peoples in an international setting - a setting that had effectively brought the principles of human rights to world consciousness of the cold light of 1948 shown on the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews and others.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized the ''unalienable rights'' of the individual, the nine-part draft declaration states that indigenous peoples have a right to self-determination, to hold onto their land bases, to be respected for their differences.

It's this concept of self determination - the everyday language of U.S. government relations with Native nations - that has been most controversial on a world stage.

Some opponents to the declaration said in 2006, according to a statement of a spokesman for the General Assembly, the concept ''could be misrepresented as conferring unilateral right of self-determination and possible secession, thus threatening ... the stability of member states.''

Opponents of the declaration have submitted watered down drafts before. Now with days before a vote of General Assembly, member states of the African Union have told sources that their latest revision won't be available until sometime next week, probably two or three days before the vote.

Sources close to the proceedings said on Sept. 4 that the African states had agreed to let the current text, including acknowledgement of the right to self determination, stand. There was only one area of weakening, which had to do with military use of indigenous lands.

''One can never be sure that's actually what will occur,'' said attorney Tim Coulter, the author of the original draft of the declaration and executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center. ''But it could occur, even if there are other changes offered, that they might well be voted down. The votes in the General Assembly are notoriously difficult to predict, members are sovereign.''

Coulter said that the bureaucratic processes of the United Nations allow for the declaration to come back even from a no vote in the General Assembly. But he isn't expecting the declaration to be voted down.

Still through the summer months many indigenous leaders remained worried about the effectiveness of the U.N. process.

''The United Nations has not delivered enough constructive outcomes for indigenous peoples,'' Aroha Te Pareaka Mead, representative of the Ngati Awa Iwi and the Aotearoa in New Zealand, said in late July. ''It has delivered some things, but not enough and it's taking too long.''

Especially worrisome to indigenous leaders gathered in late July in the gymnasium of the Lummi Nation School were proposed compromises that would further empower states to think that they could define who is and isn't indigenous.

A treaty of their making, a United League of Indigenous Nations Treaty of North America and the Pacific Rim, could be different, could shift the paradigm of international relations.

For three days, representatives of 40 indigenous nations from around the Pacific Rim conversed about a treaty of mutual support that they would write and sign. If historic treaty making by U.S. officials in the then foreign language English were fraught with deceit, this treaty would be done with transparency.

Using an overhead projector, organizers displayed the draft treaty on a movie screen. A young man typed proposed changes into the text while the leaders of indigenous nations weighed their options. A quick trip to Kinko's provided copies.

More than one leader had expressed sentiments of intergenerational, post-traumatic stress over treaty processes that their nation had been included in or excluded from.

''Generally speaking, our people haven't been much for treaties,'' said Mike Marchand, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which is located on the U.S. side of the border with Canada. ''We never sold our land to Canada. We have a lawsuit against the Queen. They say we have to make a choice: be a Canadian and get kicked around in Canada, or be an American and get kicked around in the U.S.''

Marchand said if the treaty under discussion talked of collaboration in getting land returned, then he would sign for his nation.

He and 10 other leaders of indigenous nations signed the treaty on Aug. 1 with plans for a larger signing involving more nations later this year.

While there are historic precedents for Native nations making treaty with each other, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy or the relations of the Coast Salish from the central British Columbia coast to south of Washington's Puget Sound, this treaty is a modern exercise of a long-standing right of nations.

How many Indian nations have foreign affairs departments, asked Frank Ettawageshik, chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa, of those assembled. He explained, ''The intergovernmental relations between us are on the same international level as the United Nations.''

The treaty has a more immediate potential for effecting cultural protections, land recovery and business relations among its signatories than the U.N. declaration. The declaration has the potential once entered into international law to influence national laws and court cases. The U.S. Supreme Court routinely explains that international law is one of bodies of law it consults.

What we need is both the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to effect laws outside indigenous nations, and the United League of Indigenous Nations Treaty to strengthen and protect from within an alliance that spans North America and the Pacific Rim.

As indigenous leaders prepare for 11th-hour negotiations at the United Nations in New York, it's worth remembering that the General Assembly's Universal Declaration of Human Rights didn't pass with the ease that we 60 years later would think.

But when it passed, the General Assembly called on members to ''cause the declaration to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.''

So be it with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

To read a draft of the declaration, visit and select U.N., then select Human Rights Council 2006. For more information on the United League of Indigenous Nations Treaty, visit www.indig

Kara Briggs, Yakama and Snohomish, is associate director of the American Indian Policy & Media Initiative at Buffalo State College. She lives at the Tulalip Reservation in Washington.