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Briggs: Let;s talk: The UN and indigenous peoples

On the last day of the seventh annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a demonstration by participants from South and Central America over the right to speak led to U.N. security guards threatening arrests.

The participants needed to talk about a World Bank plan that allows corporations to trade credit for environmental work in one location against pollution in another. They needed to speak because the forum, while not entirely endorsing the plan, didn;t reject it as thoroughly as many hoped.

As I reported last week in this column, the video of armed guards entering the permanent forum startled many participants, including many North Americans and others who more than a week later became aware of the conflict through a posting on YouTube.

See the video at

Indigenous leaders of the permanent forum, among them those who in past decades demonstrated for admittance to the United Nations, were equally startled to realize that some participants felt the need to demonstrate in the forum.

The conflict ended as it started - peacefully. But some went away angry, some went away puzzled. Now, a month later - even though the 1,100 indigenous participants in the permanent forum have traveled home to all corners of the globe - it's time for a dialogue.

In a phone conversation, Tom Goldtooth, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who has participated for six of the seven years, said the forum is a young organization with the United Nations.

''I fully support the permanent forum to become all it can,'' he said from his Minnesota office. ''I am not sure what the process is to create positive change. There needs to be an openness of the chair to support the voice of the indigenous people and be flexible.''

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, permanent forum chairman, is an indigenous woman who in the Philippines runs Tebtebba, a center for indigenous policy research. She responded by e-mail.

''It is impossible,'' she wrote, ''to give them more than five minutes as this will deprive others of the chance to speak.

''There are other meetings at the forum where people can dialogue. Yet participants might not feel confident that their talk in those settings reaches the permanent forum decision makers. It's frustrating for me listening to the shorthand of international diplomatic language about huge problems, while knowing that in their own communities, in their own lands, these participants are probably the great orators.''

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, an Onondaga lawyer who last year was appointed North American representative to the forum, by phone kept saying it was about our peoples' need to speak and be heard.

But, ''We are in a process that is about the rules and procedures of the U.N. and the permanent forum, especially the chair has to keep all those things in balance,'' she said. ''You have government rights and privileges. You have U.N. agencies, and you, as chair, are trying to find a balance.''

Isn't it always the indigenous people who have to find the balance? Yet our balance is helping us to be heard, and there is plenty of discussion and sharing happening at the forum.

Cayuga Chief Deskaheh, an ambassador from the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, formally asked the League of Nations for admittance in 1923. His request was denied then, though now it is considered by the permanent forum as a monumental piece of its history. Wallace ''Mad Bear'' Anderson, Tuscarora, in the 1950s walked into the United Nations under the authority of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and spoke of Haudenosaunee sovereignty.

''He was one of the first figures in the Indian world to talk about sovereignty,'' said Lenny Foster, of the International Treaty Council. ''I met him in 1972.''

Mad Bear's nephew, Doug Anderson, on the other side of the table, asked, ''At Wounded Knee?''

''No, in Arizona,'' Foster said. ''He was Cuba, man.''

''Him and Che Guevara, too,'' Anderson said.

The white-haired men, one Navajo, one Tuscarora, sat across from each other over cold coffee, chuckling.

''The debates are ongoing,'' Foster said. ''We'll eventually determine self-determination. Hopefully, we'll see something truly decisive happen in our life times.''

In the hallway outside the meeting room, 23-year-old Maeh-kiw-kesec El-Issa, a Menominee and Palestinian truck driver from Brooklyn, spoke of his mother, the late Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa. Washinawatok El-Issa, 41, was killed in 1999 by FARC guerrillas while trying to help the U'wa people in Colombia. She worked for the founding of the permanent forum, where indigenous people, she hoped, could gather and participate in dialogue.

Now her son has been in some way involved in the United Nations for his entire life.

''There was a time when Natives couldn't get into the U.N.,'' Maeh-kiw-kesec El-Issa explained. ''We had to do a march down First Avenue. I was a kid. I remember being told if anything goes down, just run up the block and stay there.

''But it went along peacefully. No hitting, no conflict.''

Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper, talking during a break in the forum, said, ''It took us 30 years to get across the street [across First Avenue].''

Over lunch, Ali El-Issa, Maeh-kiw-kesec's father, talked with a Central American man about an assassination attempt against a woman a week earlier; he talked about people who live so deep in the jungle that they walk for three days to send an e-mail.

There is still so much good talk to share as indigenous peoples at the U.N. permanent forum. We need accountability, but our indigenous leaders must not abandon this work.

Instead, we must dialogue even more about the forum's future; about how the permanent forum can work better; about what kind of ''diversity'' training did the U.N. security guards get, anyway? Did it include indigenous peoples?

Let's talk about it.

Kara Briggs, Yakama/Snohomish, is co-director of the American Indian Policy & Media Initiative and a columnist for Indian Country Today.