Skip to main content

Feeding the spirits

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Activism at the United Nations

The late Muskogee-Creek elder Phillip Deere declared at the historic 1977 address to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, that ''We, the Indigenous Peoples, are the evidence of the Western Hemisphere. No matter how small a tribal people may be, each of them has the right to be who they are.'' This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, which gave birth to a consciousness on, an international level, the conditions of indigenous peoples. The event served as an awakening to Native people all over the world, demonstrating that paradigm-shifting, through dignity and organization, is possible.

The Geneva conference, John Mohawk noted, ''sought to create Principles of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere that ... might lead to a Declaration of such rights for indigenous peoples around the world.'' That day is upon us, with the conclusion of the Sixth Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. For 12 days, the world's indigenous representatives and supporters gathered to, among other things, advocate for the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Although adoption has been delayed, the declaration itself represents the tireless work of scores of indigenous people moving as one body.

During a side panel discussion, the Birth of Human Rights, Oglala Lakota activist Bill Means stressed the responsibility of informing ''our grass-roots'' - of carrying the critical messages of the UNPFII back home to our communities. The heart and spirit of one such messenger, the late Menominee activist and grass-roots leader Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa, was remembered throughout the evening.

A promising leader whose work helped establish the permanent forum, Washinawatok was murdered during a visit to the Uw'a people of Colombia in 1999. The Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa Flying Eagle Woman Fund for Peace, Justice and Sovereignty was founded in her name to continue the spirit of her work, and is guided by the principles shared in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In memory of Washinawatok, who continues to inspire many good people to do great work, we share a column which originally was published in the summer 1997 edition of Native Americas journal, and by Indian Country Today in May 2003.

Working toward an indigenous model

Ingrid Washinawatok (July 31, 1957 - March 4, 1999)

Since Deskaheh, the Cayuga chief who sought justice from the actions of Canada in the League of Nations in 1923, Native peoples have sought to gain an audience in the world forum. Deskaheh, who had hoped the bilateral treaties signed between the Haudenosaunee and the British Empire would give him standing in the League, met with ''cruel indifference,'' he stated. ''My appeal to the Society of Nations has not been heard.'' While he was able to garner the support of the Netherlands and Japan, who sponsored him to address the League, Canada and Great Britain pressured the Secretariat to inform Deskaheh that he would not be allowed as a petitioner before the Plenary Session and the Cayuga chief was denied a seat in the gallery - even as an observer.

In September 1977, for the first time American Indians were invited to address the United Nations; and while tensions ran high among the indigenous representatives, the strength of the traditional elders reminded everyone of their duty. After a time it was decided that those who were the spiritual leaders and pipe carriers would lead the procession of delegates into the United Nations.

As they made their way down the length of the walkway to the entrance of the United Nations building, they were flanked by the drum, and behind them walked the indigenous delegates. From the old buildings that once housed the League of Nations, windows flew open and the workers of the building began to applaud. 1997 marks the 20th anniversary of that historic meeting in Geneva, the International Non-Governmental Organization Conference on the Discrimination Against the Indians of the Americas. For more than 50 years, Native people had worked to make their presence felt among the dominant nation-states of the world. But this dignified procession that filed through door six marked only the beginning of a new phase of activity by Indian people in the United Nations.

One important U.N. initiative, the Martinez-Cobo Study, received a big boost from that conference. The report, officially entitled the Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, was commissioned in 1971 by the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and was being written by Jose R. Martinez-Cobo, special rapporteur. Between 1981 and 1984, four volumes of description, analysis, documents and recommendations, surveying previous U.N. actions relating to indigenous peoples, including the relevance and application of existing conventions protecting human rights and against practices such as racial discrimination, enslavement and genocide, were formally presented by Martinez-Cobo to the Sub-Commission.

The United Nations thus ''accepted that [indigenous populations] are separate peoples; unlike other national populations, defined by unique criteria, that they live in unique circumstances and have been denied their rights in ways others have been spared. More significantly, other groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples need more than just protection against loss of rights; they need active promotion of the enjoyment of those rights.''

On Dec. 9, 1994, the inauguration of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People was held at the United Nations. The decade's theme was to be Indigenous People: a New Relationship and Partnership in Action. The decade's main goal is to further cultivate the partnership promoted between indigenous peoples and the international community during the International Year and strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health.

In evaluating the results of decades of work by indigenous peoples, it is sad to note that, despite all of the activity surrounding the United Nations, not much has changed since the Cayuga chief, Deskaheh, first went to the League of Nations in 1923. While Native peoples have come a long way in the past 20 years, making great strides in moving the United Nations to recognize that indigenous peoples exist, it is becoming clear that the structure of the United Nations is not made to dispense justice, only to talk about it. Most of the member-states continue to refuse to acknowledge any basic rights to indigenous peoples. Countries such as Brazil continue to act against indigenous peoples, blatantly violating their human rights and continuing to take lands upon which they depend. Indigenous forests are disappearing at an ever-increasing rate, and along with the forests go the forest peoples themselves. All the while the United Nations just listens - considered a major step forward when contrasted to the days when the League of Nations denied Deskaheh a voice.

For many years, the United Nations represented a means to attain justice for indigenous peoples. However, this is proving to be an illusion. The challenge today is to work out an indigenous model for conflict resolution, standards of justice and international dialogue - a model that would transform the United Nations into an institution that truly responds to the problems of the world. While this may seem to be quixotic, it grows more feasible as local ethnic communities are more successful in asserting their cultural independence, such as in Eastern Europe. Today, Native peoples have the opportunity to provide leadership in breaking down the monopoly of the nation-states, and truly make the United Nations an international forum.