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First nations meet at United Nations

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UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. - Super dams that flood tribal villages and burial sites and forest-clearing projects that replace hunting grounds with plowed fields were among the United Nations-sponsored developments that used to run roughshod over the rights of Indigenous peoples. A meeting at the United Nations was directed at trying to keep these kinds of developments from recurring.

Leaders of first nations around the world gathered here Aug. 9 and 10 to commemorate the International Day of the World's Indigenous People and to plan for the world body's first Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues with its first meeting scheduled May 6-17, 2002.

The permanent forum was authorized in July 2000 by the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council and will function as a sub-unit of the council. The council president is scheduled to announce the eight "government experts" on the forum no later than Dec. 15.

Native speakers at the lively "consultations" gave the international audience an earful of the issues that both groups agreed the United Nations used to ignore.

"The permanent forum could really make a difference if it will start with the realization that Indigenous people are very different from the rest of the people of the world," said Victoria Tauli Corpuz, director of the Tebtebba Foundation in the Philippines.

"They have a different world-view."

Ted Moses, chief of the Grand Council of the Cree in Quebec and co-chairman of the session, recalled his first visit to the United Nations years earlier when a diplomat told him, "I have been informed that you Indigenous people were eliminated a long time ago or assimilated."

"I have to tell you you were misinformed. There are over 350 million of us," Moses said he replied.

The World Bank, the international lending institution, having sought a separate meeting later in the day, may have gotten more than it bargained for.

Representatives of the bank introduced its Draft Policy on Indigenous Peoples, guidelines they said would make staff more sensitive to the impact proposed government projects might have on Native Peoples in their way. Their audience was unimpressed.

Marcial Arias, an Indigenous leader from Panama, denounced government mega-projects in a heated oration that drew loud applause. Other speakers warned that the guidelines might actually weaken previous safeguards.

A World Bank attorney observed that Indigenous rights were still "not firmly established" in international law.

The United Nations also received an education in Lakota ceremonies from Arvol Looking Horse of Green Grass, S.D., Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe. Looking Horse opened the commemoration with a Pipe ceremony that was moved into the U.N. visitors lobby because of the extreme heat outdoors.

Before beginning, Looking Horse asked for women in their menstrual cycle to leave the area, because their competing power would dilute the effectiveness of the Pipe ceremony.

To lighten his request, he observed, "As I've traveled many places, I've seen how women are treated differently. Some places, they walk behind the men. Some places, they walk hand-in-hand with the men. And some places they walk all over the men."