Glimpses from the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples’ conference

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SANTA FE, N.M. – Set against a backdrop of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the 7th International Funders for Indigenous Peoples’ conference was nothing short of spectacular. The April 3 – 5 event at the Hotel Santa Fe – Pueblo Picuris drew 150 people from all corners of the Earth: Grantmakers, funding organizations and indigenous peoples’ representing Bolivia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, the Amazon, Canada and the U.S. came to tell their stories. Many of those stories were of injustice.

It’s difficult for traditional healer Anank Nunkai of the Ecuadorian Amazon to heal his people – deforestation by commercial and speculative interests is destroying not only the tropical forests, but the sacred vines that grow within, vines his people have relied on since time immemorial to cure their ills.

Carlos Macuacua has come a long way from his home, a remote Mozambique coastal village, to restore sea turtles and other subsistence foods decimated by overfishing in other countries, a concept nearly incomprehensible to these remote villagers, Macuacua is teaching them to drastically curtail the sea creatures harvest.

To do their work, Nunkai, Macuacua and others need funding, so they’ve come here, hoping to interest grantmakers. Even smaller grants can have big impacts in indigenous communities. This year’s conference theme, “Fostering Local to Global Partnerships: Setting the Agenda for the Future of Indigenous Philanthropy,” reflects these values.

Sessions covered climate change, the need for adaptation, food security, indigenous rights, sovereignty, self-determination and strengthening indigenous philanthropy, providing grantmakers with a rare opportunity to learn about the interconnectedness of indigenous peoples and their environment, and commitment to protecting the world for future generations. They came away with an increased understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing indigenous communities, of their role as “ancient wisdom keepers,” and the benefits of developing mutually

beneficial partnerships.

The urgency of climate change was central for many. “The caribou need snow to dig in to calve, and that snow is dwindling,” said Gwich’in Sarah James, whose Alaskan village adjoins the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while thinning ice is making it harder to reach their calving grounds. Proposed drilling for oil in the ANWR could decimate these caribou the Gwich’in people depend on for everything from food to winter clothing.

“It’s an understatement to say our communities are in crisis,” Native environmental activist Winona LaDuke said. With tribes confronting diabetes epidemics and budget cuts, “the issues of where we’re going to be 20 years from now in terms of climate, in terms of oil, energy policy, food policy, is not on their radar.” She stressed the importance of the “re-localization of community,” a model of community self-sustainability based on a local economy. She emphasized the issue of who owns the seeds.

Last year, Hawaii’s traditional farmers sought a 10-year moratorium – it failed to pass – on creating genetically engineered taro, a plant sacred to them and part of their genealogy. “No one has the right to genetically modify our cosmogenealogy,” they told her. “These foods are not just foods. … they are our relatives,” LaDuke said. “We’ve been fighting the genetic engineering of our wild rice. We’re still victorious.”

Monsanto is the predominant corporation aggressively patenting genetically engineered seeds. Their practice of hiring workers to check Native fields contaminated by drift from GE crops has resulted in their suing victims of GE contamination for “stealing” their patented genes and gaining ownership of their fields. They’ve been accused of trying to stop traditional farmers’ practice of collecting and saving Native seeds by writing seed laws some legislators have pushed through, subjecting collectors to fees, paperwork, even fines and prosecution unless every variety they collect is individually tested and tracked, a burdensome task.

In his keynote, poet Simon Ortiz said our Earth Mother “really needs our help,” and we as indigenous people can play a major role in regenerating the world. He called IFIP “a movement for positive change.”

The final day was at the Santa Ana Pueblo’s Tamaya Resort at the base of the Sandia Mountains, a resort, according to the tour bus driver, considered in the country’s top five and one of 10 in the world. You can believe her. The evening sun turned the Sandia Mountains to a glowing red.

At the end of the day, Aaju Peter of Iqaluit, Alaska reflected, “Even if we have never seen each other, Native people understand one other. We’re here for a common goal, to reach a solution, to look forward.”

An unexpected highlight during the event was Australia’s agreement to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the UN in 2007. Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries who have not signed on.