Heed the Higher Calling of Indigenous Rights

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In 1977 I had the incredible opportunity to be the coordinator for the first UN NGO conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas. This effort grew out of the armed struggles that were occurring in North America and most notably the second battle at Wounded Knee between Indigenous and American forces.

In 1974 Traditional leaders and people gathered at Wakpala to discuss and decide the future direction of the struggle. It was unanimously agreed that justice and the acknowledgement of our rights would never reach fruition in North America without international assistance. The Hopi leaders recounted their prophecy of the “House of Mica” and our need to journey there to have our words and concerns heard by the world.

For the Haudenosaunee this was the renewal of the international effort started by Cayuga Nation chief Deskaheh in 1924. Our preparations for the conference spanned the year from 1976 to 1977 with our Confederacy implementing several historic decisions: the adoption and use of our own passport; the appointing of a 24 person delegation to attend the conference; and the passage of three position papers for delivery to the conference. One of these papers was entitled, "The Obvious Fact Of Our Continuous Existence," in which we asserted the following:

Since the beginning of human time, the Haudenosaunee have occupied the distinct territories we call our homelands. That occupation has been both organized and continuous. We have long defined the borders of our country, have long maintained the exclusive use right of the areas within those boundaries, and have used those territories as the economic and cultural definitions of our nation.

The Haudenosaunee are a distinct people, with our own laws and customs, territories, political organization and economy. In short, the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations, fits in every way every definition of nationhood.”

There is no doubt that this is a nationalist stand.

The Indigenous rights struggle has gone through an extraordinary journey since 1977. Over the past while I’ve been bothered by what I see as a “split” in the movement without being able to get a handle on the nature and extent of that split until I read the Interim report of the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order - Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, submitted to the UN General Assembly on August 7, 2014.

In it I found several ideas and concepts that clarified things for me. The first is found in the statement: “…the “Kirby definition”,4 recognizing as a “people” a group of persons with a common historical tradition, racial or ethnic identity, cultural homogeneity, linguistic unity, religious or ideological affinity, territorial connection, or common economic life.5 To this should be added a subjective element: "the will to be identified as a people and the consciousness of being a people.” [emphasis added]

The key elements being “will” and “consciousness” both of which can be expressed in degrees of intensity. Less will and less consciousness will produce one set of results versus higher degrees of will and consciousness.

Next was his outlining of two paths of self-determination that a people could follow, one is the lesser path of “…the possibility of exercising various degrees of cultural, economic and political autonomy within a State entity,” while the other is the higher degree of “..the aspiration to independent statehood..”

As I see it at this current time, the movement is dominated by folks who are pursuing the lesser strategy of attempting to get greater degree of autonomy “within a State entity”. Their willingness to accept language that domesticates our rights within a State entity is extremely frustrating as can be seen in the September 2014 HLPM outcome document and now the statement made to the recent UN Business and Human Rights Forum.

I hold firm to the higher aspiration because these is the belief that I carry, “So it is with us humans. It is not a mistake or fluke of nature that we were pre-destined to be Lakota, or Cheyenne, or Seneca. This is what our spirit was when it was in the Spirit Realm. So when we were called forth to take our place and time on the Earth we journeyed to the specific people we were meant to be with...

All of this occurs within the specific cultural, spiritual and environmental reality we have inherited as a People and as a Nation. The only serious differences that exist between us as Peoples are based in the differing environmental, bio-regional parts of the Earth we have been endowed with.

For those peoples and nations who hold to the higher aspiration there is no choice but to distance and distinguish themselves from those of the lesser position. To try and achieve a consensus with them, or express some sort of unity with their positions consistently undermines the higher aspiration.

The good news, according to De Zayas, is: “Self-determination cannot be understood as a one-time choice, nor does it extinguish with lapse of time because, like the rights to life, freedom and identity, it is too fundamental to be waived.” This gives hope that the children and grandchildren of people who may not have achieved a greater degree of de-colonization today will in the future and carry the struggle forward.

Mike Myers is the president/C.E.O. of Network for Native Futures an Indigenous non-profit that works internationally. Mike is currently working with First Nations in Canada and Indigenous nations in the U.S. in the areas of nation rebuilding and developing sovereign economies.