NEW YORK - At the recent United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, North American representative Tonya Gonnella Frichner called on American Indians to begin using the landmark declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples in their everyday interactions.
''We have an obligation to read the declaration,'' she said on the last day of the two-week forum. ''We can begin to use it in our communities right now.''
The declaration, which affirms that ''indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples,'' was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly after a 30-year effort last September. Concern ran high among the more than 3,700 registered participants about how to keep momentum after the successful vote and how to implement the declaration more fully. But Frichner, who has been involved in the U.N. for the same long years it took to pass the declaration, is encouraged.
''The declaration has hit a government nerve here at the U.N.,'' said Frichner, an Onondaga lawyer and New York City-based indigenous rights activist.
In the eight months since the declaration was approved, the Supreme Court of Belize has referred to it in its decisions and Bolivia has included it in its constitution. The states of Arizona and Maine have passed measures of support for the declaration, as has the city of Phoenix. The Canadian Parliament also voted its support for the declaration, though Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to sign it. Still, this movement, along with Australia's recent apology to its Aboriginal people, gives Frichner hope.
''It's just a matter of time before New Zealand, Australia and Canada approve it,'' she said. ''The U.S., I wouldn't speculate. My recommendation is to do it one state at a time.''
The permanent forum was dominated by the testimony of indigenous peoples and leaders from around the globe. The stories told focused on the effects of global warming, food supplies and how climate change is hastened by corporate and government actions. The experiences of the leaders mirrored each other, and many also spoke of threats to culture and language.
Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, reminded participants that the declaration is a statement by the U.N. member nations, not indigenous peoples. Yet, he said, ''We've been able to balance their enormous power with our agility. Also, we have a high moral voice.''
Delegates, using U.N. jargon, called on governments to provide ''free, prior, informed consent'' to developments that pollute or conduct natural resource extraction, something that rarely happens in most of the world.
What that right means in practical terms may take time to sort out, said James Anaya, the incoming Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples. The University of Arizona law professor and new special rapporteur, Apache/Purepecha, spent the session listening, in both English and Spanish, to indigenous groups tell him about problems facing their communities.
Some talked about government harassment, while others spoke about climate change, an issue that indigenous leaders see as a human rights abuse. According to Anaya, indigenous communities, which have brought complaints against governments or corporations to international human rights organizations, have not convinced these organizations of the connection.
''There is a difficulty with assignment of responsibility,'' Anaya said.
Human rights organizations traditionally want to assign a single actor, such as Hitler or the Nazis in World War II, as being responsible. In a sense, everyone is responsible for climate change, yet many indigenous communities point to policies and practices that have led to environmental degradation and climate change.
''These human rights battles are today based on subsistence, survival of cultural patterns they depend upon, right over lands and tremendous, numerous social ills,'' he said.
During his three-year term, Anaya's predecessor, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, made 200 reports about the concerns of indigenous communities to national governments. Many of these reports received no response, he said. Many other governments responded that they had received reports. A few, he said, investigated further for themselves and sent findings to the U.N.
But Frichner said all the reports, whatever the response, are building the international record about indigenous communities. The records, like the record built about human rights abuses before and after the U.N.'s 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, shape the world's growing understanding of the rights of indigenous peoples.
Regional caucuses, including the North American caucus, which covers the U.S. and Canada, strategized and built alliances during the forum.
''We've only got two countries,'' said North American chairman Andrea Carmen, Yaqui and executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council. ''But they're kind of bad countries.''
The caucuses are a ''developmental step, a development of better mechanisms to become more than an advisory group,'' Lyons said. ''We are starting some organizing steps toward becoming part of the decision-making process.''
The caucuses, however new, were effective in organizing a challenge to the World Bank's proposal about carbon trading, a practice of allowing corporations to pollute in one continent in exchange for restoring the environment in another continent. Leaders speaking to World Bank representatives in a side meeting said the practice pitted indigenous nations against each other and failed to deal with the root causes of climate change.
Despite the boldness of indigenous people, some risking harassment for participating in the forum when they returned home, the U.N. process is tremendously slow. Most will return to the same problems that were there when they left.
Doug Anderson, of the Tuscarora Nation in New York, brought his concern to the U.N., having been able to get a hearing with the U.S. system. Like his relative before him who sought international intervention, Anderson believes this is a fairer process, one that in time will bring results.
''If you come here in need of immediate gratification,'' he said, ''then you may as well not come.''