Many events are called historical but when the United Nations, after eight decades of exclusion and a quarter century of intense lobbying by indigenous peoples, inaugurates a Permanent Forum for the Indigenous or Native peoples of the world, perhaps we can say that history's door has opened just a bit.
It happened May 13 in New York City, at the United Nations headquarters. Nearly 1000 indigenous representatives from hundreds of Native nations throughout the world gathered to witness the opening of a recognition that will be permanent. And this is the operative principle: permanence. It says that indigenous peoples will not be disappearing; they will not be vanishing; they are here to stay.
This is a great thing; this is an historic occasion. Only one hundred years ago, at the end of the horrible century of "manifest destiny," a concept coined in the United States but claimed in various forms by the waves of European settlers that cascaded into indigenous territories worldwide, the Native peoples were expected to vanish. It was the reason for anthropology, to gather the knowledge of the cultures that would be soon forgotten or destroyed.
But it did not happen. The Native ways, cultures, family and tribal bonds persisted. There was resiliency in the fiber of Native peoples not contemplated by those who predicted extinction. With survival came regrouping, revitalizing, reclaiming the positive basis and potentials of tribal nation identity.
Native self-representation to global organizations started in 1923, when Cayuga Chief Deskaheh traveled to Switzerland in a campaign to gain an audience with the then-forming League of Nations. The bold chief was shunned away from the official proceedings by an international community still intent on colonizing a large portion of a world inhabited by so-called "small peoples." So Deskaheh turned directly to the populations of Europe, addressing concert halls full of people fascinated and, over time, decidedly sympathetic to the situation of Native peoples. His was the action that signaled the current movement, which exploded onto the world scene at an often-cited United Nations indigenous conference of 1977 and finally resulted in a fully permanent voice at the United Nations this week.
Beyond the romantic or even exotic expressions of Native cultures ? colorful photos of feather headdresses, traditional clothing, tribal insignia ? that the media seems to love and that has too often characterized the Native world, the issues brought forth by Deskaheh and presented this week in New York by representatives of more than 900 Native nations have always been about the most fundamental things.
In the 1920s, Deskaheh spoke of small nations of peoples with the right of jurisdiction over their lands and the right to self-government. In May of 2002, the international delegates of the world's Native peoples spoke of the right to collective ownership of land. They spoke as well about the economic value of their intellectual property, particularly of medicinal plants and other natural healing elements, wantonly stolen ? patented by foreign researchers ? that are the foundation for much of modern medicine.
These are extremely important issues, well worth consideration as the central concerns of all indigenous or Native peoples of the world, which number more than 5000 tribal nations and upwards of 300 million in population. The rights to an indigenous jurisdiction, to tribal self-government and to clearly recognized tribal collective land ownership, as well as cultural patrimony, are paramount understandings. They form the basis for cultural and economic survival and prosperity of both agricultural and subsistence villages in the southern and far-northern continents and of sovereignty-protected tribal enterprise initiatives for those nations situated in the temperate zones of the industrialized Western world.
Often still confused with "communism," and still sometimes perceived and projected as a threat to global market initiatives, communal land ownership by Native peoples is a cultural prescription predating both communism and capitalism for several millennia. Yet, even onto contemporary times, this is the reality and the dream of nearly every tribal nation in the world: self-government on its own land.
This truth has surfaced and become more known in the past decade. "Throughout the Americas, Natives Invoke the Law of the Land," declared a New York Times editorial essay back in August of 1998. Major projects to demarcate and better define and protect Native peoples' land bases, some financed by U.S. development initiatives, have emerged. Even international lending institutions, such as the World Bank, have been revamping their guidelines relative to tribal nations and upgrading their overall respect and accommodation for Native cultures and for traditional structures of government and landholding.
Nevertheless, the Native situation, globally, is tenuous and exceedingly difficult. While the global wagon train is overwhelmingly going the other way, toward unmitigated privatization of just about anything in the Natural World, Native peoples ? naturally ? are keeping alive the deep cultural impetus of holding on, legalizing and reacquiring their ancestral lands. This conundrum leads to great tension and confrontation.
Consider the Guatemala of today, a country with nearly half of its population comprising about six million indigenous Maya, mostly in thousands of Maya agricultural communities, many in disputed lands. The pressure to legalize and increase productive community lands is huge, leading increasingly to agitation to "invade" farms and take over plots. Some of the Maya communities and their ancestral lands were legally "given" over to powerful families in land grants over two centuries of horrible history. Nevertheless, this forceful approach is fraught with likely repression by state legal, police and military systems.
Another approach, also underway, is the creation of rotating funds to offer credit and to structure appropriate purchases by collective patrimony communities, which, in any case, are made up of remarkably productive, largely self-sufficient families. In the words of Maya culture and development specialist Roderico Teni, "what is needed is a mutual benefit, with credit initiatives that return lands to Indian collective communities, while fairly paying off the owners of the huge estates."
In the present New York meeting, hundreds of Native delegates crammed in a hall during the discussion on the patenting of Native-identified plant medicines and healing methods. There were many complaints against companies and researchers who profit from unethical gains at the expense of the most intimate and patrimonial knowledge of Native peoples.
The Permanent Forum comes out of a year 2000 meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council, one of the world body's six major organs, which agreed to create a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the recommendation of the Commission on Human Rights. Both the United States and Canada, which have active Indian populations, objected. This is a continuous source of shame for these leading Western democracies, which should be at the forefront of championing just treatment for all peoples of the world ? large and small.
Our heartfelt congratulations to Ole Henrik Magga of the Saami people living in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, who was elected chairman for the forum for its first year. Also congratulated on their elections by acclamation: Vice-Chairpersons, Antonia Jacanamijoy (Colombia); Njuma Ekundanayo (Democratic Republic of the Congo); Parshuram Tamang (Nepal); Mililani Trask (United States); and Willie Littlechild (Canada), as Rapporteur.
Resolutions demanding recognition for communal ownership of land and just remuneration for collective, traditional medicinal knowledge, now too freely exploited by drug companies, were the first order of business for the new Permanent Forum. Congratulations are extended to all delegates. These are issues worthy of an international movement.