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International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples Observes Media-Makers; Explores Next Steps for Media Empowerment

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NEW YORK— Amidst throngs of summer tourists posing for photos and gazing at sculptures and paintings inside the United Nations headquarters, distinguished visitors, journalists and indigenous advocates arrived in a room reserved strictly for an event recognizing the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Since 1995, when the U.N. General Assembly first proclaimed this day of observance, indigenous rights advocates have used it as a way to advance the slow and steady movement that emerged in the twilight of the second World War. Indeed, it was 18 years ago on August 9th when the then-nascent Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) held its first meeting in Geneva. Today, that date is commemorated in honor of the estimated 370 million Indigenous Peoples living in roughly 70 countries around the world.

Today, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has replaced the WGIP in becoming the central advisory body on indigenous affairs. In 2007, the UNPFII successfully petitioned the U.N. General Assembly in adopting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the foremost instrument for Natives, First Nations and Aboriginals everywhere in protecting the unique culture and traditions tied to their indigenous lands and histories.

In opening remarks of August 9’s talks, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renewed a pledge of support to the UNPFII and the implementation of the UNDRIP. In honor of this year’s theme, ‘Indigenous Media, Empowering Indigenous Voices,’ the aim was intended to highlight the vital role films, blogs, social media and more play in mobilizing the ideals of the ongoing movement. Secretary General also called on Member States and the elite press to recognize the need to promote indigenous stories.

“Indigenous voices are recounting compelling stories of how they are combating centuries of injustice and discrimination, and advocating for the resources and rights that will preserve their cultures, languages, spirituality and traditions,” Ban Ki-moon said. “They offer an alternative perspective on development models that exclude the indigenous experience.”

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Following Ban Ki-moon’s opening remarks, a 4-person panel shared their views about the future of the indigenous media model. Panelists also explored best approaches to implement the declaration through various modes of broadcast. Among key issues addressed was the lack of funding many independent media-makers face in the pursuit to create and distribute original content. In another instance, a diplomat from Australia raised the issue of a lack of digital access in the country’s rural Aboriginal communities.

As is the often-unfortunate situation in dealing with indigenous affairs, the chronic lack of data poses a major hurdle in tackling these issues. Without key information on indigenous participation in the media, it’s created an unintended disconnect in a movement empowered by one unifying cause.

One panelist, J. Kahaulani Kauanui of the radio show, Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond, says in a perfect world, there would be a global database made up of Indigenous storytellers of every bilk. Think, guerilla filmmaker, community radio activist, world-traveling journalist.

Currently, the Native Hawaiian is taking a six-month hiatus from her show that she produces and hosts all on her own. An associate professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University, she says with a little collaboration, perhaps it could have remained on the air. According to her website, Kauanui isn’t expected to return to regular programming until sometime in early 2013.

We can only hope the UNPFII takes cues from this meeting in plotting its next steps to advance its media agenda. It’s time more people, both indigenous and non-indigenous, knew about the Republic of Komi and how it revitalized their language on Facebook; or the success story of Ecuador’s one and only indigenous TV station. Until then, the mantra for Kahaulani will be to keep sharing her indigenous perspective using what resources she has. “We can’t on the U.N. or any state to do it,” she said. “We just have to plug in wherever we can.”