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International group makes progress

WASHINGTON - A working group of the Organization of American States met Nov. 10 - 12 in the first "negotiations in the quest for points of consensuses" on an American declaration of indigenous rights.

The OAS membership is comprised of 34 states in the western hemisphere. The primary ambassadors (as they are termed) represent national governments. From its modern inception in 1948, the organization took on the character of a "closed club, doing the work of the Cold War ? keeping a lid on trouble," according to Steven Tullberg, an attorney who directs the Washington office of the Indian Law Resource Center.

But in 1977 in Geneva, the United Nations hosted a meeting of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that adopted a declaration of indigenous rights by consensus. By elevating the assertion of indigenous rights to perhaps the world's foremost international forum, that declaration "laid down the marker" for ongoing formal intergovernmental discussions on the subject, Tullberg related.

The nerve center of Native advocacy within OAS is an indigenous caucus group that met in Washington on Nov. 9. The caucus has made steady progress toward elevating indigenous issues within the OAS, Tullberg said. "For the first time in 500 years, there is a mutual, dignified, respectful dialogue" between national and indigenous representatives.

An American declaration of indigenous rights has been under intense discussion for several years. That process has produced a "consolidated text" draft declaration issued by the chairman of the OAS working group, Ambassador Eduardo Ferrero Costa of Peru. The document takes as its starting point two previous declarations, one by the UN from 1994 and one by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights from 1997. It also incorporates national opinion and indigenous perspective as they have evolved since.

The Nov. 10 - 12 meetings represented a new phase of negotiation between the indigenous caucus and the OAS ambassadors - "the sharp-pencil phase of declaration drafting," as Tullberg described it.

In opening the three-day session, Costa emphasized the historic occasion, the atmosphere of "mutual confidence" between ambassadors and indigenous observers and the "new stage in our quest for consensus." He made it a goal to "demystify the differences," reduce them to actionable positions within a revised consolidated text, and proceed upon the "areas of agreement" while bracketing non-consensus clauses for future consideration.

The emphasis on actionable positions, or "concrete" proposals as Costa termed them, must have been welcome to the U.S. delegation. Through its OAS ambassadors, the United States has consistently tried to limit the "aspirational language" of rights within a declaration it can approve. But within the first hour of the session, Native aspirations to nationhood were on the table.

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A discussion had gotten under way on the issue of Native definition within the consolidated text, with a U.S. delegate noting that the U.S. has an official process in place for the federal definition of Native tribes. Douglas Anderson, a representative of the Haudenosaunee Ska-Roh-Reh or traditional government of the Haudenosaunee, took the floor. At the indigenous caucus the previous day, Anderson had made it clear the issue of definition was a live one for him; Haudenosaunee traditional governance is not recognized by the United States government, and is not universally accepted within the historical nations of the confederacy. Now Anderson demanded rather boomingly, "Tell me, where is our chair?" - that is, a chair at the ambassadorial table as a recognized sovereign nation. In the context, Anderson was implying a right to recognized traditional nationhood. He further questioned how a declaration of indigenous rights could go forward without indigenous participation.

Costa tried to keep the focus on Article I of the consolidated text and on national representatives. An attorney for Native American Rights Fund, Kim Gottschalk, almost did not get to take the floor, as he and NARF are not official observers; but Costa eventually permitted him, as a representative of the National Congress of American Indians, to comment on the U.S federal recognition process. "It is hopelessly backlogged ? it can take 15 years, and it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The U.S. delegate replied to Costa that more than 500 tribes are federally recognized. Costa didn't pause to explore the issue here, obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to Indian country over the past decade or so: the vast majority of federally recognized tribes have not had to go through the process Gottschalk referenced. In fact, within recent memory more than 200 Alaska Native villages received federal recognition in one fell swoop.

That exchange on Native definition may provide some idea of the difficulties OAS and the indigenous caucus will have to negotiate before an American declaration of indigenous rights can be issued. All the same, a low-keyed optimism seemed to reign at the session, with many national ambassadors expressing approval of suggestions from the indigenous caucus. While no content of the declaration can be considered certain, the caucus did appear to win approval for use of the terms indigenous peoples as opposed to indigenous people - in international law, this is tantamount to the distinction between communities with longstanding land tenure and a group of casual friends who get together each week for a beach party.

Outside the majestic OAS building in D.C. and beyond U.S. borders, the indigenous movement continued to stir ferment in the Americas. Referring to indigenous political campaigns that have turned out elected governments in Bolivia in 2000 and Ecuador in October, renowned Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa made international headlines Nov. 12 when he criticized indigenous movements for generating "political and social disorder." A barrage of responses from indigenous communities dismissed the remarks as colonialist, out of touch with the region and behind the times internationally.

Days before, Tullberg had mentioned developments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru as part of the "ferment" stirring among the approximately 40 million indigenous citizens of the Americas - and in part at least driving the current OAS negotiations.

The OAS negotiations on points of consensus will continue next year. More information, as well as the draft consolidated text of the American declaration on indigenous rights (and an updated text based on the Nov. 10-12 negotiations when it is ready), can be obtained on the OAS web site at Click on the welcome link in your language, then go to "OAS issues" at top of the following page. Click the arrow to access the drop-down menu, and activate the Indigenous Peoples selection.

Additional information can be obtained from the American Indian Law Alliance at (212) 477-9100. Ask for Stefan Disko.