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Let’s Stay Focused on Self-Determination for Our Nations

In Rudy Ryser’s recent article, “Governing and Demagogues,” (ICTMN, 11/10/14), Glenn Morris (Shawnee) and I are the ones being termed “demagogues.” Ryser, Executive Director for the Center for World Indigenous Studies, used that pejorative to challenge two articles, one by Morris, and one by me, in which we have questioned the recent UN High level plenary meeting and its outcome document.

Safire’s New Political Dictionary (1993), defines a “demagogue” as “one who appeals to greed, fear, and hatred; a spellbinding orator, careless with the facts and a danger to rational decision.” He calls it “one of the most enduring, slashing attack words of politics.”

It is notable that Ryser failed to quote us even once to support his charge against us. It would be easy to respond in kind to Ryser’s incendiary political attack. However, I will respond with a quote from John Mohawk, found in the book A Basic Call to Consciousness (Akwesasne Notes, 1978): “In our ways, spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics.”

John Mohawk was from that generation of Indian intellectuals who believed in the right of our nations to full self-determination. Those men and women, traditional elders and spiritual leaders, intellectuals and activists who wrote and issued the Declaration of Continuing Independence in 1974, and traveled to Geneva, Switzerland in 1977 practiced a spiritually and ceremonially based vision of liberation for our nations when they entered the international arena. They championed complete self-determination for our nations and peoples, not merely the narrow, “domestic” U.S. policy of self-determination that President Nixon first issued and signed in 1970. If that domestic U.S. policy framework had been sufficient, they would have had no reason to move into the international arena seven years later in an effort to gain corrective leverage to use against injustices by the United States, Canada and other settler states.

Morris and I came of age during those years of the international work, and Morris was actively involved in the development of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our models have been the likes of Mohawk, Vine Deloria, Jr., Russell Means, Frank Fools Crow, Birgil Kills Straight, Janet McCloud and Phillip Deer.

Morris, along with Sharon Venne and Moana Jackson, was instrumental in ensuring that the current Article 3, the Article on self-determination, became a cornerstone in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They stood their ground, insisting that indigenous peoples deserve the same rights as all other peoples and nations under foreign and colonial domination. Despite people, including many Indigenous individuals, telling them that they were crazy for even trying to put that language forward, they succeeded in keeping Article 3 in tact.

Morris and I are working today, as we have throughout our adult lives, to maintain the original vision for those who first went to the United Nations. We are advocating for the maximum expression of self-determination and liberation for original nations and peoples, which are now commonly termed “indigenous.” We insist that countries such as the United States, and Canada, and others end their domination-subjection framework against our nations and peoples; we have thoroughly documented domination-subjection to be integral to U.S. and international law against indigenous peoples.

We have not been shy about critiquing Indian organizations and elected Indian leaders for now advocating positions that would, in the name of “pragmatism” and “accommodation,” internationalize the “domestic” U.S. federal Indian law and policy system, and thereby deprive us of the international standard from which to challenge the domination-subjection system called U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

We have illustrated that the state-produced UN outcome document of the United Nations high level plenary meeting does not, in our view, deliver any of the illusory benefits that its supporters are asserting. Morris has emphasized how dangerous it is that Ambassador Hungbo Wu, a Chinese diplomat, has been appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations as the point person for the implementation of the UN high level plenary meeting outcome document in the name of implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is particularly true given the new Canada-China trade deal that allows secret Canadian tribunals to protect China’s ability to profit from the theft of resources in the territories of original Nations.

Ryser’s inaccurate comments about the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC) gathering of February 28 through March 2, 2013 must also be addressed. Those of us who have been attending the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues since it was created in the early 2000s, and who have worked diligently to document state interpretations of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international documents, were cautious about the UN high level plenary meeting. Those concerns were heightened when the document for mapping out the event, called “the modalities resolution,” was being developed by state governments.

Debra Harry (Numu) tirelessly and selflessly tracked the state governments’ intentions with regard to issues such as self-determination in the creation of the modalities resolution. She called attention to the fact that the state governments had taken the right of self-determination off the table for the development of the outcome document. This is a dangerous development which never changed, as anyone who has read the actual outcome document from September 22, 2014, can plainly see.

Some representatives of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and a number of elected Indian leaders attended the UN high-level preparatory meeting at the NAIPC gathering on February 28, 2013. They apparently expected that the NAIPC meeting, including the portion dedicated to the UN high level plenary, would be conducted using Robert’s Rules of Order, because evidently that is their standard way of conducting meetings. When the NAIPC gathering at Sycuan did not alter its usual consensus style of discussing the agenda and declined to switch over to the colonial Robert’s Rules of Order, a number of elected Indian leaders unfortunately construed this as a personal affront and a great show of disrespect.

A western manner of conducting meetings locked horns with a traditional consensus meeting-style of decision-making, or vice versa. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Will Micklin, Vice-President of the Tlingit-Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, later wrote that the NAIPC meeting didn’t demonstrate even the most “primitive” form of democracy. Evidently, in Micklin’s judgment, NAIPC hadn’t evolved to a “civilized” and “western” standard of conducting a meeting about the future of indigenous peoples and nations.

Some of the elected Indian government officials were apparently oblivious to the style of communication that had been used when the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC) was established in 2001, as one of seven global regions within the structure of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN. For this reason, it is not the “so-called” North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus, as Ryser characterized it. The caucus is actually named that within the United Nations system and ECOSOC.

The NCAI, Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), and some elected Indian leaders who attended the 2013 NAIPC gathering came with a predetermined outcome in mind. They had already decided that it was advantageous to attend what they insisted on calling “the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.” They had no interest in a discussion about whether it was actually a “world conference,” or if it made sense to participate in that event, and if so, why? They demonstrated little background, caution, or interest in a discussion about whether it was actually a “world conference,” or if it made sense to participate, and made no effort to weigh the possible positives and negatives regarding the UN high level plenary meeting.

Unfortunately, Ryser’s recent column demonstrates his refusal to accept the foresight of NAIPC’s warning about proceeding cautiously in the high stakes game of the international arena of states with regard to the UN high level plenary meeting and its outcome document. His column also demonstrates how far astray things have moved from that original spiritual vision of independence of those who traveled into the international arena, back in the day, beginning with Deskaheh at the League of Nations in the 1920’s, and during the 1970s when Vine Deloria, Jr., published Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: A Declaration of Indian Independence (1974).

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.