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Looking Ahead to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

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In a little more than three months, thousands of Indigenous Peoples from across the world will converge on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Since 2002, the UNPFII has been the gathering place to advance the greater indigenous movement that’s spanned a 67-year legacy.

Inspired by a then-nascent human rights movement following the end of World War II, the indigenous crusade endured a long and steady climb, often times, in the face of great doubt. Even the earliest protests to pay heed to first peoples were ignored when in 1923, Cayuga Chief Deskaheh of the Iroquois Confederacy travelled to Geneva to plead for the cause of his people before the League of Nations. He would wait for an entire year before returning home, unheard.

Today, the estimated 370 million Indigenous Peoples representing approximately 90 countries are no longer a faceless, voiceless minority—rather, in the course of more than half a century, they have proved to international leaders and heads of state that the situation facing many indigenous men, women and children is of critical importance in the arena of human rights.

Earlier this month at the United Nations, an Expert Group Meeting of the UNPFII was held to confront mounting concern on violence against indigenous women. The magnitude of this problem involves places like Bangladesh where recent reports suggest sexual violence and even death are becoming chronic threats for the Jumma women living within the Chittihong Hill Tracts (CHT). There, an estimated 16 rapes occurred in 2011—five of them resulting in death. Four other Jumma women mysteriously went missing, according to a human rights report released in early January by the Oxfam-supported, Kapaeeng Foundation.

Meanwhile, a 2010 report conducted by the Native Women’s Association of Canada showed an estimated 580 Aboriginal women have disappeared or were murdered since the study began in 2005. Statistically, it puts First Nations women at 3.5 times greater risk to fall victim to violence than other women, and five times more likely to be killed.

A Canadian Member of Parliament, Rod Bruinooge, attended the three-day gathering at the U.N. in New York for the meeting and told the Vancouver Sun that there’s a “need to empower indigenous women.” A recent bill that passed the Senate and now heads to the House of Commons aims to do just that. The measure, in short, addresses the division of property of divorced First Nations couples. It seems today, under the Indian Act, First Nations women have no rights when it comes to dividing property between two formerly married spouses—things like cars, homes, and other assets. The bill passed the Senate just before the Christmas holiday and is soon to head to the House of Commons for review. It will be the fourth time the measure will be considered.

The laws are stacked against the Indigenous Peoples in most if not all of the countries they represent. Women aren’t the only ones confronted with government inequality. There are a host of major issues facing the world’s first people, including environmental concerns, dying languages, and mounting poverty.

This year’s theme for the 11th Session of the UNPFII is aptly titled, “The Doctrine of Discovery.” It’s fitting, because even in the 21st century, many of the laws that indigenous people live by are laws that were written under the auspices of Manifest Destiny; a code that seemingly gave moral legitimacy and legal standing in the conquest of indigenous cultures, all in the name of God.

This year’s UNPFII will be held May 7-18 in New York, New York, with hope to possibly deconstruct this “Doctorine of Discovery,” an outdated narrative, just as Steven Newcomb, an Indian Country Today Media Network columnist, has demonstrated in his provocative book, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum Publishing. 2008.)