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Mohawk: Indigenous peoples have a place on the world stage

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When the Spanish first arrived in the Caribbean over 500 years ago, the idea that indigenous peoples might possess rights and notions about what those rights might be was given scarce attention. The conquistadores approached many of the indigenous communities with a priest who read a document called the Requiremento, a demand that the people come forth with their bodies and souls and all their property and offer these to the service of the Spanish crown or the Spanish would attack. It was read in Latin as prelude to an orgy of rape, plunder, and genocide. It wasn't until the middle of the sixteenth century that a bishop, Bartolome de Las Casas, championed the idea of some rights of the Indians before the Council of the Indies. Although that body agreed with the principle that indigenous peoples should not be abused, the conquest continued unabated. With a few minor exceptions, the idea of the existence of indigenous peoples' rights remained submerged until the middle of the 20th century.

Beginning in the early 1950s, some indigenous peoples began urging that the international community recognize their inherent rights to continue to exist as distinct peoples. The idea was given a significant boost in 1977 when the non-governmental organizations of the United Nations organized a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the creation of indigenous rights under international law. The conference sought to create Principles of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere which, it was hoped, might lead to a Declaration of such rights for indigenous peoples around the world. In 1982, indigenous leaders and representatives were invited to Geneva to witness the development of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. The context of this development is important because until that time indigenous peoples were relegated to the most extreme margins of international affairs. The first time they appeared in Geneva, they were considered so exotic the city closed its schools so the children could witness their arrival.

This was an important step toward recognition as peoples whose issues matter and whose representatives are physically present at the meetings where decisions are made. Indigenous peoples had entered into treaties with European and Euro-American nation states, and in the 1920s some - most notably Deskaheh from the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois - had tried to approach the League of Nations, but the Working Group provided the first institutional setting within the United Nations in the modern era. Every summer since 1982 the Working Group has met to forge a Draft Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples and these meetings have been one of the UN's most well-attended activities with up to 1,000 people - business representatives, NGOs, government representatives, and indigenous representatives - attending the meetings.

In the beginning, the nation states were cautious and occasionally hostile to the idea of indigenous rights and to the movement representing it. In 1999 the Organization of American States (OAS) was essentially closed to indigenous peoples, but they were presented with a mandate from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and indigenous peoples insisted on a presence in those proceedings. This year, indigenous representatives attend the annual meetings of the 34 member states of the OAS and are greeted with dignity and their issues are extended respectful attention. Those who attend report an atmosphere of open exchange characterizes the meetings. This has meant that indigenous representatives have joined the culture of the community of world policy makers.

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Most of the fears of the states held that indigenous rights was a plot to dismantle these states, but that fear has largely evaporated and the idea that states must play a role in protecting the rights of distinct peoples to exist in possession of their lands and against invasion by forces bringing disease and destroying waters, wildlife and forests. In fact, many have now begun to incorporate the rhetoric of the rights of groups to a continued existence as distinct peoples and this movement has spread rapidly over the past fifteen years to include countries across the globe in Europe, Australia, the Pacific, Asia, and Africa.

A good example of the dramatic changes taking place is represented by Brazil. In the mid-1980s, indigenous peoples such as the Yanomami were threatened with extinction. Gold miners invaded their country and polluted the rivers with arsenic and 20 percent of their population was dying of malaria and other diseases. But in 1988 Brazil adopted a reform constitution which recognized indigenous rights. Today, most of the land is demarcated (reserved to its original owners) and tens of thousands of miners and loggers have been expelled from Yanomami country by the Brazilian government. Last year the Yanomami celebrated a milestone: there was not a single death from malaria in all of Yanomami country. Brazil no longer hosts or abides wholesale abuses of indigenous human rights.

The fact that so much change could take place over such a short period of time is rightfully seen as miraculous. In the mid-1990s, nation states strongly resisted the use of the term indigenous "peoples," preferring the word "populations" as conferring fewer rights to the indigenous and fewer obligations on the states. The idea was to relegate indigenous rights to a status similar to civil rights. London, England, has a "population" of individuals from India. Mexico is home to an array of indigenous groups who share a common language, history, and identity and who are, in every sense of the word, peoples. In 2001, in the United Nations conversation about indigenous peoples, the word "populations" was relegated to the dustbin of history when the Working Group overwhelmingly adopted the word "peoples."

The rapid evolution of growing recognition of indigenous rights has taken place since the Cold War. Today there are young Indian lawyers in Brazil, in Honduras, in Nicaragua, working on protecting indigenous peoples under principles which only a few short years ago were unimaginable. The OAS, the World Bank, the IMF and all international institutions are being challenged, and all now have policies to protect indigenous peoples. There is good news here, but of course everything is not perfect. The U.S. recently announced it would refuse to comply with an OAS decision in the case of the Dann family in the Shoshone country of Nevada, and U.S. deportment on indigenous rights has definitely been a mixed bag. Much needs to be done but there is also a good foundation for optimism.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.