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Newcomb: Arrival of traditional canoes opens indigenous treaty meeting

On a bright, sunny July 30, 71 traditional handmade canoes arrived at the beautiful bay shore of the Lummi Nation. Hundreds of people representing indigenous nations of the Pacific Rim paddled the ocean for weeks during the ''Paddle to Lummi.'' Thousands on shore welcomed the paddlers, and the traditional protocols of greeting went late into night.

Just before coming ashore, the canoes floated side by side on the water, the paddlers looking at the huge crowd. The sight was an amazing consolidation of art, color, energy and stamina. It was a powerful metaphor for decolonization by revitalizing our respective indigenous languages, cultures and spiritual traditions.

The Paddle to Lummi served as an auspicious prelude to a historic treaty gathering. For three days, indigenous leaders and representatives gathered for a meeting of an international League of Indigenous Nations.

The treaty text was drafted over a period of three years by the National Congress of American Indians' Special Committee on Indigenous Nations Relationships, the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, the Ngati Awa Tribe of Australia and the Maori Mataatua Assembly from Aotearoa. At the Lummi gathering, indigenous representatives went through the draft in detail and adjusted it to the approval of all nations in attendance.

Leaders of 11 indigenous nations signed the final version of the treaty. The signators are Lummi, Sucker Creek Cree First Nation 150 A, Te Runanga O Ngati Awa (New Zealand), Ngarrinderi Nation, Douglas Village of the Tlinget Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Akiak Native Community, We Wai Kai Nation, Makah Tribe, Songhees Nation and Hoh Indian Tribe. Other indigenous leaders and representatives took the treaty text home so their respective nations could review it and decide whether to sign at a subsequent gathering.

The other nonsignatory delegates signed a witness document verifying the adoption of the treaty and their intention to carry the treaty to their governing bodies. Most everyone in attendance also signed a separate ''witness'' document.

According to Waganakising Odawa Chairman Frank Ettawageshik, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, who facilitated the signing ceremony, there will ultimately be many more nations that will decide to sign and ratify the treaty at a formal meeting to be held later this year.

What does the treaty mean? It is a powerful affirmation of indigenous nationhood independently of the political or legal system of any colonial nation-state, including the United States.

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The treaty is a collective strategic move by indigenous nations to deal with numerous challenges, among them the dire ecological impacts from global climate change and ecocide, current damage and further threats to indigenous lands by non-indigenous governments (in partnership with transnational and multinational corporations), and attempts by the United States to evade and undercut its obligations to Indian nations in such critical areas as health care.

Another difficulty indigenous nations currently face is the effort by the CANZUS states (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States) to weaken the language of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to block its passage in the U.N. General Assembly.

The League of Indigenous Nations treaty provides an international indigenous framework for those that signed, and for additional nations that may sign in the future, some of whose traditional lands are bisected by the international boundaries between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Canada. The treaty also provides a framework and a foundation for the development of economic trade relations between indigenous nations across international boundaries, though the specific means for achieving such trade ties have yet to be developed.

The League of Indigenous Nations treaty is a unification of indigenous nations as friends, on the basis of indigenous laws and values, common understandings, and shared interests and possibilities. The treaty is directed toward the mutual health and well-being of all indigenous nations and peoples. It is a call to action.

The treaty holds out the promise of indigenous peoples moving forward together with a collective voice to accomplish our goals by exercising our capacity for self-determination, politically, economically and socially. It declares indigenous nations have fundamental human rights that deserve to be acknowledged by the world community.

The treaty is a making of new allies, as well as a renewal and reaffirmation of existing alliances. It is an acknowledgment by indigenous nations of each other as extended family and relatives. It reaffirms that we are all related in the circle of life as the original free nations of our respective territories on Mother Earth. Timed to coincide, the League of Indigenous Nations treaty gathering and the Paddle to Lummi event strengthened these meaningful connections, thereby sending a powerful message of indigenous revitalization, liberation and healing.

Former Lummi Nation Chairman Darrell Hillaire recently summed up his sense of the treaty's meaning: ''There needs to be a call for our people to move closer to our indigenous beliefs. This can only happen if we live a more natural life. As a traditional protocol, we ought to live by natural law; no preservatives, no technology for a while, just our beautiful minds and hearts. As we grow the alliance, let's practice who we are rather than the standard conference setting.''

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the indigenous law research coordinator at the Sycuan Education Department on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, a co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.