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Pequots working diplomatic angles, invite UN group to Schemitzun 2002

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - A major United Nations children's conference could come to the Mashantucket Pequot reservation during the 2002 Schemitzun festival, if a local group succeeds in its lobbying and the U.S. State Department doesn't stand in the way.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has received a formal request to hold the 2002 International Children's Conference on the Environment at the reservation and make the focus the Native American spiritual tie to nature. The driving force is the New England Coalition for Justice and Community Understanding, a group with major funding from the Mashantucket Pequots.

U.N. officials have shown serious interest, said Joanne Tawfilis, coalition conference coordinator. UNEP officers have scheduled a visit to the Mashantucket Pequot reservation Nov. 15 in connection with a "mini-conference" of environmentalist youths from Ghana and the eastern United States.

A problem is getting the U.S. government onboard. U.N. conferences aren't popular with Congress, and the State Department opposed the results of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, which inspired the UNEP gatherings, Tawfilis said.

Advocates of the conference within the regional Environmental Protection Agency are trying to work out a way to get a letter of support from headquarters in spite of the obstacles, she said.

"We have to show that the national government will support this," Tawfilis said. "It shouldn't be a roadblock. It wouldn't be an easy one to get through, but it shouldn't be a total bar."

The conference would bring together 1,000 youths from 10 to 12 from all over the world. They would conduct workshops and take home an environmental agenda, she said.

As a bonus, the conference would convene during the opening ceremonies of the annual Schemitzun pow wow, already a spectacular gathering of dancers and singers from more than 500 tribal nations.

Tawfilis said the proceedings would be broadcast throughout the world through the teleconferencing service of the United Nations and the International Education Resource Network.

The effort is largely the brainchild of Tawfilis, said Tim Love, director of the Coalition for Justice. A former diplomatic level executive with UNEP, she attended the 2000 Millennium Conference on the Environment in May at Eastbourne, England, and jumped at the suggestion that the next one should go to North America.

As a fund-raiser for the coalition, she said she saw the Mashantucket Pequots as the natural hosts for a conference promoting "Native People's cultural and spiritual ties to the environment.

"My underlying passion is to show the rest of the world the vitality of Native American culture," she said. "Many countries typically have great empathy with what happened to the Native Americans."

Love said his organization gladly shifted its energies to promoting the UNEP conference. The coalition originally concentrated on local forums to bridge divisions between townspeople and the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, but tensions were so elevated by publication of the Jeff Benedict book attacking the Pequots the coalition decided to suspend the meetings.

The conference proposal already has support from a number of foundations and volunteer groups such as the American Red Cross, as well as town officials in southeastern Connecticut, the coalition officials said.

It would require a budget of between $1 million and $1.5 million to provide for the 1,000 youths and an estimated 400 escorts, 200 observers and 500 media representatives. Much of the cost would be paid by tuition, sponsorship and corporate partnerships, Tawfilis said.

Additional fund-raising is coming from the Native Peoples Art Mile, another project sponsored by Tawfilis, who owns the Kinder Artistas Gallery in Gales Ferry, Conn.

Her idea is to compile a mile-long mural of canvas paintings by children from American Indian tribes and other Indigenous peoples. It would seam and grommet together 440, 5-by-12-foot panels which would be displayed around the country in the build-up to the conference.

During the conference, she said this mural would join two other Children's Art Mile projects she has sponsored, the Multicultural/Diversity Mile and the Environmental Mile. The work would be submitted to the Guinness Book of World Records as "The Longest Children's Mural in the World."

Tawfilis and Love displayed one panel from the Native People's Mural to the USET directors, a scene of Indian maidens in traditional dress, done in the Plains style. It was drawn by children attending this year's Schemitzun, they said.