Septembers to remember for indigenous peoples


Sept. 13, 2007, will stand as a day of victory for indigenous peoples worldwide. On that day, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to finally adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The landmark declaration, adopted by a vote of 143 in favor to 4 against, was the culmination of many decades of negotiation and conflict over recognition of Native individual and collective rights. The declaration provides for the strengthening of cultural identities, protection of Native lands and resources, and emphasizes the indigenous right of self-determination.

Although the occasion is to be celebrated as a moral victory, it is disheartening that the United States and Canada, states at the center of the indigenous political movement in the Western Hemisphere, were among the few dissenters. Nonetheless, it is a tremendous blessing and reward for decades of work by Indian activists who constantly pushed forward a movement for recognition and visibility of hundreds of millions of indigenous worldwide. Indigenous peoples are no longer politically invisible to the international community.

The profound wisdom behind the document grew from a wave of international political movement by Indian activists, at significant times flooding the halls of the United Nations. It began with Cayuga Chief Deskaheh's September 1923 journey to Geneva to voice complaints to the League of Nations about the treatment and occupancy of Native lands in Canada. His appearance was first refused, but Deskaheh gained the support of other nations and eventually was given access to the international forum. Following his steps, many world indigenous delegations gathered in Geneva as one body in September 1977 with the same purpose in mind, to rally against the relentless oppression of their lands and cultures at the hands of colonizers. Of chief importance was conveying to the world's nations that indigenous peoples were human beings with the right to self-determination and not merely wild creatures on an empty landscape.

In his recollection of the road to Geneva, Oren Lyons, Onondaga faithkeeper and Haudenosaunee delegate in 1977, in the preamble to the 2005 edition of ''A Basic Call to Consciousness,'' detailed the common plight of indigenous peoples. The Christian ''doctrine of discovery'' designated indigenous peoples ''as part of the flora and fauna and granted only the right of occupancy in our own lands. Because of this great conspiracy, indigenous peoples have not been considered equals in the world of humanity.''

Much reaction to the declaration's adoption has focused on the failure of the United States and Canada to vote in favor of setting minimum standards for the survival and well-being of indigenous peoples. It should register as an utter embarrassment for those governments. They are both so deeply involved in Indian land claims and still insist they ''honor'' Indian nations by respecting their sovereign right to self-government, while continually putting forth policies that strip lands and resources from Indian peoples. We are often reminded that American Indians are at the mercy of Congress. Americans who believe in principles of democracy should be outraged that the peoples indigenous to this land must seek legal protections from international law based on human rights separate from the somewhat arbitrary statutes enacted by the United States.

In ''Basic Call,'' Lyons asked, ''After all, we are peoples, are we not?'' Yes, he wrote, ''in the full international sense of the word.'' And, most significant in the hearts of the millions of indigenous for whom this declaration begins a new era of recognition, we are and have always been peoples ''in the eyes of the Creator.''

As peoples celebrating this highest of moral victories, we acknowledge the blessings that helped brings us to this important moment: the love of our ancestors who fought for the well-being of the seventh generation, the gifts from the Natural World, and the determination of all our indigenous relations to survive. Indigenous peoples have reached a hard-won milestone; the work now must focus on realizing effective implementation for our acknowledged rights.