Magicians are well aware of a key fact: What members of an audience focus upon determines what they miss. Misdirection is critical to the craft of magic. Magicians get the audience to focus on one thing while something entirely unnoticed is happening right before their very eyes. This is an apt metaphor for what has happened with regard to the Outcome Document of the UN High Level Plenary Meeting to be known as “the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.”
That Outcome Document was adopted by UN General Assembly on September 22, 2014. It was not a consensus document because the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus (NAIPC) officially withdrew from the Global Coordinating Group, called for the cancellation of the UN HLPM, and refused to participate in the drafting of a state-controlled, state-driven Outcome Document. An examination of the final version of the Outcome Document that has now been approved as a UN Resolution makes it evident that NAIPC’s concerns were well-founded.
The UN HLPM Outcome Document is premised upon a skilled misdirection. The text of the document directs attention away from a central fact: The subject matter of the document is peoples deemed to exist under the domination or dominance of states. How peoples called “indigenous,” through their exercise of self-determination, are to liberate themselves from the framework of state domination was not a focus of discussion during the UN High Level Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly.
Instead of providing an opportunity for a discussion of state domination over peoples called “indigenous,” everyone has been expected by state governments to accept the idea that peoples termed “Indigenous” are limited to “aspiring” to attain certain rights in the future, while continuing to exist under the domination of states. The UN Outcome Document was written on the basis of the assumption that peoples called “indigenous” will never exist free from state domination or dominance.
In the name of “implementing” the “ends” and supporting the “principles” of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, state governments have created and now adopted an Outcome Document which accepts at face value the underlying idea that states shall forever be dominant over nations and peoples termed “indigenous.”
As a result of skilled misdirection, the movement to the UN HLPM was a path of folly. Instead of questioning or challenging state dominance over our originally free nations and peoples, those who have been purporting to support the interests and views of Indigenous peoples have inadvertantly accepted state domination as a given. Without realizing it, they have been demanding “rights” under state domination.
Those Indigenous representatives have been misled on an errant and damaging path that led to the UN High Level Plenary Meeting which took place on September 22 and 23, 2014. They allowed their eyes and their attention to be diverted away from what the states have been doing to manipulate our Nations and Peoples through the sleight-of-hand and sleight-of-text maneuvers.
A well-established sleight-of-text technique involves symbolizing and constituting state domination by always spelling their identifiers with capital letters (e.g., “States,” “Governments” “Heads of State”) while spelling “indigenous peoples” with a lowercase “i” and “p.” This technique is used throughout the Outcome Document.
How can I be so certain about the presumption of state domination or dominance? My certainty is the result of focusing on the context of the word “Indigenous” as used in the United Nations, which I have written about previously. Take, for example, the 2009 UN report “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples,” published by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Social Policy and Development, and the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The authors of the report explain that the United Nations has never officially adopted a definition of Indigenous peoples.
However, the report authors then quote language from a couple of different sources to provide a framework or mental orientation so the reader will have some sense of what is meant by the word “indigenous” (the official UN spelling) in the United Nations. The report authors provide the following from International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, Article 1, b:
peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country. . .at the time of conquest or colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.
Then on page six of the report “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” the authors write:
The concept of indigenous peoples emerges from the colonial experience, whereby the aboriginal peoples of a given land were marginalized after being invaded by colonial powers, whose peoples are now dominant over the earlier occupants. . . .Domination and displacement have, of course, not been exclusively practiced by white settlers and colonialists.
Words and phrases in the above paragraph that contain the meaning of domination include: “colonial experience,” “aboriginal,” “marginalized,” “invaded,” “colonial powers,” “now dominant,” “Domination,” “displacement,” “white settlers,” and “colonialists.” And, if we were to continue with the next sentence which discusses the context of Asia and Africa we would add “dominant groups,” “suppressed,” and “marginalized.”
On page six of the “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” report we find further evidence of the use of misdirection. For example, the report authors do not say “aboriginal peoples” being “invaded by colonial powers” resulted in them being “dominated.” The authors say that the result was “aboriginal peoples” being “marginalized.”
The report authors use the word “marginalized” despite having acknowledged the existence of peoples that are “now dominant over the earlier occupants.” Given that acknowledgment, the authors ought to have written about “peoples now dominant over the dominated earlier occupants.”
That the UN report authors were aware of the context I am explaining is made evident by the first word of the sentence that appears two sentences later: “Domination.” That word and the above examples explicitly identify the context of the word “Indigenous.” It is also the context of the UN HLPM Outcome Document ostensibly adopted for the “implementation” of what we may accurately call the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Dominated Peoples called “indigenous.” It is this context which makes it nonsensical to call for “equality” between our Originally free Nations and states of domination. What does make sense is for our Nations to form an unwavering commitment to challenge and end the domination.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.