The Alta Outcome Document and the Issue of Interpretation

In September 2014, a United Nations High Level Plenary Meeting (UN-HLPM) “to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples” (WCIP) will take place at the UN Headquarters of New York. A preparatory meeting for that High Level Plenary-“World Conference” just took place from June 10-12 in the land of the Sami, in Alta, Norway.

The publicized goal of the Alta gathering was an Outcome Document (it is not a declaration), which some are now characterizing a “consensus” document. However, the issue of interpretation makes any claim of consensus relative to that document highly questionable. Are we to believe that all seven Indigenous Peoples’ regions of the world, as defined by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, have reached a consensus on the interpretation of the outcome document? Given the differences between the seven regions of the world, interpretive consensus does not exist.

The most that can be said at this point is that the Alta Gathering did produce an outcome document, and we have been told that the Alta document will be used by an Indigenous co-facilitator (assuming one is chosen by the President of the UN General Assembly) as a reference point for the HLPM-WCIP outcome document that will be “negotiated with states” So, the question arises: What is it that the Indigenous co-facilitator will “negotiate” with states? Negotiation often involves giving up certain things in the name of compromise. Since we are told the “negotiations” will be about implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, what concession is or compromising positions are possibly going to be taken by the Indigenous co-facilitator, assuming one is appointed?

Such questions once again bring us back to the issue of interpretation. Why would we give one person out of thousands of distinct nations and peoples (or one person out of an estimated 370 million or more Indigenous people) the responsibility of negotiating with states on anything, let alone our inherent and fundamental rights which are non-negotiable? Or, for that matter, why would we allow such a scenario to play out regarding the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Are we able to guarantee that the one person selected, and approved by states, will only put forward the liberating interpretations that are acceptable to the North American Caucus and reject all other interpretations? It is highly unlikely. Thus it makes sense to question the sensibility of the entire scenario being presented to us regarding the state-controlled “outcome document” that will be produced by states for the 2014 HLPM-WCIP.

We have to keep our wits about us by staying on top of every detail, and not see the repeat of an historical pattern. It does not make sense, to select of one person “negotiate” on behalf of 370 million people. To do so would be the height of folly, no matter how many qualifications that person might possess.

The North American Caucus delegation arrived at the Alta gathering with a ceremonially bundled document developed at the NAIPC meeting at the Sycuan Resort in the Kumeyaay Territory. It states that the Caucus will attend the Alta gathering on an exploratory basis to see “where this can go,” “this” referring the entire High Level Plenary of the UN General Assembly to be known as “the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.”

Additionally, the North American Caucus delegation attended the Alta gathering based on our original free existence to protect and advance the right of self-determination in international law, as well as on the basis of those international treaties that provide the potential means of liberating our nations and peoples. We have not wavered from that position.

Let’s imagine a worst-case scenario. Let’s suppose that the Indigenous co-facilitator were to decide to agree with the negotiators for the states regarding a strange interpretation of the UN Declaration. In a March 29 speech in Orono, Maine, Pawnee attorney Walter Echohawk said that implementing the Declaration “will afford an answer to the perplexing political problem about what is the best way to incorporate Indians into our mainstream culture.” (emphasis added) The “mainstream” society of the United States is Echohawk’s frame of reference for the phrase “our mainstream culture,” which he has elsewhere called “the body politic.”

What if, in the course of “negotiations,” the Indigenous co-facilitator were to reach an agreement with international state governments that such a path of political assimilation or “incorporation” is a central purpose of the UN Declaration? How would we recover from that interpretation? Such an outcome would, of course, contradict the fundamental reason why Indian nations went to the United Nations in the 1970s, and the reason for working toward a UN Declaration, which was to challenge the systems of dominance being used against our rightfully free nations and peoples.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.