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The U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Will Be Dominated by Doctrine of Discovery

A story about the upcoming UNPFII.

Indigenous delegates will come away from the 11th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) with a deeper understanding of the centuries-old ideology that continues to deprive them of full human rights, freedom and self-determination.

The Doctrine of Discovery, a 500-year-old Christian dogma that justified the genocide of millions of non-Christian peoples around the world—and continues to justify the expropriation of their lands and the domination of their societies—is the special theme for UNPFII this year. The forum will take place at the U.N. headquarters in New York City from May 7 to 18. Around 2,000 indigenous delegates from around the world are expected to attend the annual meeting.

The forum includes 16 independent experts, who serve up to two three-year terms. Half are nominated by governments, and the others by indigenous organizations in several regional groupings—Africa; Asia; Central and South America and the Caribbean; the Arctic; Central and Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia; North America; and the Pacific—that encompass the world’s 370 million Indigenous Peoples.

Two years ago, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga, the former North American Regional Representative to the forum, presented a paper called, “A Preliminary Study on the Doctrine of Discovery,” which explored the underlying reasons for the worldwide violation of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. The study found that the Doctrine of Discovery, which developed from 15th century papal bulls and the royal charters of European monarchs that gave European Christians the right to claim lands “discovered” by their explorers if no Christians lived on those lands. If the “pagan” inhabitants converted to Christianity, they might be allowed to live; otherwise they could be killed or enslaved. The doctrine eventually became embedded and institutionalized in law and policy internationally.

While the 2010 preliminary study explored the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery on colonized Indigenous Peoples around the world, it focused on the U.S., largely because the U.S. presents such a clear model of how the doctrine became the foundation of federal law that still affects the lives, lands and resources of Indigenous Peoples through congressional actions (and nonactions) and the legal system.

This year’s presentation will expand on that study. “It will be more international in scope,” said Gonnella Frichner, who fulfilled her term as North American Regional Representative to the forum last year. She is the president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council and an attorney.

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Gonnella Frichner was slated to addresses the forum on opening day, when she planned to highlight the main points of a “Conference Room Paper” on the Doctrine of Discovery, which will be distributed before the forum opens to the U.N. community of governments, U.N. agencies, intergovernmental agencies, NGOs and forum members. The idea is to bring all of the representatives up to date on the issue and provide them with material they will “hopefully” include in their own presentations or “interventions”—comments address to the presiding body during the forum, she said.

“We need continuity on the Doctrine of Discovery throughout this session,” she explained. “I know it’s on the agenda and there will be several experts speaking on it, but I’m not too sure how it will weave through the agenda, so the important work for indigenous delegates is to incorporate the Doctrine of Discovery throughout their statements.” That should be easy to do, Gonnella Frichner said. “For example, if a delegate is speaking about violence against indigenous women, they should note that there is a direct correspondence between the dominance and racism brought to our shores and a direct result of that is violence against indigenous women today. We have to keep that connection because it also applies to the environment, to climate change, to human rights. It goes across the board.”

The paper was produced by Gonnella Frichner’s American Indian Law Alliance, the Haudenosaunee and the Indigenous Law Institute. Chief Oren Lyons, Onondaga Nation Faith Keeper, and Steve Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, will attend the forum. Newcomb, the lead author of the paper, is co-founder and co-director with Birgil Kills Straight, Oglala Lakota Nation, of the Indigenous Law Institute.

The Conference Room Paper packs an extraordinary amount of historical references—many of them in the extensive footnotes—into 20 pages that document the domination and dehumanization of indigenous nations and peoples under the Doctrine of Discovery. Newcomb said that there’s a tendency for some people to focus on the positive connotations of the word “discovery” and in doing so they miss its eventual impact—domination and dehumanization—on the “discovered” Indigenous Peoples. “Discovery was simply the process of searching for places where the ‘discoverer’ can dominate and dehumanize the Indigenous Peoples and take their possessions and resources,” he said.

Newcomb, a kind of archeologist of language who excavates both the meaning and usage of words and how that determines ways of thinking and behaving, also shines a light on the tendency for international law to treat the idea of “conquest” as if it were legitimate. “In other words, you go ahead and conquer people and then you have the right to a type of conquering relationship with that people and that’s forever,” Newcomb said. “What we’re saying is, no, because domination never becomes legitimate, no matter how long it has gone on. When you have people who were originally free and independent of that domination, how in the world can you say they’ve forever lost their right to be free of that domination and dehumanization? That makes no sense.”

Most people aren’t trying to analyze the ongoing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery; they just try to deal with it on a day-to-day basis, Newcomb said. He said the Conference Room Paper is intended to provoke thought about the root causes of the many problems that continue to oppress originally free and independent nations and peoples, “but our concerns go far beyond a relatively narrow focus on those nations and peoples termed indigenous. Our compassionate concern is for Mother Earth and all living things,” he said.

During the forum, a number of side events will take place, including a panel discussion called “Working as Allies to Indigenous People: Lessons learned working to support the Onondaga Nation,” presented by Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), a group of non-Native volunteer activists, and the Doctrine of Discovery Study Group, which has a website on the Doctrine of Discovery. The panel will share their work on indigenous issues. Gonnella Frichner will moderate. Panelists include Lyons, Onondaga Chief Jake Edwards and Andy Mager, Syracuse Peace Council coordinator; Sue Eiholzer, marriage and family therapist and Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign volunteer; Philip Arnold, associate professor of indigenous religions at Syracuse University; and Mary MacDonald, professor of history of religions at Le Moyne College. The event will be held on May 16, 6:15 to 8:30 p.m. at the U.N. Church Center, which is across the street from the U.N. headquarters. The schedule of other events is posted on the UNPFII website.