'To Serve Indigenous Peoples'

For those of us who grew up watching Rod Serling’s classic science fiction series, The Twilight Zone, there was a memorable 1962 episode, “To Serve Man.”

Ironic in light of this column, the United Nations headquarters building in New York is shown early in the episode, and at 5:39 minutes, Rod Serling prophetically refers to “a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time.”

In the episode, aliens known as Kanamits come to earth and, at the United Nations in New York, via television, the Kanamit representative ‘reads’ (by mental telepathy) from a book written in his alien language. The Kanamits, profess only altruism and service to mankind. After his address, the Kanamit representative leaves behind the book he’s been ‘reading’ from. Eventually, the woman whose task it is to decode the book figures out that the title means, “To Serve Man.”

Based on the Kanamits’ message of peace and altruism, humans become convinced that a better life awaits them if they board the alien ships and depart for the alien planet. After many humans have already left for the distant planet, the main character is about board a Kanamit vessel. Suddenly, the woman who had been working with the main character to decipher the alien language rushes forward and says, “Mr. Chambers, don’t get on that ship. The rest of the book, To Serve Man, it’s a cookbook!”

Too late. He is forced onto the vessel heading to the alien planet. As the episode ends, Mr. Chambers looks into the camera and says, “How about you. You still on earth, or on the ship with me? But it doesn’t make very much difference because sooner or later, all of us will be on the menu. All of us.”

Today, we can write up an imaginary new episode of our own “Twilight Zone,” entitled: "To Serve Indigenous Peoples." The episode will be based on an ostensible message of peace and altruism during preparations for the United Nations High Level Plenary Meeting (HLPM) of the UN General Assembly, that is not a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples even though it is being called one. The purpose of the General Assembly High Level Meeting, we are told is to highlight “best practices” by states for the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. An outcome document will be created for that purpose, the content of which will be ultimately controlled by the state governments.

Many peoples throughout the world who are called “Indigenous” (i.e., “under dominance”) have been moving forward with the event, because they have been led to think that it is indeed a “World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.” However, those Indigenous nations and peoples who attended the North American Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus gathering March 1-2, in Kamloops, in the Secwépemc Territory in Kamloops (“British Columbia”), decided to call for the cancellation of the UN High Level Plenary Meeting which is not a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

Why? Because the HLPM is predictably and unequally structured in a way that places states above peoples termed “Indigenous,” and because the drafting of the final outcome document will be controlled entirely by the state members of the UN. An informal process will take place that will, at most, include 32 indigenous peoples, out of the world’s estimated population of 370 million Indigenous people, and thousands of Indigenous nations and peoples. The NAIPC gathering called for the High Level Plenary of the UN General Assembly to be cancelled because that plenary it is not premised on equality for nations and peoples called “Indigenous.”

So what does any of this have to do with our imaginary Twilight Zone episode? On April 4, the U.S. Department of State sent out an invitation for a consultation on the UN High Level Plenary Meeting (HLPM), which is a follow up to its March 10 “Scoping Session” on the same topic. The March 10 gathering lasted 90 minutes, but during that time not one elected “tribal” government official or representative of organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians ever broached the subject of the “outcome document” that will result from the High Level Plenary Meeting.

The most important point of the entire HLPM (the final, outcome document) was not even mentioned. This would be equivalent to the humans in the classic Twilight Zone episode not even mentioning, let alone attempting to decipher, the alien document “To Serve Man.” The April 4U.S. State Department invitation for a “consultation” has key terminology that deserves examination.

In the chart below, the left hand column in the chart below is intended to illustrate the pro-U.S., subordinating hierarchy of the May 9 U.S. State Department’s “consultation” event. The structure of the invitation communicates the idea that “Indigenous” nations and peoples are politically subordinate to the United States. The right side of the chart is intended to illustrate the unequal structure of the September UN HLPM. The right-hand column also shows the Top/down nature of the United Nations High Level Plenary, and the 32 or fewer Indigenous individuals who will be permitted to play some “consultation” role in the informal phase of the development the HLPM outcome document.

John T. Plata

In its April 4 invitation, the U.S. State Department put the initials “U.S.” in front of “indigenous peoples” to create the impression that such peoples termed “indigenous” rightfully “belong to” the United States just as the “U.S. Department of State” belongs to the United States. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the two phrases. “U.S. Indigenous Peoples” are interpreted, from a U.S. standpoint, as “belonging to the United States as colonial-style possessions.”

U.S. federal Indian law and policy is the context that the U.S. State Department is using to frame “tribal” participation at the May 9 State Department’s “consultation.” It is, of course, the very same failed U.S. federal Indian law and policy that compelled Indian people to seek justice in the international arena in the 1970s. Isn’t every federal Indian law textbook full of ideas designed to better “serve Indians” over to the United States in a continual and gradual process of political subordination, assimilation, and digestion?

The word “assimilation” is taken from political philosophy and its use of the physiology of the human body to refer to “the body” politic. In keeping with the analogy, the U.S. or any state “body” politic “eats,” and it has “a digestive tract” or “colon.” The operative metaphor is, “colon-ization is eating.” The expression, “We are in the belly of the beast” has a natural connection to the metaphor “colonization is eating.“ In keeping with the analogy, the predator body politic (‘the state’) works to digest and “assimilate” the Indigenous peoples that it “eats,” and “absorbs.”

Those Indian leaders and activists who went into the international arena in the 1970s were seeking a way to end the injustices of U.S. federal Indian law and policy, not to learn how to be better victims of the “recipes” of federal Indian law. Are today’s elected Indian leaders going to simply accept—for the purpose of the UN High Level Plenary Meeting and its outcome document—the unjust context of U.S. federal Indian law and policy? Or are they going to use the international arena to work toward ending the racist, religiously bigoted, and unjust nature of that federal digestive system?

The language in the State Department invitation shows that the United States is using the occasion of the UN High Level Plenary Meeting, and “best practices” based on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” as an opportunity for our further political incorporation and assimilation (colony = colon = digestion) into the body politic of the United States.

Some have said, “If you’re not at the table, then you’re probably on the menu.” In international politics, however, for Nations and Peoples presumed to exist under the dominance of states (“Indigenous peoples”), you can be given the appearance of being “at the table,” and still be on the menu as a meal that will result in our Nations and Peoples being further politically digested by states. In our “Twilight Zone” episode, as things currently stand, “Indigenous” Peoples are on the menu for the UN High Level Meeting. So, the outcome document ought to be titled, “To Serve Indigenous Peoples.”

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.