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Tribal leaders prepare for world conference on racism

WASHINGTON - Racism is an issue that impacts every nation in the world, including tribal nations in the United States.

Tribal testimony and government reports reveal that Indian people not only suffer vastly disproportionate rates of discrimination in America as compared to other groups, they also feel some of the greatest social impacts in their communities.

Next September, in Durban, South Africa, the United Nations will convene the World Conference Against Racism, or WCAR, and tribal leaders from across the United States plan to attend.

"We believe our continued participation in the conference and the domestic and international meetings is critical to ensuring that issues affecting Indian country are included in the dialogue," said Juana Majel, a Pomo Indian from California.

The Department of Justice reports that American Indians in the United States are victims of violent crimes at a rate more than twice that of all races and unlike other groups, a majority of the perpetrators of crimes against American Indians are of a different race. Indian people also suffer discrimination in housing, education and employment rates which result in statistics which rate them poorest in measures of social health. With homeless rates twice the national average and infant mortality rates 1.6 times that of white infants, tribal leaders say they have a legitimate and even critical need to participate in the conference.

In December the United Nations has scheduled a regional preparatory meeting in Santiago, Chile, to prepare those participating from the Western Hemisphere. A number of tribal leaders from the United States plan to attend. Tribal representatives will be considered part of Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGOs, even though most tribes consider themselves governments.

The issue of government and specifically self-government in connection to racism is also on the minds of tribal leaders. Tribal representatives to the conference say that the "U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People" and the "Organization of American States Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" will also be discussed as important issues for the international community. They say there is an undeniable connection between the denial of self-determination and racism.

"The denial of a tribal nation's right to self-govern and determine its political existence is rooted in racist notions of white superiority and affirms the belief by some that Indians are inferior," said Kim Gottschalk, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

Those preparing for the conference say that as part of a general concern for the welfare of Indian people, they are concerned about the racism suffered by Indian people individually and collectively. The collective rights of tribes through the practice of self-determination and the denial of those rights within international law is central to their message. They say the United States has been a major obstacle in the acceptance of those collective rights in international law despite U.S. domestic policy which affirms the right to tribal self-determination.

"It's absurd that the U.S. would support collective tribal rights at home and then deny them on the international stage," said Gottschalk.

There are some 300 million Indigenous people worldwide. However, they have only been allowed to officially address the United Nations through a temporary Working Group set up to draft a U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, a document some hope will finally set minimum international human rights standards for Indigenous people. Over its 18 years in existence, the Working Group has completed several studies, from the relationship of Indigenous peoples to land, treaties and agreements, to the protection of cultural and religious rights.

The working group reports that Indigenous people around the world continue to be among the most marginalized and impoverished of the world's peoples, with their ways of life, culture, heritage, and languages under continuous threat. A number of world conferences recently validated this conclusion as well as the importance of Indigenous peoples to sustainable development and the protection of the earth's biodiversity.