The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, now an annual
event held every May in New York City, is an excellent focal point for a
spring educational season or "teach-out" on international indigenous
peoples. Native and Ethnic Studies programs and students' groups should
seriously consider the challenge of just such a spring campaign.
The number of serious and informative cases of Native people confronting
various degrees of greedy corruption is quite astounding. As well,
excellent examples of communities doing trend-setting ecological and
educational programs also emerge consistently. The methods and strategies
by which Native peoples are attempting to rebuild and protect their nations
are highly creative and instructive.
Hundreds - sometimes more than 1,000 - of indigenous delegates and allies
come to New York City every year, at sacrificial expense to their
communities, to attend the sessions at the United Nations. Once there, they
participate in the various commemorative dinners and other sponsored side
events. As the seasons progress, more networking, long-term planning and
mutual strategic work becomes possible.
A Declaration of Indigenous Rights, debated now for a generation, continues
to be a tool of convergence for discussion, even though most all nation
states have shied from endorsement, complaining mostly about territorial
demarcations made evident by Native populations, particularly when these
overlap national boundaries.
The difficulty in achieving proper international protections has always
been, of course, expected. The language is debated and parsed and the
promised covenants, always in the future, remain a ball in play in the
forward-moving pelota or lacrosse game that is the U.N.'s indigenous
recognition movement. Nevertheless, the fact of holding permanent U.N.
sessions on indigenous peoples' issues is a tremendous and highly useful
victory by the most accosted and betrayed communities in the American
The May sessions in New York are dictated properly via U.N. bodies after
three decades of sustained and intense work by indigenous delegates and
their allies with U.N. organizations, dignitaries and the many
highly-involved legalistic bodies and committees. The thinking that has
guided the sessions on the indigenous side has been commendable to superb,
with an experienced circle of Native and non-Native non-governmental
organizations leading growing layers of U.N. associates and luminaries, in
common, through myriad commissions and conference cycles of the august
international body. This results in an Indigenous Forum every year at the
U.N. This is much to the good.
Native nations big and small, whether economically enabled or destitute,
now come to the U.N. every May. This is a major accomplishment and a
tremendous sacrifice for dozens and dozens of Native peoples' circles of
both professional and traditional leadership. As people meet and traditions
over time are shared by the various cultures, the pressure of difficult
isolation, which has limited and plagued Native nations globally, is
broken. A new potential for communications and thus to be heard, to be
understood in the context of Native kinship nationhood, opens up.
"Poco a poco," Anita Menchu, the younger sister of Nobel Peace Prize
laureate and Maya leader Rigoberta Menchu Tum, told the assembled at the
Ingrid Washinawatok El Issa (Flying Eagle Woman) commemoration event. Held
at U.N. Plaza, this event is in the central current of the social cohesion
of the many veteran activists who have strengthened the U.N.'s work. Anita
Menchu offered that "little by little, we achieve our objectives to have
the voices of indigenous peoples be heard."
At the Flying Eagle Woman commemoration, just one of several special
events, numerous Native delegates from throughout the Americas attended. A
Lakota Sun Dance staff was held at honor by Chief Joe American Horse, while
a Veterans' Song was offered along with several prayers and tributes. Many
speakers evoked the memory of the transcending and undefeatable spirit of
struggle that was and is Ingrid Washinowatok, and all marveled at her
example as a person whose career mirrored and always fed the international
movement for Indian dignity and cultural/spiritual survival. Katsi Cook,
Mohawk midwife and a mentor of the young Menominee activist, spoke of "the
brilliance that is Ingrid."
The Ingrid memorial event is always a spiritual highlight to what is a
growing opportunity, once a year, for Indian peoples and the full range of
indigenous peoples to shape and organize a living temporary embassy to the
U.N. in New York City. It is just the opportunity for a growing
international congress and convening of delegations far and wide, and for
boosting the sheer presence of so many indigenous peoples in New York City.
It is an event that should not be so easily ignored by the media.
The North American tribes, particularly the powerful Eastern woodlands
confederacies but without excluding any Native nation, would do well to
help host and engage this U.N. process more vigorously as the hosting
peoples of these lands. This international movement has great leadership
development possibilities, including the engagement of a young tribal
ambassadors program at the U.N.
The universities and high schools that engage themes of international human
rights and development, modernization, American social studies and
indigenous studies should consider listening to the various lectures and
discussions featured during this season that are useful in helping
indigenous peoples' stories to emerge.
Important strategic exchanges can happen at these intense international
events. While the U.N. covenants come slowly and lack teeth, the way
leading to them is filled with potentials and possibilities for networking
tribes and communities to more prominence and more clout in the media and
among institutions of concern.
This hard-gained opportunity for Native peoples to share the spotlight at
the U.N. could be missed if the northern tribes don't engage it directly
and recognize and assist the international delegates, and the forum itself,
during its moment of international attention. Better organization of
sessions that can lead to more effective action in economics and social
life improvements, while financing and contributions to Native communities,
will be crucial in seasons ahead.