BELLINGHAM, Wash. - ''The ice at the polar caps is melting as we are standing here talking.''
Those words, spoken by Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, motivated the indigenous leaders assembled for the July 31 - Aug. 2 Indigenous Treaty Gathering at Lummi Nation to set aside the original agenda of discussing the merits of a proposed treaty among indigenous nations to instead revamp the treaty document for immediate signing.
Chief Jaret Cardinal, son of the late Sucker Creek Cree First Nation leader Harold Cardinal, was the first to suggest the change. He said, ''A few years ago, I had some involvement in working with First Nation's government. During that time, a message was received saying some people wish to make a treaty. Since that time, our people have had a few years to consider and see what is happening. We have taken the time to go through ceremonies to seek guidance and get direction to come and negotiate this treaty. The time is right for the indigenous tribes to stand together to help combat the problems of global warming. The significance of this treaty is that we are being given the opportunity to do something. [...] Time is something we have little of if we are going to address the environment. If we are to truly have a strong voice, then we need to have global economies where international trade is required.''
The National Congress of American Indians Special Committee on Indigenous Nations Relationships created a drafting committee in 2006 that prepared the treaty, which proposed the establishment of a United League of Indigenous Nations. Instead of merely considering the proposed treaty, the gathering finalized and approved it.
Alan Parker, co-chair of the special committee and professor at Evergreen State College, said, ''The league, through the terms of its chartering treaty, mutually recognizes indigenous nationhood and affirms their inherent rights of self-government. Indigenous peoples see tremendous threat to their remaining homelands posed by global warming and they are compelled to act.
''Peoples are being impacted in their ability to sustain a way of life that is essential to their survival. Their actions can be strengthened by joining together, by sharing information, by raising a collective voice and by insisting upon representation of their distinctive concerns before all national and international bodies on climate change. It further commits the nations to join together in trade and commerce with each other to create a strong international indigenous economy for the future. The United League will help all members to form a strong legal, political and social program of education.''
Approximately 200 people attended the gathering at the invitation of Evelyn Jefferson, chairman of the Lummi Nation; 100 of the attendees represented more than 40 tribes.
The final version of the treaty was officially signed by delegates from 11 nations: Lummi, Sucker Creek Cree First Nation 150 A, Te Runanga O Ngati Awa (New Zealand), Ngarrinderi Nation, Douglas Village of the Tlinget Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Akiak Native Community, We Wai Kai Nation, Makah Tribe, Songhees Nation and Hoh Indian Tribe. The other non-signatory delegates signed a witness document verifying the adoption of the treaty and their intention of supporting the treaty to their governing bodies. As Wagankising Odawa Chairman Frank Ettawageshik explained, ''While we have 11 initial signatories of the original document, it is plainly evident from the interests expressed by the other nations that we will have many, many times this number who will attend the formal signing and ratification meeting later this year.''
''For indigenous nations to enter into international treaties with each other is quite consistent with how we've always conducted our affairs,'' said New Zealand delegate Aroha Te Pareake Mead, faculty of commerce and administration with Victoria University of Wellington. ''We have traditions of trading with other nations and in engaging in peacekeeping and other forms of foreign policy. States are stepping up their resistance to the sovereignty of indigenous nations, and the United Nations isn't delivering enough for indigenous peoples. We need to look to each other in order to pave an appropriate development pathway for our future generations. The answers lie within us.''
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee, who tracks treaty rights issues as president of The Morning Star Institute, Indian Country Today columnist and guest curator of a treaty exhibit for the National Museum of the American Indian, added, ''This is not only a historical act: it is an act of self-defense. The anti-Indian forces in the U.S. and other countries, as well as the countries themselves, have been coordinating their anti-treaty and anti-Native-rights activities. It's necessary for Native peoples of the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand to take this defensive and provident measure at this time.''
Lummi Vice Chairman William Jones said, ''This treaty is a mutual covenant to protect our traditional heritage, to help build our economies, to improve the social and political health of our people and to help each other as kind and giving people. I expect this league to include hundreds of member nations before the present decade is over.''
Only one youth was witness to the ceremonies and three-day gathering: 15-year-old Shakohwin Black Cloud, a descendant of Sitting Bull and the Muscogees of Florida. She said, ''Our traditions and our culture are our future. We must not forget who we are in these coming times of change. It was important to see the leaders and elders making a way for us.''
Nisqually Elder Billy Frank Jr., of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, said, ''The indigenous kids are looking to the grandpas, grandmas, leaders and elders to help them clear their minds of the negatives they hear. We're facing a time when we have to come together because of the changes. The treaty is in place now and it gives us hope. Indians have given their word because their word is who they are. The vision is long. It doesn't happen overnight. The seeds have been planted and we won't smell the flowers in the morning. It will take time but we will smell the flowers when the vision blooms.''