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United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: 10 Years of a Powerful Message

When indigenous leaders first visited the United Nations offices in Geneva, Switzerland in 1977, they were seeking justice and a fair forum for the many treaty and human-rights violations being committed against Native peoples by the governments that had colonized their homelands.

It was a time when Indian country was throbbing with activism and a time when civil and human rights were at the forefront of the national conversation following demonstrations at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee and the ongoing protests over the Vietnam War.

Even though they were able to push their issues onto the front pages of newspapers around the world, many Native activists and leaders eventually realized that they would never get justice in the courts and political systems, and came to believe that the system was stacked against them. The many losses for Indian nations in the United States Supreme Court were a resounding message that Native land and water-rights claims would never be fairly decided there. It was clear to these leaders that they needed to go beyond the courts of Canada and the United States for intervention and sanctions—and for justice.

A group of leaders from many parts of North, Central and South America decided to go to the United Nations to seek standing and to get an official voice. “It was the vision of my elders, who were fighting for our treaty rights,” recalls Chief Wilton Littlechild, a Cree lawyer and one of the original members of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). “They realized that all the laws were written by our colonizers, all the judges were appointed by their governments, and that we would never get justice under their rules. So we went to the United Nations seeking an independent forum where our concerns would be treated fairly.” This was a radical idea, but not a new one. Levi General, the hereditary chief of the Cayuga (commonly known by his title, Deskaheh), traveled to Geneva in 1923 to implore the League of Nations to honor the treaties between the Iroquois and Europeans. He had the support of some nations, but the strong opposition of the British, which doomed his appeal.

Littlechild was part of the first indigenous delegation to the United Nations in 1977, and since then has attended and chaired more than 100 international meetings in 27 countries as a delegate and legal counsel for the Four Nations of the Maskwachis Cree. He was the first treaty Indian ever elected to the Canadian Parliament, serving in the House of Commons from 1988 to 1993. That experience helped prepare him for the many negotiations with nation-states in which he engaged as one of the early leaders crafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, that was finally adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007, but not then endorsed by the United States and Canada.

Alongside the 30-year drafting process of that declaration, work continued to create a “permanent forum” for indigenous issues. That process took 24 years, but the UNFPII was finally formally established in 2001. The UNPFII is a 16-member advisory body to the Economic and Social Council—directly under the General Assembly—with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.
The UNPFII, which convenes annually, comprises 16 independent experts who serve three-year terms and may be reelected or reappointed for one additional term. Eight of the members are nominated by countries, and eight are nominated directly by indigenous organizations. The two indigenous-nominated representatives from North America currently serving on the UNPFII are Dalee Sambo Dorough (Inuit, Alaska), an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and Chief Edward John, the hereditary chief of Tl’azt’en Nation in northern British Columbia. (A complete list of the current members is available online by searching for “UNPFII members.”)

As one of the early proponents of both the UNPFII and the creation of the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004), Littlechild served on the UNFPII for six years. He remembers its humble beginnings in 2001, when it had no office space, no funds and no staff—but indigenous people finally had an official voice, and he intended to use it. “It truly was a historic day for all indigenous peoples, and we first thanked all those warriors who moved on to the spirit world before they could see their dreams come true. It was another step of our long journey seeking recognition as peoples, tribes and nations.”

At the time, Litttlechild asked his elders how to say “United Nations” in their language. Mamao Atoskeyw Kamik (“where peoples work together”) was the term they agreed on, which was much like the theme selected for the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples “Partnerships in Action.”

On the 10th anniversary of the creation of the UNPFII, Littlechild looked back proudly on the 24-year effort to establish a powerful voice for Native peoples that would be heard by all world leaders. “We were finally able to take our rightful place in the family of nations, be recognized for our valuable contributions to humankind, and be involved in the international arena as full participants with self-determination and Treaty Rights,” he said.

“My goal has always been to see our treaties honored and respected,” said Littlechild. “To do that, we have to focus our efforts on positive action within the U.N. forum. To rebuild our indigenous nations, recapture our spiritual strength and lift each other up, we have to coordinate our work effectively with our partners—especially now that we are at the stage of implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

This year’s UNPFII is scheduled for May 16 to 27 at U.N. headquarters in New York City, with hundreds of delegates from around the world scheduled to attend. The agenda includes discussions on economic development, environment and indigenous peoples’ rights to “free, prior and informed consent” over development and decisions affecting their lands. Another major focus is the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—strategies for its implementation are being developed and considered.

Professor James Anaya, the special rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, will hold individual meetings with representatives of indigenous peoples and organizations from May 18 to 20.

Follow our UNPFII Tenth Session Side Panel widget as it will provide information on daily events happening during the Permanent Forum.