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US Calls on UN to Accord Recognition to 'US Federally Recognized Tribes'

On June 3, there was an informal meeting at the United Nations regarding the development of an “action oriented outcome document.” The document is scheduled to be formally adopted by the UN General Assembly at the end of a UN High Level Plenary Meeting that will take place this coming September at the UN in New York.

The June 3, 2014 informal meeting took place at the UN headquarters in New York City, and the spokesperson for the United States delivered what she called “a few comments from the US government’s perspective.” The U.S. government spokesperson said that “with respect to the participation of indigenous peoples in the United Nations, the United States has consistently reiterated its support for indigenous participation in the UN.” The United States representative then said:

We agree with indigenous peoples that existing arrangements for indigenous participation in the UN are not satisfactory. This is definitely true with respect to U.S. federally recognized tribes. US federally recognized tribes are governments with inherent powers of self-governance, but in the UN setting these characteristics are not recognized. We are committed to finding an appropriate response to this challenge. We will continue consulting with U.S. based tribes, indigenous organizations, and member states to explore options.

When we parse the above U.S. statement, what do we see? “U.S. federally recognized tribes” are not recognized “in the UN setting.” Thus, one thing seems clear. The United States is engaged in semantic gamesmanship. The specific United States’ category “US federally recognized tribes” (and “U.S. based tribes”) is a subjected or subordinated status created by the United States by means of the racist and religiously bigoted US federal Indian law and policy idea-system.

Given the run up to the UN High Level Meeting in September, which is “to be known as a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” it is imperative that we remain hyper vigilant. We must not allow ourselves to be caught in any semantic traps being laid for us by the United States government. Another meeting is scheduled for June 17-18, 2014 at the UN in New York.

By advocating that our originally free and independent nations and peoples be recognized in the United Nations as “US federally recognized tribes,” the U.S. is attempting to find an “appropriate” place in the United Nations for the US federal Indian law and policy system that created the U.S. category “U.S. federally recognized tribes.”

By taking this approach, the United States is making good on a commitment that it expressed in its 2010 “Announcement of U.S. Support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” issued by the U.S. Department of State.

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Specifically, the key sentence from the U.S. Department of State reads: “…the United States is committed to serving as a model in the international community in promoting and protecting the collective rights of indigenous peoples as well the human rights of all individuals.” I see this new approach by the United States as an effort to trick us into accepting the idea that the U.S. federal Indian law and policy idea-system ought to be recognized as a model by the UN, and normalized within the UN, with our “free, prior, and informed consent.” In my view, we should not assist the United States to legitimize internationally the U.S. law and policy domination system.

If and when that happens, will we be able to say that US. Federal Indian law and policy is a dominating system imposed on our nations and peoples against our will. Or, will the United States then will be able to say that we are the ones who asked for our “subjected” status under U.S. federal Indian law and policy to be recognized in the UN, and have it thereby legitimized in the international arena, all in the name of implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

The myriad problems arising from US federal Indian law and policy drove our nations, our spiritual leaders, our activists, and our scholars into the international community in the 1970s. They did not go into the international arena in an effort to have the US federal Indian law and policy system recognized by the United Nations. In fact, that’s the last thing that would have occurred to them because that is the very system of domination that has caused the problems that our nations and peoples have been dealing with for centuries.

The technical term metonymy may provide some insight into what is happening when the US asks the UN to recognize “U.S. federally recognized tribes.” A metonymy is a part of a greater whole. A metonymy is the part that implies the whole from which it is derived. Take, for example, the expression “the White House said today,” which is sometimes found in news reports. It uses the house in which the President of the United States resides as “the part” that “stands for” the entire U.S. Executive Branch. It is the part that stands for the whole.

Similarly, “US federally recognized tribes” is a metonymy (the part) that stands for the entire context of the US federal Indian law and policy system; “US federally recognized tribes” is a mental construct that emerged from the minds of white men as they developed U.S. federal Indian law and policy. The white man’s racist and religiously bigoted mental system is the origin of the concept of “US federally recognized tribes.”

Yet now we see organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians and the Indian Law Resource Center, apparently without even realizing it, attempting to find “an appropriate and dignified” place for US federal Indian law and policy at the United Nations, all in the name of “implementing” the articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying the conceptual origins of federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.