What Does 'Appropriate' Mean? Indigenous Peoples at the UN

"Appropriateness" was a theme at the 12th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, May 20 to 31. Specifically: Is there an “appropriate” place for Indigenous Peoples in the context of the United Nations organization? Behind the shared concern over this question lurk very divergent views about possible answers.

One view builds on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: It says Indigenous Peoples are equal to all other nations and peoples in the world. Another view builds on the colonial legacy: it says Indigenous Peoples are inferior and must have a status in the UN subordinate to the member states that claim sovereignty over them derived from colonialism.

In keeping with the modern way of political speech, the colonial viewpoint was not stated directly. It was couched in rhetoric about "appropriateness." Since the word "appropriate" is inherently ambiguous, it was possible that some people walked into a trap by agreeing with the rhetoric. Let's examine some of what was said.

On May 28, Laurie Shestack Phipps, of the United States Mission to the United Nations, stated that U.S. support for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, scheduled for September 2014, "is consistent with the U.S. government’s policy to honor and strengthen its relationship with Indian tribes." She added that the U.S. "aim[s] to help ensure appropriate and broad participation by indigenous peoples’ representatives at the World Conference."

What Ms. Phipps meant by "appropriate" was more directly stated one week earlier, May 22, in a statement addressed to the significance of the UN Declaration itself: she said the U.S. regards "self-determination, as expressed in the Declaration, [as] different from self-determination in international law." The U.S. State Department stated this same position in 2010, immediately after President Barack Obama announced "support" for the UN Declaration. It shows that what the U.S. considers "appropriate" for Indigenous Peoples is second-class status in the world.

The idea that second-class status in the UN is "appropriate" for Indigenous Peoples undermines the significance of the UN Declaration, in the name of supporting the Declaration. It parallels the concept of "tribal sovereignty" in U.S. federal Indian law. In both instances, the language of international law is used deceptively: "tribal sovereignty" is a category that allows the U.S. to claim superiority over Indians; similarly, "different self-determination" is not full self-determination, but rather a category that extends the claim of colonial state superiority into the global international system of the UN.

On May 22 at the UN Permanent Forum there was a proposal to establish a UN body to monitor implementation of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The proposal, on behalf of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and an umbrella group of indigenous organizations, said the Declaration cannot be effective without implementing measures and a mechanism to complain about violations. It added that such a body would provide “a dignified and appropriate” permanent status for Indigenous Peoples to participate in the United Nations.

The problem—and the distressing fact—is that when NCAI called for an "appropriate" status for Indigenous Peoples at the UN they did not challenge the U.S. on its deceptive definitions of "tribal sovereignty" and "self-determination."
If the U.S. rhetoric on Indigenous self-determination prevails, the UN Declaration will be used to support—rather than annul—the colonial Doctrine of Christian Discovery that underlies U.S. federal Indian law! In effect, U.S. law on a second-class form of "tribal sovereignty" would become the operating principle of the Declaration that was designed to free Indigenous Peoples from the yoke of colonialism that treats them as inferior to other nations and peoples.

Fortunately, there were other voices raised at the 12th Session that challenged the U.S. rhetoric. Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said that the U.S. is "try[ing] to domesticate the international Declaration." Roberto Borrero (Taino), on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council, rejected the U.S. effort "to diminish…the Declaration." Kenneth Deer, presenting the statement of the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus, insisted that Indigenous Peoples have "rights equal to all other peoples." Steve Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape), on behalf of the Indigenous Law Institute, said the "different" form of self-determination "is racist and predicated on ancient theological-political bigotry"— the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

You will recall there is another form of "appropriate"—the verb, rather than the noun or adjective. It is spelled the same, but pronounced differently, and its meaning is not ambiguous: "To take possession of." The U.S. slyly uses the word "appropriate" to continue its 200-year old effort to "appropriate" the lands of Indigenous Peoples.

Our inquiry thus arrives at a startling conclusion: If we are not careful, cautious, and critical, the "appropriate status" for Indigenous Peoples in the UN may perpetuate rather than end the status of Indigenous Peoples as colonial objects! This would be an absurd result of the decades of work by Indigenous Peoples in the UN arena that succeeded in getting the Declaration adopted.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.