NEW YORK – When the North American Indigenous Women’s Caucus submitted recommendations recently to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, one of the items was a request to the U.N. agencies to establish a travel fund for North American indigenous women to attend the forum’s sessions in New York.
“We need it to ensure representation from North American indigenous peoples,” said Tia Oros Peters, Zuni and executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund. Oros Peters co-chairs the Indigenous Women’s Caucus with Beatriz Schulthess, Kolla from northern Argentina.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held its fifth conference in May. The forum was established by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 2000 with a mandate to discuss and make recommendations concerning indigenous peoples’ development, environment and human rights. The forum is the only place where indigenous peoples from around the globe can gather, voice their concerns and try to shape their collective future.
A U.N. Voluntary Trust Fund exists that provides, among other grants, travel money for indigenous peoples to attend the permanent forum. But in a twist of irony, American Indians do not qualify for grants.
“The U.N. has certain requirements, and what they would consider developed nations – the U.S., Canada, and Australia – can’t access certain funds, which precludes or hinders the full participation of indigenous peoples, whether women or men,” Oros Peters said.
In addition to not helping their Native populations attend the permanent forum, the United States, Canada and Australia share other characteristics: All three are countries with large indigenous populations in their midst and dubious claims to the land the governments took from them, and all three oppose the draft U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Just because we’re in the U.S. doesn’t mean that organizations or Indian nations have funding. It’s just an assumption they’re operating on and I think it even feeds more misunderstanding of indigenous people. Our situation may be quite different, but by no means are our communities rich,” Oros Peters said.
No information is available on when or if the request for a travel fund will be addressed.
According to the forum’s secretariat, around 2,000 people from 70 different countries officially registered for the forum, “but about a little more than 1,200 were actually participants and managed to come,” said. Oisika Chakrabarti, the secretariat’s information officer.
Of the 1,200 delegates, perhaps 200 were from tribes or indigenous organizations in North America, Chakrabarti said. Finding the funding is always an issue, she said.
The Voluntary Fund grants are issued from the United Nations in Geneva, where the Human Rights Council, formerly the Human Rights Commission, is housed. Details about the fund and the number of grants issued for the forum’s fifth session were not immediately available because the information was still being collected.
Oros Peters credited the New York-based American Indian Law Alliance for filling some of the gap left by a lack of U.N. funding.
“They’re not able to provide funding – they’re struggling with funding as much as anybody – but whether they’re trying to find limited free or reasonably priced housing for a week or arranging for food on a shoestring, American Indian Law Alliance is on the front line in terms of opening the pathway for the participation of indigenous people. I know they’ve made a great difference for us,” Oros Peters said.
The Seventh Generation Fund is a California-based, 30-year-old, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization whose mission is to promote and maintain the uniqueness and sovereignty of Native peoples and distinct Native nations.
Neither Seventh Generation nor the AILA accepts funding from the U.S. government, based on a principled refusal to accept the strings attached to federal funding.
The AILA was founded in 1989 by Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga Snipe Clan. The alliance is an indigenous, nonprofit organization that works with indigenous nations, communities and organizations on issues of sovereignty, human rights and social justice for indigenous peoples.
The idea that the United States is a “developed country” doesn’t hold true for Indian nations that are as badly off as those in the South or in developing nations, Gonnella Frichner said.
“The South exists in the North. If you go to Indian country you will find, very easily and not very far from where we’re sitting, people who do live in conditions that you’d find in the South. The poorest places in the U.S. are many Indian territories where the rates are so high in terms of poverty and unemployment, health issues and all those things related to poverty,” Gonnella Frichner said.
The universal pattern with colonization and developed nations is to keep the indigenous people in a state of poverty, Gonnella Frichner said.
“There’s a reason for that. When you keep people oppressed then it becomes easier to appropriate a couple of things – one, their land; and two, their resources,” Gonnella Frichner said.
Kent Lebsock, Gonnella Frichner’s executive director at the AILA, not so quietly seethed at the fact that tribes do not contribute more to human rights efforts: “They give to the museum in Washington. That’s hardly a legacy to our people. It’s helping the U.S. government display what they stole from our people,” Lebsock said.
Lebsock said he has witnessed a shift in representation at the forum since his involvement began in 1992. Back then, the delegates were predominantly North and South American Indians.
“We are now in the minority. Now it’s Asian and African, by and large. South America tries to keep up their end, but they get a lot of funding from the north from white American organizations that want to support Indian causes, but not here, because this country does not want to look at its own genocidal past.
“It’s much easier to have the Indians in Brazil. The fact is, there are Indian people in their own back yard whose wealth they’re living off,” Lebsock said.
Lebsock said he can understand why tribal governments, dependent on the U.S. government for so much funding, do not contribute to the forum.
“They couldn’t possibly participate in this without jeopardizing their financial positions, and in America that’s what it’s all about. I would say the whole process is depoliticized because none of the real power players want or can do this work. It’s left to us – grass-roots organizations who have no funding or resources to do it,” Lebsock said.