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UN Indigenous Discourse A Disappointment

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I sat in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations at the 9th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues last week listening to speakers from North American Indigenous organizations, and the US and Canada governments, and I was dismayed at what I heard.

I heard Fred Caron begin the meeting by describing the $10 billion Loonies his government of Canada will spend on more than 600 reserves and how committed the Canadian government is to self-government. After 30 minutes of self-praise (accentuated by two gigantic power point projections on the front wall) this spokesperson for the Canadian government then spent a few minutes saying "we have a long way to go" since Indians in Canada suffer from the worst health conditions, bad water resources, lack of eduction, unemployment...and the horrors of being Indian in Canada. Then he turned to show a video of Canada's proud moment in economic and competitive history: the Olympic Games near Vancouver earlier in the year.  The games were staged in the middle of Splutlamilx Country--lands so precious to native peoples in that area, but they were pushed aside for the winter games.

Fred Caron's Canadian government continues to resist the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples even as the government of New Zealand reversed its opposition with an announcement before the the Permanent Forum earlier in the week. The Canadian government's position is that it will approve the Declaration as long as it conforms to the Canadian Constitution and Canadian laws--just the opposite policy 144 other governments took in 2007 when they approved UNDRIP. Canada wants to look upon the Declaration as an "aspirational document" instead of the major Human Rights policy it stands for.  Canada's Human Rights record continues to dip well below the standards of a civilized, modern state.

After Mr. Caron finished his scheduled 13 minute presentation in more than 45 minutes, the US government's Obama Administration representative, Kimberley TeeHee piled a dismaying performance on top of Mr. Caron's dismal act.

Ms. TeeHee was appointed in June 2009 as President Obama's Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs.  In other words, she is the President's voice on Indian matters--different from Department of Interior Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Ecohawk who now sits as an administrative functionary with little or no real voice in Indian Affairs policy.

Ms. TeeHee, bless her, spoke as if painfully in platitudes, hidebound economic and development aspirations for Indians, restatements of government-to-government commitments and--well that's right--not a word to alter the disappointing pronouncement by the US government earlier in the week, that it will "review its position on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."  What made this presentation so painful to listen to was Ms. TeeHee's labored recitation of US case laws, antiquated descriptions of the "unique relationship between Indians and the US government," and what I consider an unforgivable failure to offer new thinking, new ideas, and new statements of policy.  She simply repeated what had been said by every US administration since Richard Nixon in 1970: "we support Indian development."

Neither Mr. Caron or Ms. TeeHee seemed aware that they were repeating what the Canadian and US government have been saying about their "Indian Policy" for the last forty years. They were demonstrating why both governments have earned the scorn of Indigenous peoples the world over for their hypocrisy, double speak and consistent confiscatory policies stealing Indian resources, lands, and the health and educational of future Indian generations.

Compounding the sins of Mr. Caron and Ms. TeeHee's governments Canadian Indian spokespersons then commented and offered even more confusing repetitions of past speeches.  Instead of forward thinking, promotion of self-directed exercises of political authority by indigenous peoples, these spokespersons could only repeat the same kinds of platitudes as the two state government representatives.  Speeches by indigenous representatives were left undelivered - perhaps as many as fifteen speakers--because the three hours allotted for the meeting were largely taken up by the state government speakers. It is entirely possible the indigenous speakers would have said something worthwhile.

The Permanent Forum was an idea that I did not support when it was proposed and eventually authorized by the UN Economic and Social Council.  I feared that it would co-opt and deflate the process of political development--political energy--that had been growing over the previous twenty-five years.  I believe my fears have been born out.  The cumbersome "agenda" of the Permanent Forum and the complicated and time consuming bureaucratic  processes of the UN have clearly channeled indigenous peoples' political energies into procedures, limited time presentations, and countless meetings at great expense.

I have observed the "cumbersome "agenda" of the international meetings since 1975 and instead of truly advancing the political development of indigenous peoples, I see little that constitutes true advances.  Just as "third world countries" remain trapped in an endless loop of potentials, indigenous peoples are now being drawn into the same trap.

I became impatient with the UN Permanent Forum when I learned that it did not consider Mexico a part of North America. I was told, "The UN defines these things."  Still, the native peoples of Mexico and the United States and Canada are inextricably connected. I hold the view that the Permanent Forum should define regions according to actual relations between indigenous peoples and not relations between states or the language of the states.

Chief George Manuel believed that it was necessary for the international community to recognize indigenous peoples and he worked tirelessly to achieve that goal before he died in 1989. He would have been pleased to see indigenous representatives symbolically sitting in the General Assembly Hall (made necessary due to renovations of the smaller assembly room usually used). On the other hand, Chief Manuel would be irritated by the endless delays and obfuscations served up by the United Nations and states' governments: the reasons things can't be done--"we have much more to do."

I like George Manuel am pleased to see the recognition awarded to indigenous peoples' rights. Indigenous peoples must act, however, on their own to realize the promise of those rights.  They will not be given the rights even with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or the Permanent Forum.  Indigenous peoples will now have to reclaim the courage and strength to regenerate political capacity to force acceptance of their social, economic, political and cultural rights--as the Declaration says.

The symbolism of indigenous peoples sitting in the UN General Assembly Hall is powerful, but there is no substitute for the exercise of political authority.  States like Canada and the United States will continue to offer platitudes and tired expressions of confidence for the future development of native peoples, but only vigorous political action by indigenous peoples will force the respect and lawful acceptance of indigenous peoples sitting at the table of decision-making they so richly deserve.

Change has come at great expense to indigenous peoples even though the change has been slight and symbolic. I look to the day when indigenous peoples restart their political development to become true participants in the dialog among peoples.





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