The US Department of State’s Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor has invited American indigenous governments to a “consultation” on May 9th. This meeting in Washington, D.C. commences just three days before the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues begins its 13th Session in New York. Rumor has it that the State Department has plans to use a 600-seat assembly hall at which US officials will give indigenous officials time for scheduled two minute speeches and then listen and perhaps comment. The expectation is that indigenous leaders will talk about their views concerning the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP). The plan is to meet with indigenous governmental leaders for a little more than two hours. Then, separately, they will meet with indigenous organizations and groups for another two hours.
Only after a strong “push” by the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS), of which I am the Chairman, and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), did the State Department belatedly issue an agenda and explanation of the “consultation.” No indication was given whether the US government will state its policies regarding the World Conference and the UN Declaration–not surprising, given that the US government has consistently made it clear that it opposes language like self-determination, territory, collective rights and free, prior and informed consent.
The State Department’s description of the “consultation” says that individuals seeking to speak must provide advance notice by an email address, and individuals will be given two minutes to speak, after which federal officials will respond. Tribal governments will be asked to comment on six topics including violence against women, indigenous nations participation in the UN, participation in the WCIP, establishing a UN monitoring body concerned with the UN Declaration and working inside the UN to implement the UN Declaration, essentially reducing the “consultation” to a list of time slots. This begs the question: What will Indian nations get? What will be the benefit politically or strategically that Indian officials can expect after traveling to Washington DC for this meeting to speak for only two minutes each? This does not constitute true intergovernmental consultation.
What has prompted this sudden desire of the State Department to meet with Indian government leaders and Indian organizations several years after the adoption of UNDRIP ? Before July 2013 there was no movement at all by the US government to engage Indian leaders concerning the World Conference or the UN Declaration. It was only after a simple social reception that CWIS designed and planned for the Quinault Indian Nation (joined by Wampanoag, Tlingit and Haida and NCAI) to host selected UN member states in New York on May 20th of 2013 that the State Department took notice. Recognizing that the US government hadn’t been invited, Economic Advisor of the US Mission to the UN, Laurie S. Phipps, asked, “Why wasn’t the US government invited?”
It was only after this that a “Listening Session” was proposed by the State Department. The proposed session was rejected by tribal officials who counter-proposed a meeting for October 2013. That meeting was rejected by the State Department because they would not agree to enter into a dialogue and negotiations on the World Conference modalities and UN Declaration.
American Indians engaging internationally with the United States via the WCIP lifts these political relationships out of the BIA and into the State Department, with the State Department fully unprepared for this new reality. One must surmise that the US government had no interest or intention to do anything with Indigenous America to consider how the Declaration could be implemented. Why should it? US opposition to the Declaration was vigorous and consistent from the 1980s to the point where it initially voted against it in 2007. The US government simply did not and does not want to implement the Declaration.
Recognizing that reality, CWIS fashioned a response to the State Department that basically said: If you want to talk with Indian governments you must be serious, informed and willing to engage in a dialogue. Unless the US response is favorable to that perspective, Indian nations have much more to gain by engaging other UN member states in dialogue to promote and develop strategies for implementing provisions of the UN Declaration and for discussing its implementation at the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The State Department still plans to hold a meeting on May 9th, 2014 – unserious and unprepared to engage Indigenous America.
Indigenous leaders must now consider what their nations will get as a result of meeting with US officials on May 9th. Dialogue between nations and states must be mutually agreed to. Neither side must be permitted to dictate the conditions and framework within which discussions and negotiations will take place. If Indigenous America enters into a “consultation” with the United States, without first mutually establishing the ground rules, they effectively leave the United States to dictate the terms and outcomes of a meeting.
Dr. Ryser is the Chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, the former Senior Advisor to President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Nation, a former Acting Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, and was a staff member of the American Indian Policy Review Commission. He is the author of “Indigenous Nations and Modern States” released by Rutledge in 2012.