Who Are the Political Representatives of Indigenous America?
As the question of implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples looms on the political horizon; and the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in its wobbly fashion rises for its faint moment in September Indigenous America is just waking to the significance of international events on their lives. While a very small cadre of individuals, non-governmental organizations and perhaps no more than three to five indigenous governments (US-based) directly engage international players the vast populations of indigenous America remain oblivious or distantly aware that decisions are being cast in their name—decisions that have a profound significance for their individual and collective future. As this all unfolds the question, “Who are the Political Representatives of Indigenous America?” waits in the shadows to challenge the earnest advocates of “indigenous peoples’ rights.” To whom are the civil society actors – activists, non-governmental organizations, indigenous government representatives – accountable as they speak their truth, advocate their principles and assert their words etched in law?
This is not an idle question, but one that is fundamental to the effectiveness of establishing new international policy and law that will either harm or help indigenous nations reclaim their footing as members of the international community.
When a few years ago a self-appointed Global Coordinating Group decided to coordinate the world indigenous consensus on topics and themes that may be considered by the September United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples it was approved for that role by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The UN body is populated with members appointed by states’ governments and the remaining membership designated by a kind of popularity poll in different parts of the world based on notoriety. The people chosen are generally known by people close to the UN system. The system for selecting the Global Coordinating Group and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues results in a collection of talking heads unaccountable to any constituency during their appointed terms. In other words, there is no true accountability for those sitting in the center of international deliberations concerning the rights of indigenous peoples or indigenous nations.
This pattern of “policy making without accountability” exists throughout the global process involving indigenous peoples in deliberative processes concerning international policy. Regional groups of mostly self-appointed individuals, non-governmental organization representatives, philanthropic/foundations, representatives of indigenous community associations and a few representatives of indigenous governments met I preparatory meetings around the world last year. They met as regional bodies for a few days to discuss and approve themes and topics for the World Conference. The Pacific Region fell into angry interpersonal battles over legitimacy. The North American Regional meeting also fell into a two-sided battle between representatives of indigenous governments and their opponents: individuals, foundation representatives and advocacy organization representatives. The Russian government took steps to designate the “indigenous representatives” in that regional meeting. Who exactly represents indigenous peoples—indigenous nations in the developing cacophony of voices perporting to speak for “indigenous peoples’ rights.”
Here are a few facts or estimates that need to be faced on the “accountability” question drawn from the situation in the United States and neighboring countries:
1. 60% to 75% of all Indians in the United States live adjacent to or distant from reservations resulting in an on-reservation population of Indians at 25% to 40%–a minority overall.
2. The on-reservation populations of Indian people have the most direct influence over tribal government decisions while off-reservation Indians of little or no influence except in a few instances.
3. 60% of the on-reservation population overall in the United States is made up of non-tribal, non-Indians.
4. Indigenous America’s population is growing at a rate of 2.9% annually compared to the US population growth at 0.7% with a prospective result by 2050 of more than 6.745 million people. The question will be is this the US government’s population to represent or Indian nation’s?
5. UN Member States claim the authority to represent indigenous peoples within their boundaries as individual citizens of the state (in the US – American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians) as individuals and not as collectives to the international community.
6. In the US, Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America indigenous constitutional and customary governments claim the authority to represent indigenous peoples within their cultural and political sphere as individuals within a collective to the state and on occasion to the international community.
7. Many indigenous NGOs advocate “indigenous peoples’ rights” which frankly dilutes the significance of indigenous nations. “Indigenous peoples” are claimed by states with an emphasis on their individual identities as “persons.” NGOs foster the state position even as they claim to advocate the rights and interests of indigenous nations. The language is confused and so is the message.
8. Perhaps 15 – 20 indigenous advocacy non-governmental organizations have primary influence in the UN and other international institutions and no more than 20 to 30 indigenous governments world-wide have directly or indirectly engaged international issues and institutions and of those indigenous governments perhaps no more than three to five are from the United States.
These realities should sober all of us and encourage us to become more realistic about what will be another generation of capacity building and creative diplomacy for Indigenous America – individuals, NGOs and indigenous governments. As some Indian government leaders observed in the 1970s when we first began to discuss “self-governance:” “We need to building understanding, awareness and strengthen our governments at the tribal level before we move on to self-governance.” It took ten years before the capacity and groundwork had been completed. The confusion of this last year and lack of clear accountability must be resolved to ensure credibility on the matters of substance to be discussed and negotiated in the international arena. Here are some suggestions for what must be done to build that “on-the-ground” consensus on international issues:
1. As a result of a series of meetings between the US Department of State and various Indian leaders, US White House Officials, and indigenous NGOs from May of last year to as recently as the 10th of March there remains no working or agree framework for US/Tribal engagement on the World Conference or the UNDRIP. (It is note worthy that the Department of State claims that it has no policy on the WCIP or implementation of the UNDRIP and it has pushed for the same “listening session” motif with Indian people and Indian officials since last August—now for 9 May. It is quite apparent to me that the Department of State is looking for “Indian cover” in the face of its fundamental opposition to “free, prior and informed consent” and its 25 years of opposition to the UNDRIP as President Obama is presented to speak before the High Level Plenary on 22 September. The question that Indian Country must ask: “What’s in it for us?” What concessions will the US make in the face of its opposition to secure symbolic tribal endorsement of the US government’s actions between May and September? The only approach that makes sense is to emphasize a framework for dialogue and negotiations based on government-to-government relations where the tribal side defines half the table and the US defines the other.)
2. Indian, Alaskan Native and Hawaiian leaders must be positioned at home to receive information from international developments, get support translating that information and they must communicate with their members to explain what benefits and pitfalls exist that affect their interests and well-being.
3. Build bridges between indigenous nations, ngos and individuals to end the divisiveness prompted and promoted by the US government’s “recognition” policies. It need not be perfect, but moving toward constructive cooperation will go a long way to legitimatizing Indigenous America as distinct from US claims about “its Indians.”
4. NGOs can and must shift resources to directly supporting indigenous governments with information, analysis and on the ground training to strengthen tribal capacity.
5. Indigenous oriented philanthropic types and foundations must be pushed to provide funds to tribal communities and NGOs for community information and education on matters directly affecting their interests, but these interests must take a back seat to indigenous nations on matters of substantive policy dialogue and negotiations.
6. NGOs must give precedence and defer to indigenous governments in the international environment to establish their presence and to build experience and capacity. This must be done immediately in discussion with the US, the UN and UN Member governments.
7. Emphasis must be placed on the governmental character of indigenous nations in an effort to press states to engage indigenous governments on a wide range of topics within an intergovernmental framework.
8. Indigenous governments are the only legitimate political instruments Indian Country has to advance indigenous policies even as flawed as they are. We must focus on building and strengthening their capacity politically and functionally to engage the international arena. Indigenous American governments must be encouraged to extend the franchise to their member not only adjacent to the reservation or territory but in distant locations to rebuild tribal consensus.
9. Indigenous America must be rebuilt by politically relinking indigenous individuals to tribal communities. Where that does occur specific bonding efforts must be encouraged to build relationships between off-reservation Indians and on-reservation Indians. The NGO community must move from a Washington, D.C. focus and shift to an on the ground tribal focus offering talent and skills, but leaving the decisions to the tribal community.
For more than forty years the international indigenous peoples’ dance has played out in hundreds of meetings, conferences and a growing literature commenting on indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, collective rights, territorial rights, “free, prior and informed consent,” and all the rest. The International Labor Organization has a few conventions on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, the Organization of American States is still fudging with a Declaration, the hemispheric meetings on “Indian Life” based on the 1944 treaty continue now with the participation of Canada, the Convention on Biodiversity includes Article 8j on shared benefits with indigenous peoples’ genes a big topic under the Intellectual Property Convention, the Food and Agriculture Organization has been discussing measures to ensure food security, the Nairobi Work Program and UNESCO collect documentation on indigenous knowledge, an “International Indigenous Peoples Working Group on Climate Change” has been diligently seeking to get a word in edgewise at the Conference of Parties meetings under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and of course the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This relative “blizzard” of international decisions has literally caught most of Indigenous America (and virtually all of the Indigenous world) off balance, unprepared and with limited capacity to enter into serious dialogue or even confrontation on unacceptable legal and political measures. NGOs had the funding to reach into the international community and no concern about accounting to tribal communities for what they said or did. The revenues ensured capacity and the lack of “arrows in the back” made for flexibility. This has worked to advance the “indigenous rights ball” for many years, but now it is time to talk and negotiate realistically those steps necessary to implement the many proposals and principles contained in international agreements and Declarations. That process requires political leadership actually accountable to people on the ground since they will have to live with the outcomes.
The Intellectual Elite exists in Indian Country and in organizations advocating indigenous rights around the world, but they are mostly in NGOs. That collection of people must be called on to reconnect with Indian Country and indigenous communities directly and assist indigenous governments to form a consensus that will allow indigenous governments capacity and flexibility to represent their peoples in the generation to come. Implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples depends on democratic dialogue between indigenous nations and states’ governments and most particularly each indigenous nation and the neighboring state government. Without a process involving dialogue and negotiations the state governments will make all decisions at the exclusion of free, prior and informed consent—a right presumably guaranteed under ILO 169 and mandated by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Who will represent indigenous nations?–individual states’ governments or indigenous constitutional or customary governments?
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