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The 'Land of Oz' on the 10th Anniversary of UNDRIP

by Jacqueline Keeler

In 2015, I had the honor of interviewing Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation for Earth Island Journal about his work at the United Nations and role in the creation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and something he told me remained on my mind when I had the opportunity to go the UN for the first time.

“In the UN, you have a number of nations and everyone has their own agenda. And part of that agenda is land and indigenous people are a problem because we have prior rights to the land. We thought we were going to a place where justice was prevailing. I call it the ‘Land of Oz’. We went to see the wizard and we were very much like Dorothy thinking that there was truth and equity and justice and we ran into the very same people as we had come from.”

Even on this, the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark document representing the work of leaders like Oren Lyons since the 1970’s to articulate the international status of Indigenous peoples and to protect our communities and cultures, I went to the UN wondering if this was indeed the land Oz and me, Dorothy, or was this really a place where real progress was possible to protect our people?

My first day at the meetings I spoke via phone to Doug George, Mohawk Nation, who had attended the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) the week before I was there and he told me how shocked he was that testimony given by Indigenous peoples that their attempts to assert their rights under UNDRIP, had led to retaliation and violence against their communities. It was, apparently, not an entirely foreseen outcome by those like Mr. George, who had participated in creating the declaration.

Mr. Leonard Gorman
Exec. Dir. of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission
However, the testimony that struck me was that of a representative of my own nation, the Navajo Nation, Mr. Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission who noted:

“As a representative from the Navajo Nation, I am unable to participate in this PFII session under the credentials of the Navajo Nation. I'm here with an identification card says NGO and my name is on it. I'm hopeful that sometime in the near future I would also hold here a card that says Navajo Nation under its own credentials.“

Being discussed was the zero draft resolution of the General Assembly “On Enabling the Participation of Indigenous Peoples’ Representatives and Institutions in Meetings of Relevant United Nations Bodies on Issues Affecting Them.” This resolution once finalized and passed would finally allow a representative from an Indigenous Nation like Mr. Gorman to finally attend meetings at the UN credentialed by the Navajo Nation and not by a Non-Governmental Organization.

I was stunned that the representatives of my nation would not be allowed to attend as representatives of the Navajo Nation. It made me wonder how far we had come? I remembered how my husband’s grandfather was denied entry to the first UN meeting in San Francisco in 1945. He was the chief of the Mohawk Bear Clan of the Iroquois Nation. He and other Iroquois chiefs had traveled from Six Nations in Ontario, Canada on their own dime to attend this important international meeting. After they were denied entry and told there was no “Iroquois Nation” on the list they met out in front of the Fairmont Hotel and discussed what to do. They decided to try once again since they had come so far and the second time they were admitted. However, the man had thought they were from the Iraqi Nation and so the elected representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy, once one of the most powerful on the Eastern seaboard, entered the UN by mistake.

Later, I heard Frank Ettawageshik, a former tribal chairman of Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians attending as representative of the National Congress of American Indians and the United Tribes Michigan speak to the same issue:

Frank Ettawageshik, former tribal chairman 
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians
“For 14 years I served as the elected head of state for my nation and that's the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. During this time I did not attend United Nations meetings because as my colleague Mr. Gorman from the Navajo Nation spoke, I did not want to be here as the elected head of state with an NGO certification and I felt that that was not proper protocol and I couldn't attend. It was only after I left office as an elected official that I engaged strongly in this process because I believe that we should work to try to change that.

My nation has engaged internationally for thousands of years. We have treaties with other Indigenous nations—both in the United States, all across North America and around the world—we have treaties with European governments and with the United States. These treaties remain in force today. It would, therefore, be completely unacceptable for our nation to participate in a process that would not provide the right for participation as an individual Indigenous nation (emphasis mine).”

I had no idea that our nations had so little representation at the UN. And make no mistake about it, our “tribes” are nations. The U.S. Senate does not ratify treaties with anyone but sovereign nations and under international law, you cannot treaty away your sovereignty. We still exist, albeit militarily oppressed by the most powerful country in the world. We are nations and the UN should recognize that as does the United States by the act of treaty-ing with us.

I was particularly appalled when Mr. Ettawageshik mentioned that even Chairman Archambault of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in the midst of the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff on the Great Sioux Nation’s unceded treaty land almost did not get to speak when he came to the UN regarding this international dispute. He had to wait in line with NGO representatives and would not have gotten to speak at all during this conflict which garnered international outrage if 6 speakers ahead of him had not given up their spots for him. I was stunned.

By ignoring and refusing to acknowledge our Native Nations, even those with treaties with the United States, the UN participates in the denigration of our nations. Even the zero draft does not guarantee access to the General Assembly or allow more than a potential observer status that does not recognize our nations in any meaningful way as nations.

Ta'Kaiya Blaney (Tla A'min Nation) on right
with Rachel Marco-Havens
“Agrees that the selection of Indigenous Peoples’ representative institutions to attend and participate in the United Nations in accordance with the principles and criteria set herein does not imply recognition of those institutions under international and domestic law or policy for any purpose other than participation in meetings relevant United Nations bodies on issues affecting them.”

I wonder if the UN can be a body that recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ in any meaningful way when it cannot recognize our Native Nations which clearly have been accorded nationhood recognition through international legal documents like our treaties with the United States.

What gave me hope, however, was hearing the voices of the youth. From fellow Wittenberg Center attendee Ta'Kaiya Blaney (Tla A'min Nation) to Lianna Rice, Inuit from Nunatsiavut, Canada.

Lianna Rice, Inuit from Nunatsiavut, Canada
Rice poignantly reminded the UN PFII chairs about the real price our youth pay for having their identity marginalized and displaced.

She told me in an interview after her testimony, “within my land claims area Nunatsiavut the most at-risk population are young male Inuit between the ages of 16 and 24. They actually experience suicide at a rate 40 times the national average of Canada… I, myself, have attempted suicide a couple of years ago and nine months ago my brother passed by suicide.”

And what is killing our youth? Why do Indigenous youth in the United States and Canada have such greater rates of suicide than other youth in these countries? I believe it is tied to the erasure of their peoples, their nations. The UN could help these youth by recognizing their nations and not by scuttling the issue as they have done since its founding 72 years ago. We can and should do better for the next seven generations to come.
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