Eve Reyes-Aguirre of Tonatierra Embassy of Indigenous People, Phoenix, Arizona, speaking at the Global Indigenous Women's Caucus in Washington, D.C. on May 4.

Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus Probes Doctrine of Discovery’s Impact on Women

Gale Courey Toensing
5/9/12

NEW YORK, N.Y. – How does the brutality of a 500-plus-year-old trade agreement between competing Christian European countries impact contemporary indigenous women all over the world? Exploring that question and articulating the answer in a page-and-a-half document was the task the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus set itself in preparation for the 11th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus (GIWC) met at the Church Center for the United Nations on Friday, May 4, for a daylong session on an agenda that included the Doctrine of Discovery, human rights, food and food sovereignty, and other items. The meeting was an organizational precursor to the Forum, which takes place this year from May 7 – 18. Around, 2,000 indigenous delegates from around the world are expected to attend the annual meeting.

The theme at this year’s forum is the Doctrine of Discovery – a principle of international law that developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. The Doctrine of Discovery was – and is – a racist philosophy that gave white Christian Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so. The doctrine institutionalized the competition between European countries in their ever-expanding quest for colonies, resources and markets, and sanctioned the genocide of indigenous people in the “New World” and elsewhere.

The Doctrine is embedded in American Indian law through a series of the 19th century U.S. Supreme Court rulings beginning with Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. In Johnson v. McIntosh the high court asserted that the title of land that has been “discovered” and “conquered” belongs entirely to the conqueror and the Indigenous Peoples have only the right to “occupy” the land. The ruling has been used to ethnically cleanse Indigenous Peoples from their homelands and expropriate huge amounts of their lands and resources, including mineral and water resources.

Two years ago, Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga), the former North American Representative to the forum, presented “A Preliminary Study on the Doctrine of Discovery,” which was a study undertaken to explore the underlying reason for the universal violations of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. The study found that the Doctrine of Discovery, into an interpretative framework of dominance that became embedded and institutionalized in law and policy both in the United States and internationally. This year’s forum follows up on the preliminary study and takes a more global approach to the Doctrine.

Jessica Danforth (Mohawk), the executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, reported on the findings from an earlier preparatory conference for the forum. “One of the things we constantly came up against is the need for there to be specific gendered impacts understood. We cannot look at the Doctrine of Discovery as something that happens in isolation to indigenous women, but I think it’s important to make a direct link and take it seriously,” Danforth said. Danforth read some suggested wording for the document that the Women’s Caucus would present to the forum, “The Doctrine of Discovery is premised on paternalist and patriarch beliefs that assume a superiority of men over women. In accordance with Article 22 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we call on the Permanent Forum to ensure that these effects of sexism, misogyny, and violence against women and children are considered and addressed in the context of this Doctrine of Discovery,” Danforth read. Article 22 provides that special attention will be paid to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities in implementing the Declaration. It also provides that “States shall take measures, in conjunction with Indigenous Peoples, to ensure that indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.”

As a concrete example of a direct link to the Doctrine, Danforth cited the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court Ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish that tribal courts do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indigenous Peoples. She also cited a recent Amnesty International report, A Maze of Injustice, which documents that more than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women are raped as compared to one in five in the U.S. as a whole. The report directly linked the rape of indigenous women to the Doctrine of Discovery, calling it “a tool of conquest.”

Eve Reyes-Aguirre of the Tonatierra Embassy of Indigenous People in Phoenix reported on forums her organization had held in Arizona and presented for consideration a statement Tonatierra had given to United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, James Anaya. The statement supports a “deep exploration of the manner in the doctrine of Christian discovery has been constructed, elaborated, applied, and extended in law, policy, socio-cultural practices, through both secular and religious practices, and to set the stage for its eradication and reversal as a fundamental element of colonialism and imperialism, with full and equal participation by Indigenous Peoples.” Tontieraa has also recommended that the Arizona State Department of Education integrate the U.N. Forum’s study on the Doctrine of Discovery into the social studies curriculum across all levels of educational services and trainings. Reyes-Aguirre also recommended that special attention be given to the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery on international trade agreements among the states such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Other women in the caucus pointed to the links between environmental contamination and environmental violence and its impact on indigenous children, women’s reproductive health and future generations; and the effects of migration on women and children.

Sandra Cramer of Australia, one of the chairwomen of the caucus, said that consideration must be given to the women from various countries who are absent. “There are a people from other parts of the world who cannot travel to the forum so everything we do always has to be on an international level because the same things happen to indigenous women in this world no matter where we live,” Cramer said. She reminded the attendees that “some of us do have [advantages] but there are some women who have nothing so we have to remember those people because they may not be a voice here so we have to be a voice for all of them.”

On Thursday, May 10, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network will host a side event called Discovery Is Toxic: Indigenous Women On the Front Lines of Environmental and Reproductive Justice. The roundtable discussion will include Erin Konsmo, Native Youth Sexual Health Network; Andrea Carmen, International Indian Treaty Council; Danika Littlechild, International Indian Treaty Council; Viola Waghiyi, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Danforth will moderate. The event will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance New York City, 226 East 42nd Street, (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues) New York.

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