Walking Backward in the International Arena

Steven Newcomb
June 05, 2013

There was a deeply troubling development at this year’s United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (the 12th Session) in New York. Before we get into that, though, let’s first build some historical context. In 1973, Russell Means and Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement gained the approval of elders and spiritual leaders of the Oglala Lakota Nation to lead a protest at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre where more than 300 Oglala and Hunkpapa ancestors were slaughtered by the US military in 1890. The protest lasted 71 days.

Afterward, the American Indian Movement called for a convening of the first international Indian Treaty Council. In the summer of 1974, Indian nations gathered at the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas, in the traditional territory of the Great Sioux Nation, and they issued a Declaration of Continuing Independence. Next year will be the fortieth anniversary of that Declaration.

In the fall of 1977, in the spirit of the Declaration at Standing Rock, Indian leaders traveled to Geneva, Switzerland and began the international work for the liberation of our Nations and Peoples that continues to this day. After thirty years of dedicated efforts by Indigenous Nations and Peoples and their allies, the United Nations General Assembly voted on September 13, 2007 to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, eleven countries abstained from the vote, and the CANZUS states (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.) voted “no.”

The “no” vote by the United States was predictable. It had taken the official position in 2006—which it has never reversed—that the then “Draft Declaration” was “fundamentally flawed” and “unworkable.”

                  On December 16, 2010, President Barack Obama issued a statement saying that the U.S. was willing to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The U.S. Department of State posted a U.S. position paper on its website in which the U.S. claims that the UN Declaration “calls for a new concept of self-determination for Indigenous peoples. The Declaration’s call is to promote the development of a concept of self-determination for indigenous peoples that is different from the existing right of self-determination in international law.” (emphasis added)

The U.S. said that, in its view, “the Declaration’s concept of self-determination” is nothing other than what is already found in U.S. federal Indian law and policy, and that it considers self-determination in the UN Declaration as being

consistent with the United States’ recognition of, and relationship with, federally recognized tribes as political entities that have inherent sovereign powers of self-governance. This recognition is the basis of the special legal and political relationship, including the government-to-government relationship, established between the United States and federally recognized tribes.

The U.S.’s claim that the UN Declaration makes a call for “a new concept” of self-determination is, of course, a complete fabrication designed to undercut the expression of self-determination in Article 3 of UN Declaration. Article 3 reads: “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” (emphasis added) Article 3 of the UN Declaration was drafted on the basis of the right of self-determination already recognized in international law, in international instruments such as the UN Charter, and UN Resolution 1514.

At this year’s UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (May 20-May 31), the United States revealed its latest strategy for undermining Article 3 of the UN Declaration. Recruit Indian leadership. At the May 22, 2013 session of the Permanent Forum, the United States said that it wanted to ‘reiterate’ its position that “self-determination as expressed in the UN Declaration is not the same as self-determination in international law.”

Six days later, on May 28 at the UN Permanent Forum, the US said that it is time for the United Nations to give “Indian tribes” an “appropriate” partcipation at the 2014 High Level Plenary Meeting-World Conference. During the delivery of her remarks, Ms. Laurie Phipps placed verbal emphasis on the word “appropriate.” When we combine the U.S. government’s 2010 statement and its May 22 UNPFII intervention on the Declaration, an “appropriate” participation can only be interpreted to mean one that is “consistent with the United States’ recognition of, and relationship with, federally recognized tribes…”, i.e., domestic dependent nationhood under U.S. plenary power.

A couple of hours after the United States’ statement, the National Congress of American Indians—in partnership with several other organizations and Indian “tribes”—issued its statement at the Permanent Forum calling for U.N. recognition of American Indian governments “as observers with, at a minimum, the same participatory rights as non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council,” according to an accompanying document issued by the Indian Law Resource Center.

United States support for the NCAI recommendation to the UN Permanent Forum came just five days after the U.S. reiterated its position on Article 3 of the Declaration. It is troubling that NCAI and its allies did not once publicly take issue with the U.S.’s domesticating interpretation of Article 3 of the UN Declaration. As a result, the United States is now making it look as if NCAI is fully supportive of the U.S.’s 2010 federal Indian law interpretation of Article 3 of the UN Declaration.(By contrast, the International Indian Treaty made a powerful intervention, presented by Roberto Borrero, challenging the U.S.'s expressed view of Article 3).

Advocating that U.S. domestic dependent nationhood and U.S. plenary power over Indian “tribes” be recognized in the United Nations is not political reform or liberation for Indian nations. It is political regression. It serves to undercut more than 30 years of work in the international arena.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.




Two Bears Growling's picture
I agree with you brother. Please be VERY wary of anything the UN & the US are in cahoots together on. This is the SAME UN that also wants the USA to give power to them over your firearms rights. We ALL know how well that ended with our ancestors when they were bribed to hand them over upon entry to the reservations in the late 1800's. I am not the only one out here that doesn't want to see black UN aircraft flying all over the US taking firearms by force & killings. Take note, none of us need some organization telling us what we need to do. That is just MORE of the washichu mentality trying to dominate us as usual. Sadly that mindset has crept into our very own people & leaders. It has done nothing but allow corruption & evil to slip into the minds of those who have secretly craved power & wealth who have been elected to tribal councils at times. Look at the corruption that has been exposed at various reservations in Indian Country: Greed, corruption, lies, theft, etc. It is shameful when these matters come to light for all to see. Our people truly need to return to the old ways of honor, pride of our people, discipline, rules, etc. We need to instill our virtues & things of the good way from the moment our children are born. So many do not know even one word of their people's language, not one bit of the culture, music, rules/ laws, etc. This must change or we are going to be swallowed by everything but what makes us uniquely who & what we are. It has to start in each home, each family, each native community & spread across all First Nations on Turtle Island. It's time to stop pretending we are native peoples except at a pow wow. We need to live & breath our culture 24/7/365. Many can look First Nation, have a CDIB card, but until our spirit becomes First Nation, we are just actors come pow wow time. It's time that we seek the answers we need through going back to the ways of the ancestors who have gone on from the old days. There is great power of a good way in knowing who we are, where we come from & every word of our languages & cultures. We each need to seek a spirit quest, pray to the Creator each day, being thankful for the blessings He has granted us. We need to return to the old religions & spiritual ways if we are ever going to return balance to our First Nations people. The balance of both the spiritual realm & earthly realm. An unbalance in either world upsets the natural order as set forth from the Great Spirit. As it stands, there is a great battle going on between the Powers of Light & those of the Evil One. It is obvious from all the chaos across this world. Please think about these many things my friends............... Stop carrying on & listening to the white man & awful hip-hop foolishness. It is not for our people. It is a culture of lawlessness, shameful ways, disrespect of oneself, ones elders & our wise ones.
Two Bears Growling
jaytaber's picture
I think you're making a leap of logic here that is unwarranted. The statement read by traditional Tonawanda chief Darwin Hill on behalf of NCAI and 72 US tribes simply pointed out that constitutional and customary Indian governing authorities are not NGOs, and need to be part of the UN process, as well as indigenous lobbyists like International Indian Treaty Council and the Indian Law Resource Center. At the same time, NCAI and Indian tribes are challenging the plenary power of the United States on taxation, trust and trade, in order to reverse the domestic dependent nation status. By thus exercising the international diplomacy as governing authorities, they strengthen their efforts toward self-determination within the US. NGOs, scholars and Indigenous governing authorities all contributed to the recognition of Indigenous human rights over the last 30 years; working together they can achieve its implementation. That won't be easy, but as long as everyone understands their roles, it's possible.
Anonymous's picture
Extremely valuable article, brother! Thank you!
Anonymous's picture
contact us us at Live Peace International.org to support widespread cooperation for the Dakota and other nations' actions with canoes and horses around the world.
Anonymous's picture
NCAI needs a change in leadership to Tribal Leaders and Executives that have been raised in the spirit of Indian Nationhood and do not accept the American made-up version of Indian Nation Quasi-Sovereignty and the U.S.' so-called "plenary power". Indian Nations are distinct peoples deserving of all the recognition and protections offered to identifiable indigenous peoples under "various" expressions in International Law. The UNDRIP is just 1. There are others.
Anonymous's picture
Paternal Power not authentic traditional sovereign independent, free and liberate nationhood's without, the BIA, IRA Corporate Governments who just can't stop killing there own kind, because they are attracted to their simple oppressors of humanity and all living thing's, indigenous sovereign intrinsic traditional and tribal nationhood's, cultural, resource, economic interventionism and obstructionism of Justice, Equality, Protection's with U.S. economical and treaty obligation with in U.S. Political and Corporate Positioning through U.S. policies that look like " The Policy of "Low Intensity Warfare" upon this western red indigenous sovereign homeland's, and continent, call North and South America! They gutted South America Indigenous People's divine sovereignties and human rights of international laws and supreme laws of this Republic and Democracy, under the Constitution of the United States! U.S. policies with indigenous peoples of America's is ethnic cleansing and outright genocide in this 21 century! We are not a Free People and the Oppressors of Empire, the "Administrators of Defiance' the dehumanization of the image of God, and his persecuted suffering and victimized indigenous children and keepers of earth and all her living thing's within the denials and dominance of national crimes of human rights violations and human enslavement, denial greed, only to dominate the living!
Anonymous's picture
The seed of our being does not rest in the body of American Law, nor in it's expressed dominion. We are and will always be free and independent spirits unconstrained by myths of American dominion and exceptionalism.