The Quinault Nation’s New Era of International Diplomacy

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

When it comes to the leadership of a tribal nation, size doesn’t matter. What does matter is its ability to think outside the colonial box and the level of its commitment to self-determination, and the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) has demonstrated this in spades. For decades QIN has played a major role in the contemporary American Indian self-determination movement and it continues elevating it to new levels through its practice of international diplomacy, United Nations style. Earlier this year in May during the meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the Quinaults held a reception to host the ambassadors of several select state governments.

“The Quinault government organized a modest reception for a limited number of UN Member governments on the first day of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to introduce the Quinault Nation and begin the process of opening a dialogue. The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is scheduled for September 2014 and as a government that does not have a seat or formal position inside the United Nations we recognized that direct communications with member states would be required to create better understanding and to exchange ideas and information,” Fawn Sharp, QIN President told ICTMN.

The reception is significant because it’s the first time a tribal government has hosted a formal gathering for state officials in the context of the United Nations. It’s part of a larger trend of Native governments reaching out in the international arena and connecting with foreign governments for the benefits of trade and to attract foreign investment to Indian country. In November 2012 QIN held a strategy meeting with the ambassadors of Turkey and Bosnia (at the request of the Turkish ambassador) where trade talks began. And last month members of the Quinault tribal council held court with the UN delegations from Germany and Lithuania in New York where their goal was to build support for the recommendations of approximately 72 North American Indian Nations and indigenous organizations.

“[We are] in the early stages of developing comfortable and working relations with several governments and we will seek to extend our interests beyond. We are interested in cultural exchanges such as educational exchange programs and perhaps sister nation and state programs, and we are interested in exploring economic opportunities that will benefit our nation and each of the various countries,” President Sharp said.

Sharp is quick to point out the troubling reality that tribal communities are like sieves where money comes in but very little stays, foreclosing on the community’s ability to fully benefit from its successes. Indian nations’ international engagement is a powerful way to expand economic opportunity and at the same time to reassert its precolonial political autonomy.

“The so-called ‘domestic-dependent nation’ idea does not work. Our best hope is self-determination expressed through self-government. We know what our people need. We know, better than any other government how to get it to them,” she stated.

But there are other potential advantages that international engagement can bring to the Quinault Nation. The Quinault reservation, located on a strip of coastline in Washington State, is experiencing the negative effects of climate change through the loss of the glacier that feeds and regulates water temperature and flow, affecting (among other things) the nation’s fishing industry. Like most indigenous peoples worldwide, the Quinaults are more vulnerable to the dangers of global warming.

“By directly engaging states’ governments directly we can push for international measures that will help us adapt to the changes we are facing right at this moment. While we must take actions within our own nation, we must also get agreements with our neighbors and governments elsewhere in the world to establish regulations and policies that mitigate the adverse effects of climate change,” President Sharp asserted.

The Quinault Indian Nation has a long history of influence in Indian country. The allotment policy, having brought with it severe consequences to the reservation’s timber industry and resulted in financial devastation by the 1960’s, led to sweeping reforms thanks to the leadership of well known activists like Joe De La Cruz and Harry Shale, Sr. Fawn Sharp grew up being mentored at the knee of De La Cruz, whose leadership she today emulates. QIN was also one of four original participants in the Self-Governance Demonstration Project in the 1980’s, which eventually led to the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994 (and now boasts almost 40 percent of all federally recognized tribes).

In preparing for the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples what are the Quinault Nation’s priorities? The establishment of an intergovernmental framework to facilitate the implementation of Article 4 of the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, which addresses the rights to self-determination and autonomy.

“The framework between constitutional or customary indigenous governments will,” President Sharp declared, “provide the logical basis for engaging discussions about Violence against Women and Children, creation of a UN Monitoring body concerned with implementation of the UNDRIP and formalizing a permanent status of indigenous nations within the UN framework.”

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