Some Questions Regarding the UN High-Level Plenary Meeting

Steven Newcomb

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: "Freedom is never given to anybody, for the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there, and he never voluntarily gives it up.” Although Dr. King was speaking generally, and in the context of the African-American Civil Rights movement in the United States, his excellent point is applicable to U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

Dr. King’s words about domination are also applicable to the work now being done on the outcome document for the UN High Level Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly, a meeting that will take place at the United Nations in New York this September.

Given that U.S. federal Indian law and policy is a system of domination, as the U.S. Supreme Court—both the majority and the dissent—recently acknowledged when they used the word “subjection” to characterize that system, a question arises. It’s a question that I posed at the 2013 North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus gathering on the lands of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, March 1-3, 2013:

Will the UN High Level Plenary Meeting, which is falsely being called a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (see my column of April 6, 2014) and its outcome document work toward ending the domination/subordination framework of U.S. federal Indian law and policy that has been and continues to be used against our originally free nations and peoples? Or will that document serve to accept, and purport to “work within,” the domination /subjection framework?

To date I have received no answer to this and other questions that I and a number of my colleagues have been raising about the upcoming UN HLPM. For those of us who have been at this work for decades now, it is frustrating to see that work being undermined by an attitude of acquiescence toward the patterns of domination.

Evidence of those patterns is found in the U.N. term “indigenous peoples,” which the UN defines to mean ‘peoples under dominance,’ or ‘peoples reduced down to a status under domination.’ Those who ignore this dimension of the UN meaning of the word “indigenous” are only dealing on the surface level of the challenging issues of domination and subjection that form the root of the problem.

If the UN HLPM is not going to move us toward ending the domination/subjection system being used against our Originally Free Nations and Peoples, then what specific positive end-result is being envisioned by those Indigenous peoples’ representatives who are actively participating in preparations for the UN High Level Plenary Meeting? Every time such questions have been asked directly, those favoring the UN HLPM have declined to answer.

The Indigenous representatives at the UN MLP meetings evidently believe they are accountable to no one. They cannot or will not explain what concrete positive outcome we are to expect from the UN HLPM that will address the foundation of the domination/subjection system of the United States, Canada, and other countries.

So, let me pose the question differently: “What happens if the international states succeed in creating and approving an international outcome document which merely reinforces the existing domination/subjection framework being used against our nations and peoples? Doesn’t that reinforce, rather than challenge, the existing patterns?

Since 1974, when the Declaration of Continuing Independence was issued at the First International Indian Treaty Council, I have always understood our international work to be about the liberation of our nations from systems and patterns of domination and subjection. This perspective is found on our Indigenous Law Institute website, which has been online since the mid-1990’s. It’s a perspective found in my 1999 essay “Toward the Global Liberation of All Nations and Peoples.”

Yet, the people now putting themselves in the forefront of the international work regarding the UN HLPM seem perfectly content to simply accept the U.S. federal Indian law and policy system of “subjection.” They do not seem interested in confronting and challenging the United States’ claim that U.S. federal Indian law and policy is a positive model for all the world’s “Indigenous” peoples.

Nor do they seem interested in contradicting the United States in its lie that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for “a new concept of self-determination that is different from the right of self-determination in international law.” That was never the understanding of Indigenous peoples working in the international arena during the many years that the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was being worked on.

Indigenous peoples’ representatives from North America who are now participating in preparations for September’s UN HLPM, including those who have been participating in talks about the Outcome Document (now called the “Zero Point document”), provide us with no critique of the existing U.S. federal Indian law and policy system. They do not communicate with Indian Country and explain how what they are doing is strategically designed to achieve a particular political goal. They do not indicate how what they are doing is going to result in positive reforms of U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

They do not acknowledge that the foundational concepts of U.S. federal Indian law and policy are a problem of domination and subjection that needs to be ended and solved. As a matter of fact, they are not saying anything publicly to Indian Country to explain their positions.

The UN “Zero Point Document,” in the name of “implementing” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” contains language that serves to convert the UN Declaration into a “UN Declaration on the Rights of National Minorities.” That is a significant and terrible step backward. It moves the interpretation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in a pro-state direction, while altogether ignoring the domination systems of “settler states” such as Canada and the United States.

There are those Indigenous peoples’ representatives who are claiming that the run-up to the UN HLPM they are involved in is a “negotiation.” (Do they think they are “negotiating” fundamental rights?) But the states have made it clear. They define what’s going on as a “consultation,” which, in my view, states consider a matter of gathering the “opinions” and “views” of certain parties of what Michael Dennis from the U.S. State Department used to call “the indigenous,” and then “moving on” from there, so the “real decision-makers,” behind closed doors, can get on with the business of making the “hard” decisions in the interest of “states.”

We’ve got to do a better job of remembering and staying mindful of the fundamental issues, of defining the nature of the problem(s) we’re working to solve, envisioning and working toward strategic outcomes, and of not simply giving in to the will of states. We are the Original Nations of Great Turtle Island, rightfully free of all patterns and systems of domination and subjection, and that ought to be our unwavering and spiritually grounded message to the world.

What we don’t need is an effort to bureaucratize Indigenous Peoples issues in the United Nations. Creating something along the lines of an international Bureau of Indigenous Affairs (BIA) at the UN, all in the name of “a mechanism” to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is bizarre. We certainly don’t need a new UN bureau that is built on a passive acceptance by Indigenous Peoples of the domination/subjection system of states.

An extremely dangerous theatrical drama is being played out at the UN, in the name of “benefitting” all Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, most Native peoples are completely unaware of what is going on, or the consequences of the compromises to our independence that are being traded away by the handful of “Indigenous delegates” at the UN. When most Indian people hear about a “World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” they say, “Oh great.” They envision some kind of celebration, a party, a parade, honoring Native peoples. The only kind of party or parade the UN HLPM will end up being is one that reinforces the dominating patterns of colonialism, with the sham appearance of all Indigenous nations and peoples having given their free consent to the damaging outcome.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.

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