Preparing for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

In 2010, after the United States as the final holdout endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Bolivian government called for a high level plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to be held in 2014. The purpose is "to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples, including to pursue the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." The name of the meeting is World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) but don't let the title mislead you; in United Nations parlance, a “world conference" is not the same thing as a high level plenary meeting. A high level plenary meeting doesn't hold as much weight as an actual world conference.

Be that as it may, this is thought to be the first time that the UNGA is conducting such a high level meeting on indigenous issues. The WCIP in New York will be held on September 22 and 23rd and will consist of two days of plenary sessions and informal roundtable and panel discussions with whatever state governments are participating; any actual participation of indigenous peoples themselves will be at the invitation of states. A total of 200 indigenous participants from seven global regions will be invited.

To prepare for the WCIP each of the seven regions are holding preparatory meetings to develop agendas which will then be shared at one meeting of all the regions in Alta, Norway in June 2013. Presumably that's when the 200 delegates will be determined and thus recommended to state. It’s also when one final outcome document will be crafted and be brought to the WCIP on behalf of all seven regions of indigenous peoples.

The North American region consists of Canada and the United States and its preparatory conference (called the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus, or NAIPC) was conducted March 1-3, hosted by the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians in Southern California.  The bulk of the time was spent in Caucus among the hundred or so participants hammering out agenda items, choosing representatives for the Global Coordinating Committee (essentially the leadership of the seven regions) and determining delegates for the Norway meeting. Participants included many of the usual organizations and people who have been present for most of the last 40 or 50 years fighting for indigenous causes in the United Nations arena. Venerated international leader Oren Lyons, Indian Law Resource Centers’ Tim Coulter, representatives from the Native American Rights Fund, Seventh Generation Fund and International Indian Treaty Council, and Debra Harry from the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism were among the veterans in attendance.

But what set this United Nations-related conference apart from others held in past decades was the organized participation of the National Congress of American Indians in partnership with Canada's Assembly of First Nations. Together NCAI/AFN hosted a one-day meeting on February 28 for tribal government leaders to prepare them for participation in NAIPC, kicking off the weekend’s events at Sycuan. Up until now indigenous participation in the international arena was organized and pursued mainly by grassroots non-governmental organizations with relatively little participation by tribal governments. Since the US’ endorsement of UNDRIP, however, tribal governments seem to be waking up to new possibilities for pursuing greater levels of self-determination by finding ways to implement UNDRIP.

While this may seem like a step in the right direction for all Native Americans and First Nations people, it's not as easy or simple as it sounds. Native people who have been involved in the process of United Nations organizing for the past few decades—without the aid of tribal governments for the most part—have essentially laid the groundwork which has resulted in the gains made with instruments like UNDRIP. From their perspective, now come the tribal governments wanting leadership roles and decision-making powers within a system that they themselves had very little to do with establishing in the first place. These are governments that are often perceived as working against the interests of Indians who find themselves disenfranchised by them and/or by the federal government, or even seen as being compromised by their relationships with the colonizing governments. 

All of these dynamics surfaced with a vengeance at the NAIPC conference, manifesting as tension, distrust and anger, confusing and to some extent alienating tribal government leaders. Things are changing in the realm of international indigenous organizing. There are more actors on the stage now, and we are enacting a play for which a script has not yet been written. It will take time for everyone to figure out their roles, their relationships to each other, and for balance to be established. What is apparent, though, is that while we may momentarily forget, we are all on the same side. We want the same thing, and that boils down to respect as indigenous peoples.  

Tribal governments like all other indigenous groups must have a seat at the table, but no one should have more control or power than anyone else. We all want the same thing, and that boils down to respect as indigenous peoples, and what that looks like means different things to different people. There has to be room for everyone's views. Because like Grandfather Lyons so eloquently stated at NAIPC, "if you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu."

As indigenous peoples on the world stage we are being asked by state governments to accomplish a monumental and nearly inconceivable task—to unite as one voice. This will not be easy or fun. But it is necessary and now is the time to learn to work together for common cause. This we must do for our grandchildren and their grandchildren to come.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.

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