A Report From The National Congress of American Indians, Meeting This Week in Albuquerque

A Clearly Guest Post by Anthony Fleg

Albuquerque – How can we advance the rights of the world’s Indigenous Nations through treaties?

This was the central question Monday evening as Indigenous leaders from Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. gathered at a special session of the 67th Annual Convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in the Albuquerque Convention Center.

Central to the discussion was the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). More than simply the sum of its 46 Articles that affirm the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous Nations, this document sets an important precedent by recognizing these groups at the level of the United Nations.

Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Canada were the only countries not to sign the declaration initially. As of last week, when Canada added their signature, the U.S. is now the only country who has not signed.
“We expect President Obama to sign this declaration on behalf of the United States in the near future, and it is important that there is not a group of non-Indian people telling us how it is going to be implemented,” said Frank Ettawageshik, Executive Director of the United Tribes of Michigan.

Indeed, attention at the session was more focused on steps needed once the U.S. signs, with sentiment hopeful that Obama will reverse the Bush Administration’s position on the document. At the NCAI meeting, a resolution being proposed calls upon the president to create a commission of Indigenous leaders to implement the UNDRIP once it is signed by the U.S.

Andrea Carmen from the Yaqui Nation (Mexico), and the Executive Director of the International Indian Treaty Council reminded those gathered the long road toward United Nations recognition. In the 1920s, various Indigenous leaders arrived at the UN’s predecessor, The League of Nations, only to be turned away.

“Finally, in 1977 we were invited to Geneva for the UN Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, but it took another three decades before we had the support in place to talk seriously about the rights of Indigenous peoples,” she noted.

Even as the UNDRIP was being drafted, there was tension around the voice given to the Indigenous voices involved, with the Indigenous delegation walking out of negotiations in 1996 and then staging a hunger strike in 2004 to show their disproval with the process.

Carmen added, “Remember that our rights, the rights of our Nations, are not set by treaties or declarations. Our rights can be affirmed or violated, but they are not something that can be given or taken away.”

To some at the gathering, the talk of treaties left doubts. An elder from the Tanana Tribal Council (Alaska), Curtis Sommer, voiced his concerns.

“To me, I don’t hear us addressing colonialism…we need our countries to be held accountable for the enslavement, murdering, and genocide, and I am not sure that begging for a small slice of what we are owed through treaties is the way to get this accomplished.”