Human Rights · Riding A Dead Horse · United Nations

The First Report on the 23rd UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, The Indigenous Caucus, July 16-17, 2005

Greetings to all,

As you may or may not know, this weekend (the 16th and 17th of July) was the pre-WGIP Indigenous Caucus meeting in Geneva, in preparation for the next week of sessions of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Normally, I don’t do write-ups for these sessions, but since many of the key actors including Goddess Mililani Trask, Willie Littlechild, Jose Carlos Morales, and too many others could not be here, I decided to go ahead and do my thing letting you all know what is going on. These reports are done on a voluntary basis with funding assistance from my wonderfully supportive parents and are in honour of the late Tony Black Feather who continues to be my inspiration to remain involved in the work at the international level.

Saturday’s Caucus meeting was by far the strangest I have yet to attend, as there was the smallest turnout that many had ever seen at the Caucus and the indigenous peoples appeared to be in the minority. Yes, you did read that correctly; I told you these were the strangest Caucus meetings I had been to by far. In the morning, Julian Burger had presented various information to the Caucus regarding upcoming seminars and the like, most of which remain tentative plans and tentative dates that will be concretized at a later stage. There is still no word on when exactly the next session of the Working Group on the Draft Declaration will take place, and it could be in December or the end of January, there is no way to know just yet. It is certain that the next set of informal discussions on the DD will take place in a small pueblo in Mexico from the 26-30 of September, and I will go into those details a bit later on. Louise Arbour will be visiting with a small group of members of the Caucus, but apparently indigenous issues and peoples are quite openly not her high priority, nor seem to be human rights in general in my view, but of course she will be at the WGIP on Thursday when the indigenous delegates are singing and dancing. Go figure. Welcome to the world of human rights and the United Nations.

This year’s topic of the WGIP is “Indigenous peoples and the international and domestic protection of traditional knowledge” and so on various indigenous delegates discussed issues regarding this year’s theme and there will be a Caucus statement generated including the different points made that will be presented during the WGIP. In fact, most of Saturday afternoon after Julian’s presentation was spent discussing traditional knowledge, intellectual property issues, and its variations from a number of indigenous perspectives. As soon as the statement is made available I will be sure to send it out to everyone.

There was also a small discussion on the future of the WGIP, but it was not very lengthy and it seemed that I was not the only one taken aback by the lack of people at the Caucus, especially the lack of indigenous delegates as it is your Caucus after all! I heard tell that someone had told many delegates that there was only a Caucus meeting on Sunday, which is why no one came, and am still curious about who would say that since the Caucus is always the Saturday and Sunday before the WGIP and has been since its inception. Very, very curious indeed.

Sunday morning’s Caucus meeting thankfully had a greater turnout of indigenous delegates, but still it was strange to know that Mililani and Willie and others would not be here and it seems that many people noted a difference in the energy without them. In any case, Ken and Marcus Terrena (this year’s Spanish speaking Co-chair of the Caucus), went through the discussions from yesterday and noted that there will be three Caucus statements being produced, one on the future of the WGIP, another on the issue of traditional knowledge, and the last on the issue of UN reform and restructuring.

A delegate from the Mexican government attended the Caucus to discuss the informal meeting on the Draft Declaration that will take place in September, which of course seemed to have already created more problems than it will solve. The dates of this meeting will be the 26-30 of September and is an attempt to facilitate and move forward the elaborations of the Declaration in a space away from the UN in the hopes that it will bring various disparate positions closer together. The problematics arise as the Mexican government will only provide funding for 2-3 indigenous delegates from each of the 7 geographic regions, along with an equal number of government representatives. Many indigenous peoples were concerned about the selection process and how this would take place as obviously, this is going to be a mess, but the Mexican delegate diplomatically avoided addressing it by saying that consultations would be made and only the most qualified experts would be selected in the long course of these consultations. Indigenous delegates were also concerned that the Mexican government was not pushing for an agenda to be set before the meeting, and Ken, for example, noted that the lack of an agenda will set back the meetings at least half a day as it will have to be taken up right at the beginning and everyone will have their own idea of what should or should not be included. Wilda Spalding, from the International Human Rights Consortium, asked if the Mexican government could provide for video conferencing so that indigenous peoples unable to attend in person would still be able to observe, to which the Mexican delegate responded favourably. Many others noted the complications and problems in this whole selection process, as well as the lack of an agenda in this Mexico meeting.

After lunch, the few veterans that are present this year discussed in more detail the WGDD while the newbies were in their various orientation groups. Once again, indigenous delegates were troubled by the upcoming Mexico meeting, and a further concern that arose had to do with whether observers would be able to attend the meeting if they had not received one of the fully-paid invitations to attend from the Mexican government. No one knew, so hopefully we will find out this week. Once the newbies were done with orientation, the discussion moved on to issues of the 2nd Decade on Indigenous Peoples and various recommendations that could be made to Arbour for her proposal, as well as further discussion on UN reform and the future of the WGIP.

I must make a few other notes about this Caucus meeting and am trying to find the words to put it most delicately. You all know very well that delicacy and beating around the bush are not really my style, but I will attempt it for just this moment. Don’t be worried; I won’t make a habit of it. Apparently, there were comments made to Ms. Spalding regarding her legitimacy to be speaking so prolifically on the floor of the Caucus as her status as an indigenous person was quite a mystery to many of those present: she has never actively participated in this or any other indigenous working group, and she was certainly taking the liberty to take the floor in copious amounts. Ms. Spalding ended up making a very vehement statement outlining her indigenousness for the Caucus, discussing her Iroquois roots from ten generations back and stated that she has every right as an indigenous woman to be taking the floor whenever she feels the need. Certainly, there are many people who look white but are indigenous, and so it is possible that this is her case, but many were taken aback by this outburst. Obviously, the question of legitimacy and authenticity in regards to indigenous identity is a very sticky and complicated issue, on which any of us could write varying position papers and continue on indefinitely, but I must say that I have never heard an indigenous person in any of these meetings ever attempt to defend their indigenousness on the floor. Whether Ms. Spalding is indigenous or not, the questionable legitimacy of her presence to many participants has appeared to have given other non-indigenous people the push to begin taking the floor within the Caucus with recommendations and comments about indigenous ways and traditions. I did tell you right at the beginning that these were the strangest Caucus meetings I have attended to date. Certainly, indigenous support organizations such as doCip will make statements that have to do with their mandate of documentation, and the like, but they respectfully refrain from making position statements on the floor of the Caucus or the working groups themselves. Indigenous delegates who cannot attend the meetings will sometimes ask a non-indigenous person to read a statement for them, and this also is a separate issue. But it is quite a disturbing and growing trend if in fact non-indigenous delegates will begin taking the floor without a specific mandate that was made clear from the indigenous groups for which they claim to represent or whatever, and in my personal view I found this a bit inappropriate. It is important to remember whose struggle this is, and our role as non-indigenous supporters must remain clear in our own minds. This is not to undervalue the importance of non-indigenous actors within this struggle, but it is simply to note that in a question of respect and honouring of the indigenous people we non-indigenous are here to assist, and remembering that the Indigenous Caucus is just that, a time for indigenous delegates to discuss strategy, share information, etc., and our comments as non-indigenous are reserved for other times and spaces unless in extenuating circumstances, for example the legal expertise offered by many non-indigenous delegates during the WGDD. The non-indigenous supporters surely are here to help, but this is not our struggle, and I think it is vital that we keep this in mind when making interventions at the UN and the Caucus. This is a form of undermining the legitimate cause of the indigenous delegates present, and it is very important to keep this in mind as non-indigenous supporters and allies.

Wow, that was really hard! Diplomacy is not my strong point and I hope I did okay. If not, oh well, it was the best that I can do and I can’t do much more. In any case, this is a really uncomfortable position to be in and I was thinking I wouldn’t say anything about it at all, but Grampa Tony always said ‘SPEAK UP!’ if you see something that’s not right, the important thing is always to be honest, and so I do my best to follow those words. I think in the coming months my integration of this teaching will become more and more tested for me personally on my path. Certainly, the question of legitimacy and authenticity of indigenousness opens up a whole can of worms, a veritable Pandora’s Box of complications which is something that I feel will need to be addressed within the Indigenous Caucus as well as the indigenous movement at the international level in general, and I will continue to test these waters and talk to different people to begin putting some order to this chaos. Many people are discussing the disintegration of the indigenous movement at the international level these days and I wonder if this question of legitimacy will continue to be the problematic hinge on which many of the conflicts and discussions will turn.

The Caucus meeting closed with the Drum and the All Nations Singers, who never fail to make me cry when they sing the AIM song. I miss Grampa Tony. I miss Kee Watchman. So much loss and pain that emerges just from the first few drum beats and the haunting opening melody. I send up prayers for them and their families, along with all the other great people and spiritual leaders who have been lost over the last months. Mitaku oyasin.

I send you all a big smile and a warm laugh and hope that this finds you well and smiling back at me. Until tomorrow…