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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Indigenous Representation Grows At United Nations: But Will Economic Cooperation Follow?


The world's indigenous peoples converge this week in New York for the United Nations Second Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. This is an important event and we congratulate all the Native nations, institutional and individual supporters who have worked diligently to introduce indigenous voices onto the global stage.

For over 500 years, indigenous peoples faced one of two choices: be exterminated or be assimilated. The idea that the Native peoples of the world could find a seat at the table and be able to express themselves to the global community - from within their own cultures and historical realities - was considered ludicrous.

That all changed in 1977, when after half a century of struggle, the first UN conference to gather information on cases of human rights violations against indigenous peoples was held in Geneva, Switzerland. That gathering of nearly 170 traditional elders and community leaders, the International NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Conference on the Discrimination Against the Indians of the Americas, marked a tremendous occasion. Formally, for the first time, the world heard not only about the many atrocities suffered by the Native communities, it also heard genuinely unique philosophies of life and existence. Indigenous intelligence entered the universal discourse.

For the 300 million plus indigenous peoples of the world, to have international representation is clearly a great step forward. Historically marginalized since colonial times - geographically, socially and politically - indigenous peoples have in the past 30 years crisscrossed the global sphere. They have asserted their right to exist as distinct peoples of the world and have reached out with that fundamental reality to a broad array of groups, organizations and nations. As a result, much has been achieved to help guarantee that the horrendous genocide and ethnocide, which has been the common experience, can be resisted, even overcome.

Perhaps the important matter was not that indigenous peoples reached the UN, but that finally their existence was recognized and included within the discussions of the rest of humanity. As Ingrid Washinawatok wrote in 1997, the UN is a place of talk and discussion, not necessarily a place of resolution. However, the process of meeting one another and of exchanging views and seeking common project with one another was extremely significant. As debate gave way to instruction and as understanding begot solidarity, results became possible. Indigenous peoples, including the over 1,000 American Indian nations from the Western Hemisphere, came in from the margins; at the centers of power, they began to meet one another. Beyond the right and the left, beyond the Christian and the Muslim, the Native nations invoked the spiritual center that unites us with the Mother Earth. This was a different approach. From the international arena, an indigenous protagonism emerged, given to the difficult quest for unity of principle and for broad and transcendental result.

While the official UN processes were seriously and consistently engaged, the deeper and more crucial story of the past quarter century has been the way that Native nations have recognized and reinforced each other. The UN bureaucratic and legalistic processes have involved long-term, slow and greatly painstaking work. The creation, analysis and negotiation over proper use of language - this was the assignment of international lawyers and other professionals, working together with the growing and tremendously varied Native delegations. Political intrigue - from without and from within - took some toll. Confrontations with particularly hostile governments, power struggles, ideological and personality conflicts also have taken their toll. However, a unity of spirit and mind - focused on Native peoples' right to exist - has been consistently present as well, and overall, has been the dominant force in the international process.

There is a common history of dispossession - loss of land and resources, loss of life, wanton destruction of culture, disruption of sovereign systems of existence. They are all important markers of the shared condition. Throughout the 1980s, as repression gave way to outright massacre (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil); Native-run organizations stepped forward to support their kindred. Hundreds of campaigns were joined and often they made a difference: lives were saved, community lands were protected. While repressive conditions exist still today in parts of several countries, perhaps the intensity of the massacres that characterized the 1980s is hopefully behind us.

Elaborate protections and varieties of investigative bodies became available that have applied a new level of scrutiny to human rights violations. Populations such as the Maya, the Andean nations and even the Amazonian tribes, are recovering both human and political rights. This is not a finished work, but it has improved. So too has the awareness and understanding of Native spiritual and ritualistic culture improved. More complicated is repairing the long-term damage to sovereign systems of Native existence, particularly as they involved trade and commerce between and among Native nations.

Yet, as the Native nations struggle to improve the conditions of their future generations, the need for self-generated and self-determined economic bases and systems becomes completely imperative. At this time in history, economic conditions imposed by supra-systems are failing many Native populations, which are losing natural and human resources, rather than generating their own income and creating long-term, sustainable economic and ecological futures. For the future of all our peoples, economic solutions to substantial problems must be stimulated.

We hope the new era of indigenous international cooperation intensifies the economic potentials of Native peoples, their labor and their resources. Native to Native relations are paramount. The nascent tribal capital formation in North America, sometimes maligned for its association with gaming casinos, nonetheless has shown tremendous potential here. Notably, the only governmental entity within the United States to contribute to the UN's international fund for the Decade of Indigenous Peoples was the Mashantucket Pequot Nation of Connecticut. Notably, the Oneida Nation is involved in brokering Maya community coffee to North American markets. Notably, several Canadian first nations with business expertise have projects, including tourism and fisheries, with Central American and Caribbean Native communities. International development agencies will do well to assist this particular current of indigenous peoples' economic inter-cooperation in the next decade.

No doubt reconstructing Native economies brings its own set of problems. The economic power and mainstream cultural dominance of the North can sometimes breed great arrogance, even within tribal communities, organizations and businesses. Poorly informed cultural and business practice can completely bankrupt mutual opportunities. On the other hand, respectful and honorable business partnerships can uplift indigenous communities North and South. Economic cooperation calls for the highest and most ethical relations possible. The old dictum to be good friends while also doing business is central. Such cooperation should use the best of Native cultural values with each other. Then the profits realized can be a true gain for the long-term, and the future of our children's children can be guaranteed.


Note: This is an editorial from Indian Country Today


Tuesday, May 13, 2003

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