Archives For Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Starting this Thursday, and running through the weekend, the Winnemem Wintu tribe in Northern California are holding a War Dance of civil disobedience, blocking off a 400-yard stretch of the McCloud River, an area central to their coming of age ceremonies. The reason for the blockade is due to the Forest Service’s refusal to grant mandatory closures for these ceremonies, resulting in teenage girls being heckled and abused by boating tourists.

“Help our tribe’s peaceful ceremony of resistance, our spiritual commitment to protect the Coming of Age ceremonies for our young women from public interference and harassment. [...] We will be blockading a 400-yard stretch of the McCloud River on Friday and Saturday definitely. We may possibly do it on Sunday. Please bring canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, rafts and anything that floats. We will have an air-up station set up for inflatable crafts. Also, bring life preservers.”

This situation caused the Winnemem Wintu to postpone 2011′s coming of age ceremony, citing a lack of basic safety and security necessary to holding the rites.

Marine Sisk with her mother Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu.

Marine Sisk with her mother Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu.

“For more than five years, we’ve asked the Forest Service to enforce a mandatory river closure for the ceremony’s four days in order to give us the peace and privacy we need for a good ceremony. They have continually refused to honor this request, even though it is within their power to close the river. Because Marisa is the young woman training to be the next leader, our Chief decided the risk was too great and the indignity of holding a ceremony without complete privacy could no longer be tolerated.”

Why won’t the Forest Service grant the mandatory closure? Because the Winnemem Wintu tribe aren’t  federally recognized, despite extensive proof that they are, indeed, indigenous to the area. This lack of legal status inhibits the free practice of their traditional rites, and silences their voices when it comes to redress for wrongs done to them.

“The profiles of some federally recognized American Indian tribes have grown in recent decades as they parlayed their sovereign status to create profitable ventures such as gambling enterprises. But there are many other tribes that – never having had a reservation or simply falling through the cracks of Indian policy – are unrecognized by the United States. Scholars estimate that more than 250,000 of the 5 million who identify themselves as American Indians belong to about 300 unrecognized tribes, making them almost invisible to federal Indian law.”

Unrecognized tribes in the United States aren’t able to file for a grievance under the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, due to a position paper issued by the United States government saying they wouldn’t include them, and that the process to becoming recognized is largely viewed as a bureaucratic nightmare, with almost impossibly high bars of entry.

“Anthropologists and tribal members also argue that the requirement to show “continuous and distinct community” since 1900 is unrealistic given US history. “These people went through massacres, dislocations, and suffered all these horrible atrocities, and then the government demands, ‘Show us your continuous community.’ It’s absurd,” says Les Field, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.”

Because of this lack of recognition, the Winnemem Wintu are treated like any tourist group making a claim on the river, allowing for the abuse they’ve received to go unpunished and unanswered. Now, caught in a legal limbo, and out of options, the tribe is resorting to civil disobedience to make a statement and gain attention for their plight. In addition, the Winnemem Wintu face the total erasure of their traditional lands due to a proposal raise the Shasta dam, placing the remaining pieces of their traditional home underwater.

It’s clear that the voices of unrecognized tribes aren’t being heard, and that the process to being heard is no guarantee of success. It should be the duty of the entire interfaith community, particularly those who care about the preservation of sacred lands, to raise up their own voices and put pressure on the federal government to do more. The plight of the Winnemem Wintu comes down to simply respecting the rights and traditions of a people who’ve called these lands home long before we ever arrived. While politicians and special interest groups harp about “religious freedom” in Washington DC, laser-focused on government prayer and birth control, none of them seem to be mobilizing to protect the simple right of unrecognized indigenous tribes to engage in traditional practices unmolested.

For volunteer information on this weekend’s action, including donation information, click here.

Here are a few quick news notes to start off your Monday.

Cady McClain Discusses Porn, Wants a Goddess: Actress Cady McClain, perhaps best-known for her roles on daytime television with All My Children and As the World Turns, writes an opinion piece for PolicyMic about violence and degradation in adult films, and sees patriarchal religion lying at the root of the issue.

Cady McClain

Cady McClain

“I believe we can look to patriarchal religions for one part of the answer: in a society where the god we worship is male, and the most popular religions state women are only an extension of a man- women hold no value. Period. Without the acceptance that the female divine is as holy as the male, human women will never fully take their place alongside men in terms of respect. We will still be objects to f-ck and vessels for a man’s sperm, owned by men, dominated by men, abused by men, and flushed down the toilet at will. Valueless.

I want to make it clear I am not saying that women should be held above a man in terms of her value. I am also not saying that all women are goddesses and should be worshipped as such. I am saying that without a healthy, socially accepted construct for a feminine divine equal to the masculine divine, we are a society out of balance, leaving women vulnerable to be blamed and attacked whenever something goes wrong.”

Sadly, the piece doesn’t really go into McClain’s vision of what an acceptance of the female divine should look like in our society, or how that impulse manifests in her own life. Is she a Goddess worshiper? Would she like to see a revival of polytheism? Or is this more of a “goddess within” sort of thing? In any case, a provocative read, sure to incite some debate, even if she did misspell Noam Chomsky’s name.

Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery: This week and next is the the 11th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and a primary focus will be the infamous Doctrine of Discovery and “its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests.” Indian Country Today Media Network reports on the work by indigenous leaders and activists to overturn the legal legitimacy of conquest.  The taking of  ”pagan” lands that begun with Papal Bulls of the 15th century, and was eventually enshrined in American law.

Opening of the 9th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Opening of the 9th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

“The forum includes 16 independent experts, who serve up to two three-year terms. Half are nominated by governments, and the others by indigenous organizations in several regional groupings—Africa; Asia; Central and South America and the Caribbean; the Arctic; Central and Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia; North America; and the Pacific—that encompass the world’s 370 million Indigenous Peoples.

Two years ago, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga, the former North American Regional Representative to the forum, presented a paper called, “A Preliminary Study on the Doctrine of Discovery,” which explored the underlying reasons for the worldwide violation of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. The study found that the Doctrine of Discovery, which developed from 15th century papal bulls and the royal charters of European monarchs that gave European Christians the right to claim lands “discovered” by their explorers if no Christians lived on those lands. If the “pagan” inhabitants converted to Christianity, they might be allowed to live; otherwise they could be killed or enslaved. The doctrine eventually became embedded and institutionalized in law and policy internationally.”

There’s been an ongoing groundswell of activism to get churches to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Most recently within the Unitarian Universalist Association, who will consider a responsive resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery in June during the 2012 General Assembly. Check out my 2009 interview with activist and Reclaiming Witch Zay Speer, who was at the last Parliament of the World’s Religions, working with the Onondaga Nation to end the Doctrine of Discovery. An agenda and program for the UNPFII can be found, here.

Ernest Callenbach’s Final Statement: A document found on the computer of the late Ernest Callenbach, the acclaimed author of “Ecotopia,” written shortly before he died, has been published. In it, Callenbach calls for hope, mutual support, and the adoption of practical skills in the face of ecological disaster and violent environmental change.

Ernest Callenbach

Ernest Callenbach

“These are dark times, these are bright times. We are implacably making the planet less habitable. Every time a new oil field is discovered, the press cheers: “Hooray, there is more fuel for the self-destroying machines!” We are turning more land into deserts and parking lots. We are wiping out innumerable species that are not only wondrous and beautiful, but might be useful to us. We are multiplying to the point where our needs and our wastes outweigh the capacities of the biosphere to produce and absorb them. And yet, despite the bloody headlines and the rocketing military budgets, we are also, unbelievably, killing fewer of each other proportionately than in earlier centuries. We have mobilized enormous global intelligence and mutual curiosity, through the Internet and outside it. We have even evolved, spottily, a global understanding that democracy is better than tyranny, that love and tolerance are better than hate, that hope is better than rage and despair, that we are prone, especially in catastrophes, to be astonishingly helpful and cooperative.

We may even have begun to share an understanding that while the dark times may continue for generations, in time new growth and regeneration will begin. In the biological process called “succession,” a desolate, disturbed area is gradually, by a predictable sequence of returning plants, restored to ecological continuity and durability. When old institutions and habits break down or consume themselves, new experimental shoots begin to appear, and people explore and test and share new and better ways to survive together.”

Consider this something of a counter-point to Michael York’s somewhat apocalyptic editorial from yesterday. Yes, ecological dark times are ahead of us, but perhaps we can “embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth.” Maybe true evolution and revolution are possible only in times of great peril.

That’s all I have for the moment, have a great day!

June 17th through June 21st of this year are the official 2011 days of prayer to protect Native American sacred places. Observances and ceremonies are being held across the country to honor and bring attention to the plight of Native sacred sites culminating in a Washington, D.C. Solstice observance on Tuesday, June 21 at 7:30 a.m. on the United States Capitol Grounds, West Front Grassy Area.

“Native and non-Native people nationwide gather at this time for Solstice ceremonies and to honor sacred places,” said Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee). She is President of The Morning Star Institute, which organizes the National Sacred Places Prayer Days. “Ceremonies are being conducted as Native American peoples engage in legal struggles with federal agencies that side with developers that endanger or destroy Native sacred places,” said Ms. Harjo. “Once again, we call on Congress to build a door to the courts for Native nations to protect our traditional churches. Many sacred places are being damaged because Native nations do not have equal access under the First Amendment to defend them.”

All other peoples in the United States can use the First Amendment to protect their churches, but the Supreme Court closed that door to Native Americans in 1988. The Court, in the 23 years from 1988 to 2011, has declined to allow federal religious freedom statutes to be used to protect Native American sacred places or the exercise of Native American religious freedom at sacred places.

National Sacred Places Prayer Days organizer Suzan Shown Harjo makes special note of the recent fight over stopping the expansion of a ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona (an issue I’ve covered at some length here), which involves creating fake snow from treated wastewater. A coalition of local indigenous groups and Tribal Nations see this as a desecration that would be like putting death on the mountain.” In the official National Sacred Places Prayer Days press release (PDF) special mention is given to the San Francisco Peaks fight, making plain that they’ve brought their concerns directly to President Obama at a December 2010 tribal leaders meeting. Indian Country Today, which has been running a special series on Native sacred places in conjunction with these days of prayer, has also highlighted this specific struggle.

“Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation president, is apologetic yet determined when it comes to one of the country’s special places, a place he calls “very important.” He is one of the leaders in the fight to protect the San Francisco Peaks—sacred to more than 13 Southwestern tribes—from using treated sewage water for artificial snowmaking at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort near Flagstaff. [...]  “In the city of Flagstaff, some of the people there are starting to voice concerns that the wastewater is not going to meet the [snowmaking] needs—they are kind of afraid drinking water will be used,” Shelly said, explaining that millions of gallons might be required to create just two feet of artificial snow over the ski season. The Navajo Nation may retain its own attorney on water issues and on what he said was the unsatisfactory level of government-to-government consultation by the Forest Service, which approved the snowmaking and authorized the start of construction on conveyance pipes even as it scheduled a first-time “listening session” with a Hopi group.”

While many tribal peoples are pleased with the Obama administration signing the Tribal Law and Order Act and Obama’s willingness to support the (not legally binding) United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, they are unhappy with the anti-sacred sites stance of his Justice Department and are asking for Obama to push for a “right of action” under the First Amendment to protect sacred lands (something the Supreme Court ruled Native peoples and tribes do not have in 1988).

“The President has been asked directly to call on Congress to create a right of action so we can defend our holy places, to improve the Executive Order for Indian Sacred Sites and to stop the Forest Service and other agencies from continuing their decades-long assault against Native sacred places,” said Ms. Harjo. “I’m still optimistic that the President will do these things, but not everyone is as hopeful as I am. Nonetheless, we pray that this will be the last year we are denied justice by the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches.”

I personally feel that solidarity with Native peoples and tribes on issues like this are essential. Something that goes straight to the core of many of our own values and beliefs. The encroachments and construction on sacred lands is often done in the arbitrary name of economic development, or sometimes just for simple convenience (to non-Native folks of course). During hearings for the ski resort expansion on San Francisco Peaks a government lawyer displayed shocking levels of cultural insensitivity comparing sacred plants gathered on the mountain to “herbs at health food stores.” For some politicians it seems very plain there is no such thing as sacred land at all. However, we know there are consequences and a price to the eradication or desecration of sacred ground, whether it is Tara in Ireland or the peaks in Arizona.

A major news story making the rounds has concerned photos of an “uncontacted” indigenous tribe in Brazil, sparking debate over the treatment and rights of these isolated communities. While some, like Peruvian oil and gas interests, contest that there is no such a thing as an “uncontacted” tribe, others, most notably Survival International and CIPIACI, have urged the Brazilian government to ensure the protection of their territory.


Uncontacted Indians in Brazil, May 2008
© Gleison Miranda/FUNAI

“There are more than one hundred uncontacted tribes worldwide, with more than half living in either Brazil or Peru. All are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed and decimated by new diseases. Survival has launched an urgent campaign to get their land protected…”

Now a third party, evangelical Christian missionaries, have weighed in on the subject of these tribes. Unsurprisingly, they want to foray in and “contact” them with the love of Christ, damn the consequences (such as decimating them with disease).

“It’s hard to understand how providing medical care and literacy is exploitation, especially among indigenous groups where the life expectancy of men and women is lower than average and suicide rates among youth are alarmingly high, but New Tribes and other mission organizations may face increasing opposition as governments like Venezuela’s and Brazil’s restrict outside access to tribes. In the process, those governments seem to be promoting the ideology of the “noble savage” and assuming it’s in the best interests of indigenous people to have no access to the modern world, or to the gospel.”

The article also casts aspersions on Venezeula for kicking them out, despite a long history of missionary groups (particularly New Tribes Mission) committing acts of ethnocide, espionage, and outright insurrection in the country. These Christian missionary groups are also not fond of the recent Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations, which enshrines the right to religious integrity.

“The UN Declaration, adopted in September of 2007, grants broad national rights to natives and contains language that could cause problems for … missionaries.”

What sorts of “care” and “literacy” would groups like New Tribes Mission provide if allowed to evangelize these Indians? Here is a quote from a typical “teaching session” given to a recently contacted tribe.

“As John taught about the Ten Commandments he held up a mirror, showing the Ayores how he could look into it and see himself. Then he took mud and spread it all over his face. The people thought it was hilarious, but John brought out the seriousness of the lesson. He told them how, in the mirror, he could see the dirt all over his face and that God’s Law was like a mirror. It showed people how they are dirty (sinful) before God.”

You see, indigenous people need to be taught that they are dirty sinners (under constant divine surveillance), and that only conversion will get them “clean”. I can’t see how we could deny the missionaries this opportunity, after all, according to Pope Benedict they are “silently longing” for it! So remember, according to missionaries, cultural and religious integrity, freedom from diseases they have no immunity to, and land rights come second to the old carrot/stick scenario of “progress” in exchange for your soul.

A historic United Nations declaration concerning the rights of indigenous peoples was adopted yesterday. This document, which from its first inception took over twenty years to gain approval, is a strong statement affirming the basic rights of indigenous populations to self-determination and freedom from human rights abuses.

“The declaration affirms the equality of the more than 370 million indigenous peoples and their right to maintain their own institutions, cultures and spiritual traditions. It also establishes standards to combat discrimination and marginalization and eliminate human rights violations against them.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only four countries to vote against the declaration (143 for, 11 abstentions) were Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Four countries that have troubled legal and moral histories with their own indigenous populations.

“Several detractors also warned that the declaration set a poor precedent, calling the text confusing and unclear. “We’re not standing against the issue,” said Benjamin Chang, a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. “We want one that is universal in its scope and can be implemented. What was done today is not clear. The way it stands now is subject to multiple interpretations and doesn’t establish a clear universal principal.” Australia’s U.N. Ambassador Robert Hill said the declaration failed to meet standards “that would be universally accepted, observed and upheld.” He said “Australia continues to have many concerns with the text.” The U.S. and Australia said sponsors excluded them from negotiations where agreement was reached on the amended text.”

Yes, I can see how ensuring minimum standards of human rights for indigenous populations could be “confusing” to nations with a history of treating indigenous peoples as sub-human. But while some countries grouse over their “concerns” with the document, a mood of jubilation was evident among indigenous peoples and their supporters.

“Botswana Bushman Jumanda Gakelebone of First People of the Kalahari said today, ‘We would like to say that we are really very happy and thrilled to hear about the adoption of the declaration. It recognises that governments can no longer treat us as second-class citizens, and it gives protection to tribal peoples so that they will not be thrown off their lands like we were.’ Kiplangat Cheruiyot of Kenya’s Ogiek tribe said today, ‘With the adoption of the declaration, the lives of indigenous peoples will be improved on an equal footing with the rest of world citizens.’”

In addition to addressing issues of territory and racism, the document also enshrines the basic right to religious integrity.

“Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.”

I for one welcome this landmark declaration, and hope it is only the beginning towards redressing the gross injustices perpetrated on indigenous and Native peoples around the world. One hopes this declaration will move steadily towards becoming binding International Law*.

Further coverage: Indianz, BBC, Xinhua, Crosswalk, IWGIA, Toronto Star, AFP, Inner City Press, NewstalkZB, Indian Country, Truthdig

* It should be noted that this declaration isn’t binding, and the UN can’t legally “force” any country to comply with its language. It, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is an aspirant document that attempts to set a basic standard for the behavior of member-countries. At best documents of this nature can be used to set standards for future law and to bring censure and diplomatic pressure against member countries violating the declaration.