At the UN: Who Decides Who Gets to Speak for Indigenous Peoples?

Who gets to decide who gets to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples? Is it the colonizing government(s) or is the indigenous people themselves?

These questions have a long history. In the United States, it includes the ugly legacy of “blood quantum laws,” which ignored the cultural practices of Native nations and instead restricted tribal membership by the blood quantum of their ancestors.In treaty negotiations, the U.S. government would pick which leaders were “legitimate.” For instance, in the 1805 Treaty with the Dakota (ceding land for what would become Fort Snelling) only two of the seven Dakota leaders present signed. Still, the U.S. government deemed that sufficient. They determined that two of seven — the two that agreed with the U.S. position — could speak for all the Dakota people.

These questions are not new but they have surfaced again, this time at the United Nations.

Most indigenous peoples have been colonized and therefore lack official “state status” to get a seat at the table at such places as the UN. The UN has committed to find a way to give indigenous peoples more of a voice on issues that affect them, what the UN is calling “enhanced participation.” Yet the devil is in the details.

As the UN presses forward with its proposals, there is going to be a fight over who gets to decide who qualifies to speak for indigenous peoples and gets to be involved in “enhanced participation.”

It is not an academic question. It has to do with power.

The UN Secretary General requested a report on how to make enhanced participation work. That report needed to address several key areas, including the makeup of the body that would  determine eligibility of Indigenous representatives.

On May 16, the UN ambassadors from Finland and Ghana sent a draft report to the President of the UN Assembly summarizing feedback they had received. Most proposals they received recommended creating a new accrediting body. It would consist of both representatives from Indigenous peoples and Member States. At a minimum, this accrediting body would consult with Indigenous peoples about who would get accredited to represent them.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has drawn criticism from several Native groups, including The Onondaga Nation and American Indian Law Alliance (AILA). They, along with a number of other Native groups, presented a “joint intervention” June 1 at UN Headquarters. Gaen hia uh (Betty Lyons), who is Onondaga and president of the AILA, said in part,

We continue to assert that this proposed body to oversee accreditation is in direct violation of our  right to self-determination  as provided  for  under  Article  3 of the  United  Nations  Declaration  on the  Rights  of Indigenous   Peoples (UNDRIP).

The suggestion that UN member states somehow have the right to determine who will be allowed enhanced participation accreditation is discriminatory  on its  face.

Asking Indigenous Peoples to sit alongside member states to determine who is  deserving  of enhanced participation is the same divide and conquer mentality derived from the Doctrine of Discovery which we have been fighting  since  contact.  The same processes used to colonize  us are being  suggested to be implemented  as a tool for ‘accreditation.’

Full text here. And here is an earlier version of the statement issued May 11.

For the sake of argument, consider again the 1805 Treaty with the Dakota. For comparison, let’s say there are seven indigenous groups or people being considered for “enhanced participation” at the UN. Undoubtedly, the concern by indigenous groups today is that the accrediting body controlled by UN member states will pick the two who are least likely to challenge UN positions.

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