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. Continue reading