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Engaged Self-Determination

Published: June 6, 2013, Author: heidibruce

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held its 12th Session at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, May 20-31.  Tasked with reviewing the implementation of recommendations made at the previous year’s session, the UNPFII was subject to increasing scrutiny as the linguistic and political dust from each day’s meetings settled.  While numerous perspectives on the statements made, studies presented and outcomes determined were evaluated – and continue to be evaluated – by indigenous nations, NGO’s and states’ governments, less attention was given to an event held on May 20th wherein UN Member governments were hosted by American Indian and Alaska Native nations at a reception at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York City (Char-Koosta news, 2013).

UN Missions who attended the reception included the Czech Republic, the Kingdom of Sweden, the Kingdom of Belgium, the Republic of Panama and the Republic of Lithuania.  Co-hosting tribes were the Quinault Nation, Tlingit and Haida Tribes and the Wampanoag Tribe.  The event was supported by the NMAI and the National Congress of American Indians (nuguuam, 2013).

The purpose of the reception was to celebrate the beginning of the Permanent Forum and continue coordination on indigenous issues in advance of the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. According to Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, “North American Indian nations and UN Member States’ governments are taking specific, tangible and symbolic actions to demonstrate their willingness to engage each other in nation-to-nation dialogue, as international governments to international governments”.  Quinault Nation President, Fawn Sharp, viewed the event as an opportunity to “enter into an informal dialogue on the benefits of social, economic, political and cultural exchanges between indigenous nations and member states’ governments of the United Nations” (Char-Koosta news, 2013).

Following the footsteps of Quinault’s long-time President, Joe DeLaCruz, who expanded the Nation’s external relations into the international arena in the 1970’s & 80’s and is noted for saying:  “If a nation claims sovereignty, it must act sovereign,” indigenous governments hosting the reception acted self-determined.  By engaging directly with representatives from states’ governments, these nations, in effect, preempted the controversial statement made by Laurie Shestack Phipps – advisor for economic and social affairs of the United States Mission to the United Nations – on May 22nd, which noted that the US still holds that indigenous self-determination is different from self-determination as expressed in international law (, 2013).

While the United Nations – with its inequitable structure – serves as the main forum for inter-state diplomacy, indigenous nations may, in fact, be better served by supplementing assertions made through the UN system with bilateral negotiations that engage states’ governments directly.  This strategy can be viewed as an investment – an investment in cultural, geographic and political self-determination; a process that works best when diversified.

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