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The Indigenous Rights Report

The Indigenous Rights Report is a weekly crash course on everything in the indigenous world.

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Indigenous Rights Report #24

Indigenous Rights Report #24

Nov 30 - Dec 6, 2019

This is the Indigenous Rights Report for the week of November 30, 2019. In this week’s report:

  • Court to decide whether Indigenous people can be deported from Australia
  • Bipartisan Bill introduced in House to improve housing conditions in Indian Country
  • Christian Dior reaches secret agreement with New Caledonia over patenting native plants
  • Indigenous youth take global stage in Madrid to voice climate change worries
  • Inuit sharing ancient knowledge of ice, sea and land with social media app Siku
  • Indigenous women in Kenya rebuild resilience amidst an eco-cultural crisis
  • Restoring dignity to stolen ancestors
  • Indigenous design returned after a century away
  • ‘Our Home: Native Minnesota’ exhibition to open at the Minnesota History Center
  • Scientists race to document Indigenous sites ahead of rising sea levels
  • Trump’s border wall threatens an Arizona oasis with a long, diverse history
  • B.C. commits $50 million to improve Internet in rural and Indigenous communities
  • The Native Council of P.E.I. using technology to teach and preserve Indigenous language
  • Indigenous Colombians threaten to “take” Presidential Palace if leader doesn’t speak with them
  • Federal government moving forward on UNDRIP legislation in Canada
  • Indigenous groups call out the financiers of Amazon destruction at COP 25
  • Honduras court orders 50-year jail terms in case of slain dam activist
  • The climate crisis is threatening Indigenous identities
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The high court of Australia is about to examine a dangerous question: can Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders be deported as aliens if they don’t hold Australian citizenship? The federal government says yes. But lawyers for two Indigenous men facing removal from the country, backed up by the Victorian state government, say there is another option: non-citizen non-alien. The Australian government contends it is an issue of binary definitions and that, because the men are not citizens, they are therefore aliens and the minister has the power to cancel their visas.

The case is the first time Aboriginality has been considered in testing the definition of an alien under Australia’s constitution.

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U.S. Representatives introduced a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) through 2024. NAHASDA provides federal funding and assistance to tribes to ensure that their members can access safe, affordable housing. “The data is disturbingly clear: Indian Country is facing a severe housing crisis,” said Heck. “NAHASDA plays an important role in providing Native American tribes with affordable housing options,” said Tipton. “The Native House Assistance and Self Determination Act is a critical measure to ensure Tribes can exercise self-governance. We’re working to improve housing assistance programs for Tribes, so folks can raise their families in safe and affordable homes,” said Haaland.

The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2019 would reauthorize NAHASDA programs, including the Native American Housing Block Grant, the Native Hawaiian Housing Block Grant, and loan guarantee programs.

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The French fashion company Christian Dior has reached a confidential agreement with New Caledonia’s Indigenous Kanak peoples, after it came under fire for patenting native plant extracts for its cosmetics research. The plants were used by the tribes as a form of traditional medicine to heal various diseases. The international brand patented six extracts from plants native to the French Pacific territory in the 90s, and the territory’s Customary Senate — a body comprising New Caledonia’s tribal chiefs — attempted to receive compensation last year. Indigenous leaders had argued their traditional knowledge of the territory’s plants was being used for Dior’s commercial benefit. Kanak chiefs on the island signed a joint statement with Dior recognizing the importance of their knowledge. However, full details of the agreement — including any compensation or other financial arrangements — have not been made public. “This sort of thing can never happen again on Kanak territory of New Caledonia,” said Cyprien Kawa, a tribal chief and a member of New Caledonia’s Customary Senate.

Thomas Burelli, a scholar in environmental law from the University of Ottawa, discovered the history of the Dior patents during his research on patents involving Indigenous communities. He brought his discovery to the attention of Kanak leaders four years ago and became a consultant on the case. “[The agreement] is something I have never seen in France, and I’m quite happy from what I have seen [from the negotiations] during the past four years,” he said.

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At the UN Climate Summit in Madrid, Spain, Indigenous youth have delivered a collective message to UN leadership: Take meaningful action on climate change. Indigenous youth voices have historically been silenced in the fight against climate change. For many decades, if not centuries, Indigenous people were forced to abandon their cultural heritage, traditions and in some cases, their homelands. Those who spoke out were often punished. But now, their grandchildren are finding a voice.

Among the Indigenous peoples represented at the meeting were the Inuit, the Rapa Nui, and the Mapuche Peoples of Chile. SustainUS, an American nonprofit, has sent its first-ever delegation of Indigenous young people to Madrid.

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A social media app geared towards the outdoor lives of Inuit launched at a conference in Halifax with features that tie traditional knowledge to smartphone technology. The Siku app and web platform, named after the Inuktitut word for sea ice, allows users to trade observations about dangerous conditions, document wildlife sightings and trade hunting stories. It also integrates modern weather, sea ice and satellite imagery, while allowing travelers to add in the traditional terms for potentially perilous conditions using their own language. The app was created by a team of developers assembled by the Arctic Eider Society, a charity based in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. Joel Heath, the executive director of the society, says the project was born from a desire by Inuit elders to document and share oral history with young people.

Siku is available as an online platform at SIKU.org, while the mobile app runs on Android and iOS.

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In the face of growing climate change, Indigenous women in Kenya (like the community in Tharaka County, from central Kenya, which has been making efforts to recover the memory of Indigenous seeds and sacred Tharaka traditions) are remembering and reinstating their native agricultural practices, to build resilience and reclaim their relationship to the land.

The global South, including countries like Kenya, experiences the brunt of the climate crisis compounded by years of patriarchal and missionary colonialism, Western education, and a capitalist economy that has the global South dependent on producing for a Northern market. These combined factors weaken the resilience of Indigenous people and lands, and their ability to respond to climate change, creating an ecological and cultural crisis.

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Almost 100 years ago, a University of Cape Town (UCT) medical student dug up eight skeletons from his family’s farm near the town of Sutherland, South Africa, and donated the remains to his university for study. All of these people were either San or Khoe, Indigenous peoples of South Africa. When biological anthropologist Victoria Gibbon uncovered the skeletons at the university in 2017, she knew that the remains had been unethically obtained. Gibbon and a team from the university visited the region to locate the descendants and to return their lost family members’ remains.

For South Africa, this effort is an important first. There is no internationally established method for repatriating unethically obtained human remains. Despite numerous such collections in South Africa, there is also no legislation governing restitution, repatriation, and reburial. “What is important about [the UCT] example is the involvement of the descendants through the project and particularly the role of the university in not only identifying the remains but also supporting the whole process,” says Sarah Morton, a heritage specialist at Bath Spa University in the U.K.

UCT’s efforts could guide future regulations and inform other efforts around the world. Globally, activists, communities, and scholars are pushing museums and universities to locate their unethically or unwittingly obtained human remains and return them to descendants. In the United States, for example, many institutions are researching the provenance of Native American remains to return them to lineal descendants and communities as part of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

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100 of the pots Heye acquired from the Tewa pueblos of New Mexico have been returned—albeit temporarily—to their rightful owners through a new exhibit at the Poeh Cultural Center, a multipurpose museum in Pojoaque, New Mexico, dedicated to the arts and culture of the Puebloan peoples (Tewas, primarily). Called Di Wae Powa: Return of Historic Tewa Pottery from the Smithsonian, the show’s title translates to “they come back” in the Tewa language.

While the forces of colonialism separated many Indigenous communities from their objects, long-term loans such as this one show how these artifacts can be contextualized in the environment from which they came—and with the people that they were intended to serve.

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A new exhibit called “Our Home: Native Minnesota” has opened at the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul. The 2,700-square-foot exhibit employs maps, rare artifacts, interactive screens, multimedia pieces, and historic and contemporary photographs to tell first-person stories of the history of Minnesota’s first people. 

“This is significant as the first permanent gallery devoted to Native American history and content, and I think, in a sense, it’s long overdue,” stated Mattie Harper, senior historian at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). Rita Walaszek, curatorial associate with the MNHS Native American collections said that, “The big thing I want people to come out with from this exhibit is that native people are still here today, and that we have existed during this whole time.”

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A group of U.S.-based scientists are rushing to document Indigenous sites along Puerto Rico’s coast dating back a couple of thousand years before rising sea levels linked to climate change destroy a large chunk of the island’s heritage that is still being discovered. Scientists hope to use the 3D images they’ve taken so far to also help identify which historic sites are most vulnerable to hurricanes, erosion and other dangers before it’s too late to save the island’s patrimony. The first site scientists targeted was a large swath along the U.S. territory’s north coast that includes a ceremonial center used by the Taino Indians roughly 2,000 years ago, said Isabel Rivera Collazo, an environmental archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, UCSD which is involved in the project. Also part of the project are UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Para la Naturaleza, a non-profit environmental group based in Puerto Rico.

The Tainos populated various Caribbean islands but were nearly wiped out after the arrival of Christopher Columbus and European settlers.

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A few hundred yards from the Mexican border in southern Arizona lies a quiet pond, called Quitobaquito, on the land part of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Many observers fear that the Trump administration’s planned construction of the thirty-foot border wall with nighttime floodlighting will harm wildlife, lower the water table and destroy archaeological treasures. This project could destroy an area with a diverse, multicultural history. The Orozcos and other Indigenous peoples lived at the oasis.

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The British Columbia government will contribute $50 million to an ongoing internet connectivity program to bring high-speed services to people living in up to 200 rural and Indigenous communities. The funding can be used to help bring high-speed internet to entire regions or to make final connections to homes and businesses.

The $50 million is the largest single investment in the province’s Connecting British Columbia program since its creation in 2015. The program has started or completed projects in 479 communities since July 2017, of which 83 are Indigenous communities, says the Ministry of Citizens’ Services.

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The Native Council of P.E.I. has been producing videos to help community members learn the Mi’kmaq language. The creators of the videos are Sarah Bernard (promotions and events coordinator for the Native Council of P.E.I.), and Starr Bennett (Mi’kmaq language, drumming and telling our stories coordinator for the Native Council of P.E.I.). Bennett said the videos give community members a sense of support and opportunity to understand their culture and who they are.

The Native Council of P.E.I. Mi’kmaq language video can be found on its “Native Council” Facebook page. For anyone interested in learning more, the L’nui’suti app is available on Android and iOS devices. The council also has a Mi’kmaq language online resource manual on its website at ncpei.com. Bennett and Bernard are planning on putting videos out on YouTube and creating a channel for people to watch and discover.

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If Colombia’s President doesn’t respond to native Colombians’ concerns before Saturday, 30,000 of them will travel to Bogota and “take” the presidential palace, a representative said. The Indigenous ultimatum is the latest escalation of pressure on Duque, who has been confronted with the biggest anti-government protests in more than four decades. The patience of the native Colombians from the southwestern Cauca province ran out after government delegates were still holding off negotiations with social leaders on Thursday, two weeks after protests broke out throughout Colombia.

The Indigenous joined the student organizations and labor unions in early November after one of their governors became the latest victim in a wave of deadly violence that have hit their communities.

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Canada’s federal government is moving forward with proposed legislation on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), with the goal of passing it by the end of 2020, according to two cabinet ministers. Justice Minister David Lametti and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced the government’s plan in speeches to chiefs gathered in Ottawa for the annual December meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.

The UNDRIP declaration sets minimum standards for how nation states should deal with Indigenous peoples.

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As an alternative to the official COP 25 proceedings – dominated by governments and industries – Indigenous peoples are organizing a separate Minga Indígena gathering to promote learning, discussion, and reflection among Indigenous leaders and share updates about how their communities and territories are developing alternative solutions to climate change. It will present proposals to the COP and demand the full participation of Indigenous communities.

Also, the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB) published a compelling ad in the Financial Times‘ special COP supplement. The ad, made possible by an anonymous donor and participation of Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network, calls out the worst offenders that finance Amazon destruction – specifically naming BlackRock, Vanguard, JPMorgan Chase, Santander, BNP Paribas, and HSBC – and makes clear that “the fate of the Amazon is the fate of the world.”

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A Honduran court handed down jail terms of up to five decades for seven men convicted of the 2016 murder of Indigenous activist Berta Caceres, who led a battle against a major dam on the ancestral lands of her Lenca tribe. “Five of those accused of the murder…were sentenced to 50 years in jail and another two to a term of 30 years,” said court spokeswoman Lucia Villars.

Caceres, shot to death at her home in the town of La Esperanza, was a veteran land rights activist who started out in the early 1990s, setting her sights on illegal logging. Since 2006, she had organized opposition to the $50-million Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, where building came to a halt after completing as much as a fifth of the project.

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The Pacific Islands will soon face near unlivable conditions because of the climate crisis. Already, five of the Solomon Islands have been lost and the sea level around Palau is rising at a rate three times the global average. Kiribati president Anote Tong has created a program to provide Kiribati citizens with tools to relocate legally and find work in an effort to protect their human rights before they become, as they are called colloquially, climate refugees. Other Pacific islands like Guam, West Papua, Fiji, and New Caledonia face their own challenges.

But the loss of islands, atolls, and archipelagos is more than just loss of land: it’s a threat to the political and cultural future of “Pasifika” communities, says Leilani Rania Ganser. “It’s why, even in the face of rising seas, the loss of tillable land, pesticide pollution, and a simulated war zone, the island feels impossible to leave.” Writing for Vice News, Ganser urges that climate adaptation plans do note override the fight for sovereignty and self-determination.

This is the Indigenous Rights Report.

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