Four years ago, when the United Nations General Assembly agreed to organize a high-level plenary meeting to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), it didn’t take long for Indigenous activists, scholars, researchers and leaders alike to recognize the potential. For some, there was over-arching hope that the meeting would usher in a new era with Nation States agreeing to implement the provisions contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For others, that hope was replaced with dismay that the WCIP would inevitably become another impressive sideshow with the needs, rights, opinions and perspectives of Fourth World Nations taking a back seat to shallow gimmicks and platitudes and false promises. And then there were those like Dr. Rudolph C. Rÿser (Cowlitz), who saw the WCIP in a more pragmatic light, as “a small punctuation mark in the greater essay that is to be written”.
As a leading expert in the field of Fourth World Geopolitics, Dr. Rÿser has spent close to forty years creating punctuation marks of his own. As co-founder and Chair of the Center for World Indigenous Studies—an organization considered to be the world’s premier indigenous think tank—Dr. Rÿser worked closely with CWIS co-founder, the late political leader, Chief George Manuel (Secwepemc) to develop a strong road map for Fourth World peoples.
He helped to negotiate an agreement between the Naga and the Chakma to cease their conflict over the World Bank Policy of Transmigration in Bangladesh; and then, turning his attention to the World Bank itself, he helped to stop the Bank’s funding of Bangladesh and Indonesia through its Transmigration program. The two countries were using Bank funds for military campaigns against the Chakama and their neighbors in Bangladesh and, in the case of Indonesia, the Papuans in West Papua.
Among his many other accomplishments, he also worked with key US-based Indigenous governments to develop the self-governance initiative that culminated in 1992 with the negotiation of compacts between the United States and three hundred Indigenous governments—directing Bureau of Indian Affairs revenues and Indian Health Service revenues directly to Indigenous governments to spend as they required. That initiative opened the door of self-governance for the first time since 1877 when the US decided to stop making treaties.
In more recent times, Dr. Rÿser developed the policy position on “Transnational Corporations” that is now reflected in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples draft outcome statement. He is also author of Indigenous Nations and Modern States: The Political Emergence of Nations Challenging State Power (2012).
IC Magazine recently spoke with Dr. Rÿser in the hopes of shedding some light on the subject of Fourth World Geopolitics specifically in connection to The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.
As chair of the Center for World Indigenous Studies since 1984, you’ve been involved with some important Fourth World (Indigenous) leaders. Can you talk about a few of those who influenced your worldview?
Grand Chief George Manuel, Secwepemc Nation, always emphasized working politically from the ground up—a strategy he learned from Tanzania’s first President Julius Kambarage Nyerere (who was himself a headman and spokesman for his own indigenous nation Zanaki). Nyerere asked George when he visited Tanzania as part of a Canadian Diplomatic Delegation in the early 1970’s if you are to achieve political change for your people, “Do you know exactly what you want from me?” or any one else. The lesson here is work from the ground up, know what your goal is and sustain your effort over the long haul.
George asked me to work as his “technician” only after I tried to contact him in the late 1970’s to see if he would stand as a speaker at a United Nations conference entitled “The Emerging International Economic Order”. I thought that the President of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples should be a speaker at a UN meeting and this looked like one that he could influence. I called him when he was in New York City at the Piccadilly Hotel. His aid, Marie Smallface Marule answered the telephone and I asked to speak with George. Marie checked with him after asking my name and then she returned to the phone to tell me no. I called a day or two later asking to speak to George since I felt the urgency of the scheduled UN meeting. This time Marie answered the phone and then checked with George again. He agreed to talk to me. What I didn’t know was that during the intervening days, George had Marie “check him out” to see if I was legitimate. I guess he decided I was and on the basis of that he and I developed a close relationship that continued for ten years.
George demonstrated his commitment to the “ground up” strategy when he had me working with Marie and with Rosalee Tizya and many others on the organization of the “Constitution Express” – a train to be loaded by volunteer Indians from across Canada who would get support from their community to join the train on its way to Ottawa to “lobby MPs.” The whole operation included hundreds of people from bands across Canada taking instruction on the train aimed at pressing Canada to agree to recognize “Indian governments” as a “third level of government” under the new 1982 Canadian Constitution. That was the time I wrote a piece to George called “Break Point Memorandum” that outlined a strategy to force Canada to accede to the policy and protect “aboriginal land rights” by pressing in Ottawa, the United Nations missions and in London with MPs there. It was a heady time and there was a major effort that in the end got George described by one judge in British Columbia as an “enemy of the state.” We didn’t win at first, but slowly the process George started slowly wore the Canadian government down. That was an important lesson: keep pushing.
Bernard Nietschmann, colleague and gonzo geographer, UC Berkeley was another influence. I met Barney in the jungle of Costa Rica at a “safe house” at the beginning of the Indian War with Nicaragua in 1983. He and I had been communicating via telephone and letters before, but only met personally then. I was at that time the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians directed by NCAI President Joe DeLaCruz to offer an agreement of support to MISURISATA (the Miskito, Sumo, Rama and Sandinistas Together) in the face of their war with Nicaragua’s Sandinista Regime. Barney was a former Geography Department Chairman from the University of California at Berkeley who had from earlier experiences become quite attached to the Miskito people and wanted to help in the war.
Barney and I became friends and strategic colleagues working together with Armstrong Wiggins, Brooklyn Rivera and many others to elevate the visibility of MISURISATA and its defensive war against Nicaragua. Barney was the only person with whom I could exchange ideas about Fourth World Theory in those days. I had written a piece entitled “Fourth World Wars…” that was published in Canada and he immediately recognized the logic of my analysis of the centrality of Fourth World nations to global political change…what I had dubbed Fourth World Geopolitics or the application of Fourth World theory (which he and I began to develop) to strategic, economic, political and geographic relations between the world’s 6000 nations and what was then 190 or so UN member states. We agreed that by placing specific conflicts or circumstances of a Fourth World nation in a broader regional or global context one could better analyze the political, strategic or other options available to that nation seeking to its political standing with other nations and with states. Barney’s strongest influence on me was to be assertive with ideas and to write relatively short sentences in first person.
And there was Joe DeLaCruz, President of the Quinault Indian Nation. He and I met when I was a young Economic Development Planner for the Quileute Tribe and he was a fresh new President for the Quinault Indian Nation. He had traveled to the Quileute capital of LaPush to get the Quileutes to make an agreement regarding Quileutes living on the Quinault Nation’s territory. The Quileute Chair Pearl Woodruf-Conlow was having nothing of Joe’s proposal and ordered him off the Quileute reservation. I didn’t fully understand what the controversy was at the time, but it clearly had an effect of Joe. He contacted me some time after that experience when I was no longer working for Quileute asking me to work with him and serve as his advisor on a range of topics. I agreed and that relationship continued until his death in 2000. Joe’s greatest influence on me has to do with paying attention to when a nation’s population is ready to make a political advance and know when they are not ready. He was very careful about taking that approach especially after his experience at Quileute. Joe also influenced my thinking about building coalitions and political collaborations. He frequently said, “You have to deal with a state government since they aren’t going away. You just have to develop a strategy and stick with it to bring the other side around to your way of thinking.” Joe also made a strong impression on me to find and position top-notch intellectuals, technicians and strategists around one’s self. He demonstrated that it isn’t always necessary to take credit for coming up with good ideas when you have a “brain trust” you can go to. He gave voice to these ideas in the political arena. He did that extraordinarily well and as a result accomplished a great deal within his own nation, regionally, in the United States and globally. He had big ideas, but knew when to put them into the world—“when people are ready.”
There was also Chairman Mel Tonasket, Confederated Tribes of Colville Indians. Mel and I met in the late 1960s at a large intertribal meeting. He had just been elected as a Councilman to the government of the Confederated Tribes of Colville Indians and was seated in the back of a large conference room. I sat closer to the front so I didn’t actually see him or know who he was. My friend and colleague Bobbi Miller at Washington State University where I was studying philosophy as an undergraduate introduced me to Mel at a break in the meeting. He had been given instructions by Lucy Covington (Granddaughter of Chief Moses who essentially founded the Colville Indian Reservation in the 19th century) to remain quiet and listen for the first two years of his term. He did that. After Lucy confirmed that she had enough votes on her Council to prevent termination of the thirteen-band reservation. Senator Henry Jackson had advanced legislation in the US Congress to terminate Colville since “it demonstrated economic and social success” rendering the Colville, in his mind and in the mind of many people in the US, a logical confederation to terminate by paying tribal members “10,000 pieces of silver” for the land so all the members could move to the cities. Lucy opposed that idea and Mel’s election was an important success for her to maintain a majority in the Colville Council in opposition to termination.
Mel was deeply influenced by Lucy who was a powerful presence not only on the Colville Reservation, but across the country. Lucy was one of the original founders of the National Congress of American Indians and she literally worked to set the American Indian Agenda for many years. She wanted Mel to extend her influence and he did when at her insistence he ran for and won the coveted seat of President of the National Congress of American Indians. Mel was green behind the ears, he admitted, but he committed himself to visit every member nation, tribe, Rancheria and community and he would work to oppose termination policies in the Nixon Administration and he would work to protect water rights for Indian Country. Mel invited me to work with him in what would be called the “Colville Mafia”—a group of young Indians and some older experienced professionals that included Ernie Stevens, Chuck Trimble, Bobbi Miller, Ken Hansen (Samish Tribe), Wendell George, Gene Joseph, Bill Veeder and Sherwin Broadhead (former staffer for Idaho’s Senator Borah (1865-1940 Republican). This was Mel’s personal brain trust in the early 1970s. Among many policies we developed was the Declaration of Sovereignty that was unanimously adopted by the National Congress of American Indians. We worked on the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act that Senator James Abourezk and Sherwin Broadhead pushed through Congress.
We worked on the legislation to create the American Indian Policy Review Commission and legislation concerning Indian Housing and Indian health as well. Mel got most of his “brain trust” including me appointed to key positions in what would become the American Indian Policy Review Commission that had been pushed through the Senate and the House of Representatives by Senator James Abourezk (D – South Dakota) and Congressman Lloyd Meads (D – Washington) with the able guidance and technical know-how of Sherwin Broadhead who had become Abourezk’s staffer (his only staffer on Indian Affairs). Mel considered the Federal Administration task force central to the Commission’s work since policies most directly affecting the lives and property of Indian people concerned the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service along with all of the 1300 federal agencies having programs affecting Indian tribes. Basically Mel wanted to shift governing power over Indian Country from “a federal agency of the US government” to individual tribal governments and communities. That was the task and that was ultimately the conclusion of the Federal Administration Task Force.
Mel was a natural politician. He would say as Margo Hill would later write in a column in Indian Country Today, “It’s okay if you don’t know everything. It’s okay if you look up fancy words. You can rely on your staff to figure out the best way to deal with an issue. Don’t let your pride get in your way.” He learned very quickly how to sweet talk people into taking the positions he wanted without offending them. I think, the lesson I learned among many from Mel was that “one should make your opponent relatively easy to persuade,” and if they don’t bend your way then muster your forces and overwhelm them.
Last but certainly not least, Lucy Covington, Confederated Tribes of Colville Indians. Lucy (1910 – 1982) is in my mind the twentieth century’s most important and effective political leader. Just as she counseled Mel Tonasket in his rise to political leadership holding two terms as president of the National Congress of American Indians and serving as Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Northwest Indians she guided other political leaders to “take the right positions.” She counseled Senator Henry Jackson, Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Bobby Kennedy, Congressman Tom Foley, Congressman Lloyd Meads and many other political figures to evolve their political positions on Indian Affairs. Lucy wasn’t flashy or constantly in the public eye, but she was right on the policies and always effective pressing those policies forward in Indian Country, in the state and region and in the federal government. Lucy could accomplish more with one well placed telephone call than all of the other Indians in the country.
Lucy was one person I admired enormously since she was the one who stood in front of that big Indian meeting those many years ago and pointed to the row of young Indians students where I sat and said: “You there, you young ones, sit and listen carefully to all the speakers. This is your education.” She continued to take that position for all the years I knew her until her death in 1982. Lucy was always kind, but she took her elder role as a teacher quite seriously and those of us who listened learned that success takes courage, commitment, knowledge and effective contacts. Lucy always maintained a direct line to the White House no matter who sat as US President. She was always carefully paced, strategically smart and politically on point. I think these are the important lessons Lucy gave me.
You are yourself widely recognized as the leading exponent of Fourth World Geopolitics. Can you explain what this field of study entails?
In the middle 1970s I was a staffer in the US Joint Congressional body called the American Indian Policy Review Commission. This two-year Commission had the responsibility for considering and recommending new US policies toward American Indians, Hawaiians and Alaskan Natives. The Commission really came about after the American Indian Movement conducted a “March on Washington” and ransacked the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then released 20 Points describing the needed policies and changes in native/US relations. While I was not part of the March on Washington I was influenced by the message it sent: “Some things had to change.” In my role at the Commission I was given the responsibility for addressing policies concerning Federal Administration of Indian Affairs and “alternative elective bodies for Indian participation in federal policy development.” It was this latter subject that got me rolling on what eventually became the field of Fourth World Geopolitics.
On the question I was faced with, on the matter of alternative elective bodies (that I finally suggested was not appropriate in the US federal system), another sub-question emerged: What is the present and future political status of American Indian nations, Hawaiian nations and Alaskan Natives? This question arose since it became apparent owing the political relevance of “elective bodies” and that the Micronesians (administered at the time by the Department of the Interior) raised the question of their political status in relation to the United States; and the Micronesians were wanting to negotiate a different political relationship. The question was first addressed in US/Indian relations in 1887 when the Linni-Lenape (AKA Delaware) were invited by the very young United States Congress to become part of the United States and send a delegation to the Congress. The Lenape rejected the invitation. Political status, or the relationship a people with an organized governing body has in relation to its neighbors and to other political entities such as states, empires, kingdoms, caliphates, etc. In other words, the actors among these political entities all had an identity and could therefore act in recognizable ways toward each other politically, economic, social, culturally and strategically.
The issue of political status then became the central feature of my developing analysis that Fourth World nations (so called by Chief George Manuel as a political designation and by the Hopi as a cultural designation) occupy territories, have populations, exercise political authority over lands and resources as well as people, can go to war, conduct economic relations, negotiate treaties, prosecute justice, develop and enforce laws, and essentially govern. All of these are qualities of a polity, of a nation. While some states use the term “nation” interchangeably with the term “state” (19th century political science continues to reign in academia and therefore influence political leaders) that construction is essentially mistaken. The state as conceived at the Treaty of Westphalia (1645) has five essential definitional requirements: Central authority, internally enforced universal law, police/military powers, defined and recognized boundaries, and is recognized by other states. These constitute a useful corporate construction organizing political and lethal power. A nation is a people sharing a common language, common territory, common culture, or common heritage. While there are some nations that have formed a state and may realistically be referred to as a “nation-state,” no state forms a nation. Kingdoms, empires, states, caliphates, emirates, are among the social constructs that rest on the use of force to bring them into existence. Nations evolve as a set of relationships between a people, the land and the cosmos.
Fourth World Geopolitics is, therefore, a field of study and a practical description of the conduct through governing institutions of social, economic, political, strategic and cultural relations between nations and between nations and states (plus other political constructs) concerning the use, occupation and rule over territory (geography), resources for life, peoples, and cultural space.
Having said that, as you know, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is coming up on September 22-23 in New York. What is your take on the significance of this gathering? Can Indigenous nations and modern states coexist?
As a High-Level Plenary Session of the UN General Assembly that is devoted to the topic of Indigenous Peoples, the WCIP is essentially a meeting of states’ governments (proposed originally by Evo Morales, President of Bolivia) to demonstrate a consensus on a Statement of actions that are intended to implement provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Its significance is that after 45 years of preliminary conversations in the UN and increasingly directly between indigenous nations and states’ governments concerning the boundaries, principles and concepts about the rights and interests of the world’s 1.3 billion indigenous peoples, the General Assembly meeting in plenary session offers the first step of a dialogue and potential negotiations of how the UN Declaration will be implemented on a state-by-state, indigenous nation-by-nation basis. It may take another generation before this process bears new fruit — formally establishing indigenous nations as part of the global human family.
At the international conference of Indigenous nations last summer in Alta, Norway, Quinault Indian Nation president Fawn Sharp called for a protocol at the UN, in which Indigenous nations would have a seat at the table. How do you think such negotiations might be conducted? What are the alternatives?
The Alta Conference was hosted by the Nordic Sami Parliament following two years of meetings, negotiations and drafting of regional statements in seven regions and by what was designated as the Women’s Caucus and the Youth Caucus. The meeting in Norway brought together more than 450 delegates from around the world to negotiate proposed topics and themes that may be considered by the UN General Assembly President as the main author of the World Conference Outcome Statement.
The negotiations between indigenous peoples, indigenous governments, the UN and states’ government representatives began on 16 July 2014 in New York with an effort to decide the language that was to be contained in the World Conference Outcome Statement.
Those negotiations effectively began as a dialogue in a meeting called the Informal Consultation. After the consultations the draft Outcome Statement will be presented to the UN Member States on 22 September. At the Conference the States’ representatives will make their adjustments and then by consensus adopt the Outcome Statement as revised.
The Quinault government proposed a specific protocol to establish an intergovernmental mechanism between Fourth World governments and UN Member States’ governments as the most effective means for engaging in bi-lateral dialogue and negotiations to implement principles and mandates of the UN Declarations. The proposal was for a permanent mechanism that would also serve as the mutually determined diplomatic instrument for resolving conflicts and disputes between indigenous nations and states’ governments.
That protocol is well described in the CWIS drafted Joint Statement of Constitutional and Customary Indigenous Governments issued to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and sent to all UN Member governments, UN Human Rights Treaty Organizations, indigenous governments and indigenous organizations.
With tribes, institutions, markets and networks all competing for media attention, a top-view of the world conference seems to be missing. What is your perspective on the history of the institutional conflict over Indigenous human rights? Is the UN helping or hurting?
The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights was drafted by a working group headed by America’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (Now the UN Human Rights Council). The values and moral concepts contained in the 1948 Declaration reflected a devout commitment to Christian precepts. While the Declaration was pronounced to be “universal” its acceptance was far from universal. While 48 of the then members of the United Nations voted in favor of the Human Rights Declaration and no state voted against, eight UN members (Soviet Union, Ukraine SSR, Byelorussia SSR, Peoples’ Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Peoples’ Republic of Poland, Union of South Africa, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia abstained. Two governments (Honduras and Yemen) didn’t vote. It took nearly sixty years for the UN to notice the rights of indigenous peoples both as individual people and as collective polities in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. The original UN Human Rights Declaration essentially failed to consider 1.3 billion people in about 6000 nations.
This Human Rights Declaration affirms individual rights of the person, but in the case of indigenous peoples, collective rights or their rights as a political body cannot be assured. The interests of Fourth World nations as political entities cannot be addressed under Human Rights principles and the subsequent covenants. As peoples the political authority they may exercise through their governments is essential to advancing their political and strategic interests. The Human Rights Declaration and the conventions implementing its principles are essentially toothless. It does not elevate the status of Fourth World nations to a position of political equality as is necessary for the full exercise of self-government. The Human Rights Declaration essentially assumes that only states’ governments have the power to make decisions affecting the rights and interests of Fourth World nations.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will require several new international conventions—international agreements—to create the opportunity for Fourth World nations to elevate their political status from subjugated to political equals. That may take another generation and Fourth World governments expressing the courage of their convictions to create new international law.
There have been tensions between some US Indigenous NGOs and American Indian governing authorities regarding the world conference. Can you shed light on what is going on there?
Indigenous America throughout the hemisphere has politically developed unevenly from virtually no political development (meaning developed institutions of governance) to partially or fully self-governing. Self-government is essential to any political community seeking to exercise its powers of decision to determine a collective future. Without the power to decide without external interference, a “people” is subjugated and may easily be oppressed.
American Indians, Hawaiians and Alaskan Natives are historically located within certain geographic areas though traveling sometimes great distances to other peoples. In the end, most peoples in North America were related to each other through what the Anicinäbe call nindoodenmag or kinship totems. If you were of one totem (I am bear), then you are related to all other people no matter where they live if they are the same nindoodem. This is how people maintain relations throughout even the hemisphere. But, when the states of the United States and Canada and Mexico and others were superimposed over the many peoples of the hemisphere these relationships were fractured. The US government continued to fracture these relations by forcing people onto “reservations” and designating them as “tribes.” (NOTE: Tribe is rooted in Roman and Greek history as a descriptive term (in Latin and Greek) as “outsider.”) There were no tribes in the hemisphere until European invaders arrived. The fracturing of nindoodem continued when the US government started its “termination policy” intent on distributing “pieces of silver” to Indians if they would leave the reservation and move to one of seven cities (Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, etc.) leaving the “now open land” for redistribution to corporations, farmers and individuals wanting to have a vacation place. This has proved to be the most devastating fracture of Indian Country. Now there are about 5.3 million Indians in the US with 1.3 million “recognized by the US” and about 750,000 living on reservations. (It should be noted now that the majority population on many reservations is now non-Indian, non-tribal.)
The fractured population thus configured into “urban Indians” and “reservation Indians” has not created a wide division between individuals and families and peoples where the “representative and elected” officials of Indian reservations cannot claim to represent all of the various parts of “indigenous America.” They can only represent only about a quarter of the total population. So, when the question comes up about who represents indigenous America there is a serious bone of contention between the “urban Indians” who have had to fend for themselves in the mix of US minorities verses Indians on the reservation who get US financial support.
Urban Indians are organized under churches, non-governmental organizations, social clubs and urban Indian centers. Reservation Indians are organized under Indian governments. Who represents whom is a serious question especially when about half the reservation Indians live off and adjacent to the reservation in urban settings. Naturally NGOs and individual activists, Hawaiians, Alaskan Native corporations wish to represent their interests and needs in relation to the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples; and Indian governments want to represent their needs and interests as governments with people to serve, represent and lands to govern. The relationships have been fractured and the interests have been fractured. The US government gets to claim the “unaffiliated Indians, Hawaiians, Alaskan Natives” as minority members of its society that it represents on the world stage. Indigenous governments get to claim their members with interests that sometimes parallel the urban Indian and often diverge from the urban Indian. From all of this you get contention, distrust among Indians and most definitely conflicts over policy.
In the Winter 2014 issue of Fourth World Journal, you talked about the processes leading up to the world conference. Can you elaborate on the frustrations, missteps and confusions you mentioned?
During the 1970s through the initiative of what became the International Treaty Council and eventually the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, Fourth World nations became visible to the world in small, but significant ways. By becoming a “presence” at international venues and organizing international events Fourth World nations (a few to be sure instead of large numbers) signaled the international community that there was to be a voice from the marginalized 6000 peoples with a combined population of 1.3 billion (20% of the world’s population) located on six continents. The voice slowly grew louder and participation from the Fourth World slowly grew from a few nations in the Pacific region, South and Central America, North America, and Europe to eventually include nations in the Soviet Union, Asia and Africa. Resources to support such an effort remain seriously limited so communications and learning from each other was also limited.
There needed to be some major event to essentially force more direct communications between Fourth World peoples at the regional and global level. Several events intervened to change the limited dynamics: establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (1981) meeting in Geneva every year for more than ten years drafting of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and adoption of the ILO Convention 169 concerning tribal and indigenous peoples (1989). In rapid fire the coming into force of several new international conventions (Climate Change Framework Convention, Biodiversity Convention, Intellectual Property Rights, World Trade Organization) that directly or obliquely referred to “indigenous peoples” (as in Article 8j in the Biodiversity convention offering “benefit sharing”) quickly changed openings for the Fourth World shifting the international political landscape. The Fourth World voice now had some venues and topics in the international arena. And, then the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007 “swiftly” followed by the election of Aymara’s Bolivian President Evo Morales who pushed forward “Mother Earth Day” at the UN and then the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. Suddenly the topic of “indigenous peoples” was thrust on to the international stage as an active event.
It was at this point that things got really interesting. Many Fourth Worldists new to the international arena and some not so new were called on to express their opinion concerning Themes and Topics that could be discussed at the UN’s High Level Plenary Meeting that the UN Resolution would call the “World Conference on Indigenous Peoples” to be stage for two days in September 2014. Neither the United Nations bureaucracy nor the Fourth Worldists were organized in any way to render a collective voice on Themes and Topics for a world meeting. In essential two and a half years, it became necessary to create an organizational infrastructure through which the Fourth World voice could now be channeled.
Fourth World individuals somewhat familiar with the UN bureaucracy met to strategize how such a massive undertaking could be organized to get a “representative voice” from the Fourth World (they called it “indigenous peoples”). A Global Coordinating Group was hastily organized with the imprimatur of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples designating seven regions and two specialized groups (women and youth) to become the organizing mechanism (that would have “representatives” in the Global Coordinating Group). Conceptually the framework made sense and seemed to kind of work.
Each region (Africa, North America, South-Central-Caribbean America, Oceana [Pacific], Asia, Arctic, Russia plus Commonwealth) and caucus was to produce about 28 participants to travel to Samiland’s capital Alta where the Sami Parliament would host a meeting of about 450 delegates. The meeting was to take place in June 2013. Finally the UN President of the General Assembly would host several “informal consultations” to draft an “outcome document” for state’s governments to approve at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The stage was set for Fourth World peoples to come face-to-face with each other and with some serious political realities…not the least of which: how do a few people (maybe 1000 or so) “represent” 1.3 billion people on six continents and the vast oceans?
Pandemonium broke out almost immediately in the Pacific Region and in North America with individuals staring down each other demanding to know if they are legitimate “representatives” of “peoples” or nations or what ever. In the end, Indian government officials were essentially ostracized by “grass roots” Indians from participating in the North American “voice.” That fell to a small group of individuals claiming to represent the true voices of North America. In the end this “true voice” repudiated the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples as “fraudulent” and “withdrew from the process.” This left North America essentially “unrepresented” in the Global Coordinating Group and in subsequent consultation concerning the outcome document for the Conference. The Pacific Region saw individuals cast out of meetings and charged with being illegitimate. The Global Coordinating Group’s Women’s Caucus was ripped by backbiting and claims of illegitimacy as did other regions.
The problems were many, but the most important “problem” was that Fourth World peoples had not figured out how to talk to each other; they left the question of who is “legitimate” up to some states (i.e., Russia, Australia, New Zealand) while many Fourth World nations were not even part of the process (much in Europe, eastern Mediterranean and Northern Africa, nations like Tibet, Manchurians and Uygurs in China, Rohingya in Burma and many nations in India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Namibia, and other African localities). The “representative voices” in Alta were often self-appointed, non-governmental representatives and a few nations. The process was hugely flawed, but credit must be given to those who worked at putting together this voice of the Fourth World as flawed as it was.
The lesson that should be drawn from this is that the Fourth World must begin to organize sub-regionally and regionally so that people develop skills dealing with one another. Once this is achieved, they can seek to define what it means to “represent” Fourth World peoples — Fourth World nations. It is clear that organizing from the top-down will not and has not worked since the real politics are near the ground level where the people and their political institutions reside. Connecting the ground level institutions through effective sub-regional, regional and international mechanisms is a challenge that has yet to be met. It will be possible, but it will take systematic organizing, development of intelligent and courageous leadership, financial resources that cannot be corrupted, and a common vocabulary that will aid in cross-cultural communications at all levels. Until this is accomplished it will be episodic leadership and slow capacity building that truly reflects Fourth World realities; that will be the rule of the day.
Once the pandemonium of the world conference is over, where do you see the Indigenous Peoples Movement going? Any final thoughts?
The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is essentially a Plenary Session of the UN by another name. That is important and consequential. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales must be congratulated for his courage and foresight to set this process in motion. In many ways the World Conference is a signpost on the path to dialogue and negotiations between Fourth World nations and UN Member states. In and of itself the World Conference will be noted as the point at which states’ governments came face-to-face with the presence and significance of Fourth World nations as political entities.
As far as the so-called Indigenous Peoples Movement is concerned I think many people have matured over the last thirty years as players in the international arena. This is both good and not so good. It is good since the process of developing capacity, understanding, and having a strong knowledge base will create serious and sensible policies to negotiate in the international arena. Experienced people understanding intergovernmental politics and a growing Fourth World intelligencia that recognizes and can apply Fourth World Geopolitical analysis to economic, political and strategic situations will increasingly occur to the benefit of Fourth World nations and improved understanding by states’ government representatives.
The Indigenous Peoples Movement also has a not so good side since an essential element of political development must necessarily mean developing a bureaucratic class. This will create a series of problems since such a bureaucracy will tend to gravitate to state institutions and thus gain their rewards from those institutions instead of Fourth World institutions. Since the rewards will come from the states, it is the states who will benefit from the “indigenous bureaucratic class cover.” Evidence of this began developing in the 1980s and became a more settled fact in the 1990s and 2000s. The World Bank, UN Development Program, UN Environmental Program, UN Economic and Social Council (with the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) and of course state’s governments themselves are gathering up Fourth World people to serve in bureaucratic positions providing them with “cover.” The result of all of this “cover” is that the “indigenous bureaucratic class” becomes the “voice of the Fourth World” at the expense of the already marginalized Fourth World. This is precisely what has happened in Canberra, Wellington, Washington DC, Ottawa, the Hague, Bergen, Moscow, Paris, Mexico City, and so on. In the United States such well-meaning persons are being rewarded from “inside the Beltway” where government and corporate interests have long referred to the “Washington Redskins” or the “pin-stripers”—American Indians employed on Capitol Hill, White House, Federal Agencies, lobby offices, non-governmental organizations and trade organizations inside Washington, D.C. They became the “Red Wall” through which Fourth World leaders had to pass to establish or seek influence with Congress, the White House and agencies like the Department of the Interior, Department of State, Justice Department and more. Washington has proved to be the primary beneficiary of the “Red Wall.” These well-rewarded people start out seeking to “establish a honest voice” for Indian Country and end up being coopted by money, political position and proximity to power.
In the end, the next generation (20-years or so) will demonstrate a wholly new political reality for Fourth World nations many of which will be politically and culturally transformed by the demands of what is essentially a global theatre. From the Bush to the Global Arena is quite a leap and for many nations this will be a “bridge too far” as the cliché is used. They will either hunker down to remain as silent as possible to avoid the risks of violence, environmental degradation, social and cultural genocide or they will find political strategies and alliances that minimize the damage or offer new opportunities. For me, the future as with the past and present hold promise and many challenges. Some nations will win, and many will lose. Some will survive and many will be destroyed. The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is but a small punctuation mark in the greater essay that is to be written.
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