Steven Newcomb: Political meanings restrict indigenous peoples

Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute. Photo from Finding the Missing Link

Steven Newcomb explores the political realities of the upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples:
In 1996, while attending the Intersessional Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, I posed a question to the United States delegates. My question had to do with the future potential of a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the event that it was adopted by the UN General Assembly (that happened on September 13, 2007).

A U.S. delegate who was a “Political Counsel” for the US Mission to the UN in Geneva, responded with a profound comment: “To the extent that words have meanings, and to the extent that meanings configure reality, the draft Declaration has importance.” His answer was about semantics—the study of meanings. He was providing us with a critical insight from the viewpoint of the United States. Specifically, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and any documents purportedly created for its “implementation,” contain the potential to reconfigure reality, or to maintain it in its current form. Our thoughts, behaviors, and face-to-face interactions which construct our reality operate on the basis of such interpretations.

The U.S. representative’s comment was insightful and helpful when it comes to a discussion of the upcoming UN High Level Plenary Meeting (UN HLPM) of the UN General Assembly. It is a gathering the U.N says “to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” even though it isn’t one. The U.S. representative’s comment demonstrates that the officials of the United States who work in the international arena are carefully, one might say obsessively, considering the most subtle nuances of the meanings of words being used in any given situation or document. This is because they are fully cognizant of the fact that those words have the potential to reshape the very nature of the reality experienced by the United States and by any nations and peoples that are termed “indigenous.” For that reason, this work is highly political.

Get the Story:
Steven Newcomb: Meanings Create and Shape Human Reality: The UN HLPM Outcome Document (Indian Country Today 9/13)

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