Joanne Shenandoah (Oneida) at the United Nations in New York City, New York. Courtesy photo
Opinion | World

Doug George-Kanentiio: Indigenous peoples converge on United Nations for key milestone

United Nations Marks 10th Anniversary of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

By Doug George-Kanentiio

For two days, April 27-28, my wife, Joanne Shenandoah, and I attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City.

There were a number of events to mark the 10th anniversary of the passage of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which has now been endorsed by most nations of the world.

UNDRIP was the culmination of decades of work by indigenous peoples to secure a permanent presence before the United Nations and its predecessor the League of Nations.

From the time of the inception of those two entities the Haudenosaunee-Six Nations Confederacy has led the movement towards formal recognition of the inherent rights of native peoples beginning with the Oneida leader Laura Cornelius Kellogg and the Cayuga rotiiane Levi General-Deskaheh, both of who travelled to Europe on passports issued by the Confederacy.

The attempt by the Haudenosaunee to have their concerns addressed with enforcement of their standing as a people with the right to self determination and to have treaties and agreements enforced was met with vigorous opposition by colonial powers such as Britain and France, both of whom had the power to veto any sanction or directive taken by the League.

After World War Two the United Nations primary concern was to prevent the outbreak of another conflict involving the world’s nations. In an era of unparalleled resource extraction and development the concerns of Native peoples were not central to the UN. Colonial powers once again secured the authority to nullify decisions they did not believe to be in their interests.

But the Haudenosaunee persisted. Decades of work began by forming alliances, sharing information, working with human rights organizations and refusing to stop banging on the door, demanding entry.

In 1977 the Haudenosaunee led a delegation of Native peoples to the human rights session of the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. Other appearances flowed along with intense lobbying. These efforts led directly to to creation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues followed by the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In recent years Kenneth Deer of Kahnawake has been particularly effective in persuading the UN’s General Assembly to pass the Declaration. In this work he has had the opportunity to work with the late Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga, and Oren Lyons, roterihonton (faithkeeper) for the Onondaga Nation.

The April-May 10th anniversary of the Declaration events were marked by a main forum in which Native delegates were able to summarize their concerns and the nations in which they reside having an opportunity to respond.

The testimonials were passionate and focused on the attempts by some nations to displace indigenous peoples. When they responded by invoking UNDRIP they were, according to the Native witnesses, isolated, suppressed and labeled as terrorists.

The Native delegates from Russia and China were particularly vocal in their condemnation of those two nations in denying the human rights of indigenous peoples. The Natives said their culture was under attack, their traditional beliefs and customs denied and when they protested the current anti-terrorism laws were used against them for the security of the state.

The Chinese spokesperson reacted angrily, denying that Native people were under duress, accusing the Native speaker of slandering that nation and emphasizing the efforts to enhance the lives of indigenous people in the western part of that country but the person also said Native people in the region were allying themselves with subversives from Turkestan.

Other testimony followed with similar stories. Native societies were being challenged from Vietnam to Fiji, Bolivia to the United States. Indigenous people were being displaced because they lived in areas that had large natural resources which, according to the Bolivian delegate, were now targeted by the multi-national corporations.

Those who elected to bring their concerns before the forum did so at high personal risk in some instances. They shared their stories before an assembly of many nations but other than issuing statements of concern UNDRIP has no effective enforcement provisions.

Other organizations were given a strict time limit of three minutes to deliver their remarks. The chairperson of the UNPFII is Dr. Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine from Mali and she ensured that no one went beyond their allotted time.

International Indian Treaty Council Director Andrea Carmen, Yaqui, addressed cultural patrimony and the need to repatriate sacred items consistent with UNDRIP; her remarks were supported by the delegate from Finland. An international conference on repatriation is scheduled for Helsinki in October of this year.

Within the UN complex are large rooms in which presentations were made on topics such as: Empowering women, Biodiversity The World Bank, Land rights Traditional Knowledge, Sustainability and Indigenous Youth.

Tadodaho Sid Hill, Onondaga, opened the conference when he spoke at the large green granite podium at the General Assembly Hall which concludes on May 5th.

Doug George-Kanentiio,Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.

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