The Definition of Indigenous
Indigenous- Merriam Webster defines indigenous as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.” Synonyms include native, original, aboriginal, autochthonous. These synonyms all remind us of the original people- those inhabitants of a place that not only call that place their home but also intrinsically belong to that area. (That’s why so many Natives scoff at the scientists who remain so adamant to prove the Bering Land Strait theory. Why this adamancy to reduce Indigenous peoples to sojourner status in their homelands?) Indigenous peoples are spread out across the world for that very reason. They reside in the area of their birth, of their grandparent’s birth, often despite the inconvenience of the location. Original peoples live in the lands their ancestors have called home for hundreds and thousands of generations. This natural scattering of Indigenous peoples has occurred for a beautiful reason with deeply entrenched roots in each group’s creation and origin stories. However, the widespread nature of Indigenous groups can also cause other more insidious issues to occur. Mainly, Indigenous peoples across the globe are subject to marginalization, denial of their identity and sovereignty, and the oppression of their human rights by the nations and governments their birthright land fosters.
United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) provides recourse for Indigenous people and groups by giving them a voice that their national governments very possibly deny them. Thus it is to an international stage that these groups send representatives and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to the United Nations to champion their cause.
The opening day of UNPFII, the green carpeted chamber of the UN’s General Assembly hall was awash with a riot of colors and textures. Indigenous faces, voices and regalia were vibrantly accented against the bureaucratic, grey-suited landscape. Amongst the microphones, desks, laptops and dark-suited diplomats sat groups of “original inhabitants,” and their presence emphasized the amazing beauty and variety of the people of this Earth. This presence though was not merely for aesthetics. Permanent Forum gives voice to the plights of marginalized tribal people groups that otherwise are denied not only their voice and opinion but also their identity as sovereign people groups.
In the days that followed, a variety of topics related to Indigenous peoples were reviewed in sessions separated by points on the agenda. Different NGOs and Indigenous people’s groups are given a chance to read carefully worded statements on the different agenda topics. This year the focus for Permanent Forum was a general overview of methods of implementation from and of statements and recommendations of years past.
As sidebars to the main Forum, many NGOs and Indigenous People’s groups hold parallel events and caucuses. These events serve not only as networking opportunities but also as smaller forums for group collaboration. At the caucuses I was privileged to attend, one recurring theme of many speakers was the importance of the self-determination and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. In many nations, Indigenous peoples are still denied their “existence” or sovereign identity as Indigenous peoples by their national government. In the United States this is an issue as well. For the vast majority of the US population, the idea is that federal recognition gives the United States government’s authority to identify Native people as “validated Natives.” However, this is a misinterpretation. Federal recognition is the process by which the United States government determines and establishes the protocol to work with a tribe on a nation-to-nation basis. Federal recognition in the United States establishes sovereignty not identity. The right to self-determination is defended strongly by all Indigenous peoples, Natives of the United States included. In those countries that deny the very existence of their Indigenous peoples, the risk of marginalization and continued discrimination increases triple-fold.
Among various other important topics on the Permanent Forum’s two-week agenda, youth suicide and self-harm were included. I was blessed to be able to work with two other Indigenous delegates from the Episcopal Church and with Lynnaia Main, the church’s Global Relations Officer in crafting a statement on youth self-harm and suicide. This statement would be the first statement to be read on the floor of the UN since the inauguration of the Episcopal Church’s new ECOSOC status. Despite not being chosen for reading on the floor, the statement was still submitted for review by the Permanent Forum. I cannot be more proud to have been a part of such a momentous occasion for the church and to have worked with such passionate, focused delegates and church staff.
I was raised in a relatively conservative enclave of the United States and growing up I heard much negative commentary on the United Nations and its efficacy (or lack thereof) in global relations. While the frustration of the language game in bureaucratic relations can be a very real impediment to immediate change, my trip to UNPFII reminded me of the importance of institutions like the United Nations to the global society in which we live today. No longer can nations, like the United States, practice the isolationism of previous centuries. For this reason, Indigenous peoples must be continually active at the United Nations, through the Permanent Forum and hopefully soon Permanent Observer status. When national governments deny Indigenous peoples their human rights, it is on an international stage that their petitions and statements must be heard. It is through the language game, the bureaucratic hoops and red tape that many a battle can be won. We as Indigenous people truly walk in two worlds. While it is important to learn the politics, to play the language game, to advocate and to network, let us never forget where we came from: indigenous- people that belong to the Earth, that belong to the same places in which our ancestors thrived hundreds of generations ago. Indigenous people belong to the Earth. The tie is intrinsic and intimate. We all know where we came from, who we are, and what we deserve as custodians of our sacred places. Now it is time to proclaim that to the world, loudly and repeatedly until they all listen.