CULTURE: Rights of Indigenous Peoples Gained International Attention, Support in 2010
The year 2010 saw the Iroquois lacrosse team capture hearts around the world in its quest to travel on its Haudenosaunee passports, and ended with the U.S. and Canada uplifting hearts by endorsing the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would endorse the U.N. Declaration during the White House Tribal Nations Conference in mid-December, making the United States the last of four nations that voted against the declaration during the U.N. General Assembly in 2007 to eventually embrace the international law, which condemns the policies of colonialism and assimilation and asserts self-determination as the right of Indigenous peoples.
“The aspirations it affirms—including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples—are ones we must always seek to fulfill,” Obama told the leaders of 565 federally-recognized Indian tribes. “…But I want to be clear; What matters far more than words—what matters far more than any resolution or declaration—are actions to match those words.”
The endorsement of the declaration by the U.S., following Canada in November and New Zealand in July, is only one reason 2010 was a year of note for Indigenous peoples around the world. It was also a year in which the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was barred from traveling to the world championships in Great Britain on their Haudenosaunee passports; a consortium of Northwest Indian nations from both sides of the Canada-U.S. border was recognized for its leadership on environmental issues; and President Obama signed an apology to Indian nations. At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, more than 200 flags from Indigenous nations in the U.S., Canada and Latin American countries adorned the museum’s Potomac Atrium during November, which is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.
Recently, Director Kevin Gover of the National Museum of the American Indian, in giving a keynote address at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians, explained that because the museum has so many visitors in November, he decided “that we should take pains that Native American communities, Native nations, are not mere cultural collectives, but they are instead governments with cultural authorities and responsibilities. And these flags are a reminder to our visitors of that.”
Gover also spoke of the importance of the U.N. declaration, as well as the significance of last year’s passage of an apology to Native America from the U.S. president and Congress for the country’s historical conduct.
Gover said of the apology, “It is the first time, in a rather comprehensive way, the Congress of the United States and the President of the United States have acknowledged that our version of events is the correct one; our version of the removal era, our version of warfare, our version of the assimilation period, our version of termination, is the correct one. And that is something momentous to me.”
He noted that the apology, as well as the endorsement of the U.N. Declaration that followed, result from years of advocacy by the leaders of Indian nations. Gover also stated that the U.S., although it officially stopped making treaties with Indian nations in 1871, had returned to treaty making, based on an idea of treaty making as a “promise between two governments.”
Gover said that contemporary treaties between tribes and the U.S. have been made in the last 50 years through such means as self-governance contracts, gaming compacts and institutionalized consultation by federal and state governments with Indian nations, which has been a priority in the past year for the Obama administration.
Treaty making is something Indian nations were doing long before U.S. contact. And they have continued among themselves, as two other newsmakers in Indian Country demonstrated in 2010.
In November 16, 2010, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development Development’s Honoring Nations Program recognized the governance model of the Coast Salish Gathering, a consortium of First Nations and Tribes from the Salish Sea, which spans British Columbia and Washington state, for its leadership on environmental concerns. The Coast Salish Gathering defines its territory as running from the white caps of the Salish Sea to the white caps of the mountain ranges that surround that sea.
The sea is shown on most maps as the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, but last year the Coast Salish Gathering successfully added their name for the sea, which is one ecosystem, to the geographical place names in Washington and British Columbia.
“The Coast Salish Gathering is a powerful example of how Native Nations can significantly impact environmental policy across international borders and across multiple jurisdictions to restore the health of their homeland and waterways,” said Megan Minoka Hill, director of Harvard’s Honoring Nations Program.
On July 17, 2010, the Iroquois Nationals, a lacrosse team made up of 23 players from the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, was not permitted to travel to the FIL World Lacrosse Championships in Great Britain on their traditional Haudenosaunee passports. The Nationals had placed fourth in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Lacrosse Championships, traveling each time internationally on Haudenosaunee passports, used by their people for decades.
Suddenly, the sovereign status of the governments of Indian nations—as indicated in passports, flags and identity cards—was made known to a world-wide audience.
“You are asking us to denounce our citizenship for a game,” Percy Abrams, the Nationals’ executive director, said last summer. “When you come back from the game, guess what? We have denounced our citizenship. Is that what they would do?”
Tim Johnson, Mohawk, associate director for museum programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, said, “What’s difficult for the average American to understand, and what kids don’t get in their education, is that these documents are each a symbol of functioning American Indian governments that meet regularly and govern all the time.”
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, spanning land in both present-day New York and Ontario, is a formal government established a thousand years ago. As such, it is the oldest continually operating democracy in North America, stated Oren Lyons, Faith Keeper, Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, on the lacrosse team’s website.
“The Iroquois Nationals,” Abrams said, “serve as a declaration of our status as a sovereign nation that exists on the North American continent, which we call the Great Turtle Island.”
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service