Iroquois at the UN
by Doug George-Kanentiio
For decades Native leaders have been knocking at the doors of the United Nations, trying to get in so they can make their arguments for admission as sovereign states, an idea the US is adamantly opposed to.
Several native nations, such as the Hopi, Shoshone and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy maintain they have never ceded their independence to the US. They point to a long history as nations, a tradition which the US recognized when it entered into treaty relationships with their governments.
Instead, US courts have declared Indians to be members of "dependent" nations who occupy their lands at the pleasure of Congress, a political body which may at any time elect to abrogate Native status altogether.
In other words, Indians have no rights Congress is legally bound to respect. Having opposed this concept for generations the leaders of the Haudenosaunee have tried to have their case heard before the UN. In 1977 they succeeded in gaining recognition as a "non-government organization" (or, NGO) at the UN human rights assembly in Geneva, Switzerland but this action was without teeth. Still, the Haudenosaunee would not give up the fight which they believe will one day have Iroquois delegates take their rightful place among the community of nations. Iroquois leaders can point to some successes in the last 18 years which give them considerable cause for hope. They were granted standing before the Fourth Russell International Tribunal held in Holland in 1984. This entity was composed of judges and legal scholars from throughout the world and provided a forum for disadvantaged peoples to plead their cases.
The Iroquois did so, presenting a long list of human rights abuses suffered at the hands of the US. Given the strength of the Iroquois case the Tribunal found it relatively simple to condemn the American government for its longstanding policy of suppressing indigenous people.
Also in 1984 the Confederacy participated in an international assembly of Native peoples in Panama and there helped draft a "Declaration of Principles of Indigenous Rights." Iroquois delegates returned to Geneva in 1989 to persuade the UN's General Conference of the International Labour Organization to move to protect Native societies against being exploited by land and resource-hungry governments and corporations.
Confederate speakers were also present at the Earth Environmental Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 and lobbied for the decision by the UN to declare 1993 as the "International Year for the Indigenous Peoples."
The hard work of the Haudenosaunee on behalf of the world's native populations have won for them many friends at the UN. Therefore it came as no surprise when the United Nations Environmental Programme agreed to hold a one day session at UN headquarters in New York City to listen to the Iroquois concerns about the ongoing contamination of their ancestral homelands.
On July 18 the Confederacy had official representatives from all six nations (with the exception of the Oneidas of New York who elected not to participate) at the UN to give testimony about conditions on Iroquois territory.
The Iroquois pointed to environmental degradation and territorial displacement as the primary cause of the internal tensions which have plagued the Confederacy for the past ten years.
Removed from their lands by force and fraud the Iroquois were compelled to suffer through adverse economic and social conditions which resulted in social chaos and political unrest. From the industrial pollutants which have destroyed farming and fishing at Akwesasne to the inundation of Allegany by the Kinzua dam, the Iroquois have come perilously close to extinction as a distinct people because their traditional economies based on their natural resources were undermined.
It should shock no one, the Haudenosaunee argued, that given poverty and lack of viable economic opportunities many Iroquois have turned to criminal activities to make a living with subsequent adverse effects on the environment.
But the Haudenosaunee are not ones to simply complain. Working in conjunction with Cambridge University in England, the Environmental Protection Agency, Indigenous Development International, as well as the UN itself, the Confederacy submitted a report entitled "Haudenosaunee: Environmental Restoration -- An Indigenous Strategy for Sustainability."
This document summarizes the current conditions on Iroquois lands and offers concrete solutions to return Mother Earth to her former state. It proposes the creation of an indigenous environmental learning center to study problem areas and offer solutions. This center would also coordinate information, define economic development strategies and assist in the preservation of culture.
The Confederacy pledged itself to raising at least $26,000,000 over the next five years for the project while seeking the assistance of the UN which in turn might use this concept for native peoples worldwide.
Haudenosaunee representatives such as Oren Lyons, Henry Lickers, Dennis Bowen, Leo Henry, Audrey Shenandoah, Jake Swamp, Leon Shenandoah, Charles Wheelock, Clint Halftown, Carol Jacobs and Bernie Parker were applauded by UN Undersecretaries Richard Butler and Keith Johnson for their perseverance, dedication and creativity in arriving at an equitable solution to a very difficult problem.
While the Haudenosaunee Confederacy might be years away from entering the UN as a nation, its presence there as the conscience of indigenous peoples from throughout the hemisphere before environmental and human rights forums make admission a strong possibility for the near future.
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