NEW YORK – Tribal leaders and the Aymaran president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, held a historic meeting Sept. 18 before Morales’ speech at the United Nations, in which they discussed the dangers facing the natural world as well as human rights issues for Native peoples.
Morales, along with his country’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, Aymara, were in New York City for the opening of this year’s General Assembly at the United Nations. Morales addressed the General Assembly Sept. 19.
He met with leaders from the Haudenosaunee, Lakota and Cree nations, along with urban Natives from New York City. The opening ceremony was performed by Sid Hill, Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) from Onondaga in upstate New York. Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons; Alex White Plume, tribal chairman and a traditional leader of the Oglala Lakota Nation at Pine Ridge; Willie Littlechild and Rick Lightning, both Ermineskin Cree Nation; John Bull and Louis Bull, Cree Nation; and Raymond Cutknife, Samson Cree Nation, also participated in the exchange. Local leadership included Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of the Onondaga Nation. The meeting’s moderators included Roberto Borrero, Taino; Esmeralda Brown, a longtime U.N. advocate for indigenous rights; and Kent Lebsock, executive director of the American Indian Law Alliance.
Prior to the afternoon meeting, Hill and White Plume listed some of the issues they would discuss as well as their approach to the gathering.
“We will talk about environmental issues around the country and the world, but also our battles with the courts,” Hill explained. “We are, of course, looking forward to meeting him but also to see if he can help our cause as Native peoples on our lands. Going through the U.S. courts is not getting us any kind of justice.”
White Plume echoed those concerns and noted additional details.
“Bolivia is a poor country, and I come from the poorest county in the U.S.; and we don’t want to stay poor,” White Plume asserted. “We’re going to ask him to ask why the U.S. doesn’t honor the treaty rights of the Lakota; why every treaty was violated within three years … and when we try to get a bill through Congress, they say we have no jurisdiction.
“We’re going through the international arena to get support,” he added.
The meeting was hosted by the secretariat of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the AILA, an indigenous peoples’ nongovernmental organization with offices in New York City. Alex Contreras, Morales’ press secretary, said that “the meeting was set up at the request of President Morales, who seeks to initiate a substantive exchange between indigenous leaders from the North and the South to discuss the issues shared by Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.”
Lebsock added, “The election of President Morales is an historic event for all Indian peoples. For him to honor us by meeting with our traditional Native American leaders is another step in the undeniable presence of indigenous peoples in international advocacy, especially human rights.”
Morales’ office had specifically requested a small meeting in order to ensure that substantive, frank discussions could occur.
Participants hoped that this would be the first of more meetings designed to improve the dialogue between the Bolivian government and American Indian nations and First Nations of Canada. Their positive hopes were justified.
“I was really satisfied,” White Plume noted. “And he [Morales] was very impressed.” The Lakota leader recounted how Morales had thought that “American Indians were imperialists like the rest of the country, but we cleared that up.”
“It was interesting that the way he grew up was similar to how it was for us in the beginning of our colonization, but he kept to the old ways,” White Plume continued. “And we agreed that all indigenous people need to bring back some of our old ways.”
That many North American clans were intact and that the old languages were being preserved were among the things that impressed Morales, he stated.
“But we also discussed how the earth, the air and the water have been ruined in the last 500 years, in both our countries,” he said. “We also want to work on getting the Vatican to rescind the papal bull of 1493 which declared us heathen and savages. … We unanimously agreed to work on that together.”
The North American leaders were asked to help Morales draft a few comments about the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which were to be included in his speech to the United Nations.
“It has been a rewarding day,” Lebsock said. “We asked him to urge the General Assembly to pass the Declaration unamended, as-is, and to remind them that this is a new beginning for the human rights of indigenous peoples.”
He noted that certain articles of the declaration dealt with many of the issues discussed at the meeting: Article 3 on self-determination, Article 36 on treaties and Articles 21 – 28 dealing with access to and control of natural resources. (More information on the declaration is on the AILA Web site: www.ailanyc.org.)
The meeting occurred at the beginning of the General Assembly session. It is expected that the United Nations will take up the issue of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
For more than 20 years, indigenous peoples from around the world have worked with human rights experts to develop this international human rights instrument. Finally, having made its way to the General Assembly, the declaration is being supported by many U.N. member states and indigenous nations, organizations and communities around the world. However, it is also facing strong opposition from the United States, Canada and Australia.
The meeting between Morales and North American Indian leaders also focus on ensuring the passage of the declaration.
“And he invited all of us to visit him in Bolivia,” White Plume added. “He opened the door to establish more formal relations. It was a very positive meeting.”