AUGUSTA, Maine – North America’s Regional Representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues marked United Nations Day with a presentation to a Maine audience about how indigenous peoples got a seat at the table of the international organization, and the continuing struggle to maintain and advance it.
Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, Snipe Clan, addressed an audience of more than 50 people at the University of Maine at Augusta Oct. 24, the 65th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations.
A day earlier, she had met with Wabanaki Confederacy leaders and citizens from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy nations.
“I am so honored to be on this territory and I’d like to first give thanks to the traditional people of this territory for allowing me to be here and giving me permission to talk with you,” she told the audience.
Gonnella Frichner is the president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance in New York, a lawyer and activist, who has devoted her life to the advancement of human rights for indigenous peoples. She was a vital part of the process of developing and negotiating the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 13, 2007 with 143 countries voting in favor, four against, and 11 abstaining. The U.S. was one of the four countries that voted against the Declaration.
She thanked the people for recognizing United Nations Day, but noted that Americans largely view international issues as unimportant.
“I don’t know if it’s because the U.S. is so isolated geographically and doesn’t think the rest of the world has anything to do with it, but it sort of acts that way, and the rest of us know that it’s never been that way and it’s never going to be that way, and once globalization hit in 1492, it hasn’t slowed down, it’s just accelerated and we are all interconnected and that is just the way it is,” Gonnella Frichner said.
The U.N., though flawed, is the only international body that deals with issues of peace and development, Gonnella Frichner said. Development affects indigenous peoples in a very personal way because they sit on land that holds the resources needed for development. In the U.S. indigenous lands contain 60 percent of the resources.
Gonnella Frichner retold the story of the Hiawatha Belt, the national belt of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, named after the follower of the Peacemaker, a prophet and spiritual leader who brought together the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) nations – the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk, and later the Tuscarora.
“Like the United Nations, we were independent nations who were at war and who made a constitution of peace made up of three principles – peace, equity and justice for the people, and the power of the good mind for the elders.”
When the Haudenosaunee nations made peace, they created a democracy that is one of the oldest living democracies in the world, Gonnella Frichner said.
“This is what was here when some of your relatives arrived several centuries ago – democracies that were in place and operating and some thriving civilizations that had a great influence on the founding fathers who were developing a new country, some new ideas, and some new thoughts about putting their world together.”
She talked about the treaties that were made with the settler colonial governments and later with the U.S. government, particularly the famous Two Row Wampum that represents what was supposed to be the guiding principles – mutual respect and non-interference – of the relationship between the Haudenosaunee nations and the Europeans.
“But things did change and the balance of power shifted quite dramatically, and not in our favor,” Gonnella Frichner said.
Indigenous nations changed from being totally sovereign since time immemorial to becoming what the U.S. describes as domestic dependent nations – terms that “cancel each other out,” Gonnella Frichner said.
By the early 1900s things had deteriorated so badly that the millions of indigenous people who had populated the land on contact were reduced to fewer than 200,000, and their lives on reservations were mired in poverty and hardship.
In the mid-1920s, the Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh went to Geneva to seek help from the League of Nations – the precursor to the United Nations – to defend his people’s right to live unimpeded on their own land, under their own laws as sovereign, self-determining nations.
“Our people felt it was the last place to go, that maybe an international community would be the place where our message would be heard, because, domestically, those (people) here were not listening, legal remedies were being exhausted,” Gonnella Frichner said.
Deskaheh was never allowed to speak to the league, but he set the precedent for what happened more than 50 years later.
In 1977, a delegation of 44 Haudenosaunee people joined hundreds of other indigenous peoples in Geneva to discuss their issues.
“It was about our treaties, our relationship with the nations here in the western hemisphere, It was about our interpretation and our definition of sovereignty, our rights to our land, our resources and our territories, it was about the protection of our lifeways and our traditions and it was about something else – it was about human rights. When our elders read this document (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) they understood very clearly that it didn’t apply to indigenous peoples,” Gonnella Frichner said.
And that was the beginning of the work at the U.N. that led to the adoption of the Declaration. But the struggle continues, she said.
Although the government is considering endorsing the Declaration, it will likely be a half-hearted effort.
“The State Department’s position has not changed from what I can tell and it’s that if the Declaration is endorsed, it will be implemented and used in the form of domestic law and not international human rights. Well, 30 years of work was about international human rights, it wasn’t about domestic law. So we have to push that bar a little further and we have to have our friends say, ‘Endorse the Declaration as a human rights instrument, not according to domestic law.’ That’s where we need your support,” Gonnella Frichner said.
The comment period will close soon; comments may be made on the State Department website.