Over the years I’ve encountered an interesting question usually posed by Canadian or American functionaries and sometimes one of their citizens that goes like this: “Do you really think that a little community of [whatever number] deserves the same rights as a country like Canada or the U.S.?” Our answer has always been to the effect, “Size doesn’t matter this is an issue of rights.”
The question has once again been raised during the course of negotiations regarding pipelines. And it has an interesting twist to it that comes out as: “Do you really think you can stand in the way of a development that provides economic growth for millions?”
This is sort of a double whammy – one, you’re too small and two, your rights and concerns are subservient to the “greater good.” I’m a citizen of the Seneca Nation and grew up during the struggle over the construction of Kinzua Dam in our southern territory of Allegany. I grew up with being told by the Americans that our nation is too small and our rights and interests will not stand in the way of their progress. We were subjected to this argument again when they decided to put Interstate 90 through our Cattaraugus Territory.
So yeah, I have sensitivity to these questions, but this time they spurred a different wondering about this never ending argument. And that wondering was about, who are the smallest nations that are members of the U.N.? And, as members, wouldn’t they have the same sovereignty and powers as the bigger nations? And, as members, would it be so easy to trample on their rights and interests for the sake of “progress” by one or more of the larger members?
Ironically, the U.N. is somewhat modeled after the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). In 1949, our chiefs and clan mothers were invited to participate in the laying of the cornerstone of the U.N. headquarters in New York City.
One of the hallmark principles in the formation of the Confederacy is stated as: “All heads are the same height.” This means that all member nations are equal regardless of size of population or territory. It also means that the larger members have to pay due regard to the concerns and positions of the smaller members. The central way this is done is through the process of consensus – coming to “One Mind, One Heart.”
This principle and process are the core elements of Haudenosaunee democracy and are in practice at every level of society. They are a key part of beliefs, practices and customs. So much so it can be argued they are embedded in our DNA and “blood memory.” We find it extremely offensive when someone suggests that we should take a subservient position simply because of our size.
In the course of researching the smallest nations I also came across what the U.N. calls the “Non-Self Governing Territories” and there are 17 of them. They are “administered” by the U.S., Britain, France or New Zealand. Their status does bring them under U.N. scrutiny.
How their legal status is framed is very interesting. The ones under U.S. jurisdiction are defined as “unincorporated, unorganized.” Now there’s a concept that harkens back to the Indian Reorganization Act. The British define those under their jurisdiction as “overseas territories”, which alludes to a sense of ownership such as the Falkland Islands issue. The French use the terms “overseas collectivity” or “special collectivity.” And New Zealand uses the term “territory” implying that Tokelau is somehow part of their country.
Looking at these 34 nations/territories has been an interesting exercise. There are some very interesting figures that emerge when these are compared to some of the Indigenous nations in North America.
The top five smallest member states of the U.N. – based on population and territory – are: 1. The Vatican, 0.2 square miles, population of 770, none of whom are permanent residents; 2. Monaco – 0.7 square miles, population 32,000; 3. Nauru – 8.5 square miles, population 13,000; 4. Tuvalu – 9 square miles, population 12,000; and 5. San Marino – 24 square miles, population 29,000. Combined, they have a total of 42.4 square miles of territory and a combined population of 86,770.
The top five Non-Self Governing Territories are: 1. Gibraltar, 2 square miles, population 29,752; 2. Tokelau, 5 square miles, population 1,411; 3. Pitcairn Islands, 14 square miles, population 50; 4. Bermuda, 22 square miles, population 62,000; and 5. Arguila, 37 square miles, population 14,108. Combined they have a total of 80 square miles of territory and a combined population of 107,321.
Both categories combine for a total of 122.4 square miles and 194,091 people. Even combining the territories and populations of all 34 nations/territories we come up with 118,918 square miles and 2.7 million people.
The largest small member state is Palau – 191 square miles and a population of 20,000. The largest Non-Self Governing is the disputed Western Sahara Territory with 102,703 square miles and an estimated population of 531,000.
Compare these to the Navajo Nation which has a territory of over 27,400 square miles and a population of 300,048. The Haudenosaunee currently control 1,095 square miles of territory and has a population of 138,000. The combined territories of the Sioux Nation total more than 10 thousand square miles and a population of over 81,000. These three nations alone account for more than 38,495 square miles and a population of over 519,000.
So, where are our seats at the international tables?
In principle, they’re sitting there waiting for us to occupy them. Therein lies the challenge – what do we need to do to be able to occupy those seats?
To begin with, we need a lot of de-colonizing of our thinking, our perceptions, our relations and our actions leading to the re-assertion of Indigenous nations and civilizations. For example, there are seven Ojibwe territories in northern Minnesota. Each has so-called “membership” rules that come from the B.I.A. Not one of them has “citizenship” criteria so the result is that there’s an ever growing number of Ojibwe children who cannot be enrolled on any of the reservations because they don’t have enough “blood quantum” from a particular Band. This is self erasure, self extermination.
Then there are the thousands of “border children” who aren’t considered Indigenous because the settler governments do not recognize the Indigenous lineage of one of the parents.
There’s political lip service paid to these issues, but there is no concerted effort to take the steps necessary to stop this form of self-imposed genocide. Countries don’t have “members”, they have citizens – we’re not a club.
There are examples all over Indian Country. Day after day people blindly perpetuating their oppression and colonization without stopping to question – where did this come from and why are we going along with it?
Until we make these liberating breakthroughs, our seats at the international tables will remain empty.
Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network’s mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.