The US Department of State’s Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor invited American indigenous governments to a “consultation” on May 9. This meeting in Washington, D.C. commenced just three days before the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues began its 13th Session in New York. Rumor had it that the State Department planned to use a 600-seat assembly hall at which US officials would give indigenous officials time for scheduled two-minute speeches and then listen and perhaps comment. The expectation was that indigenous leaders would talk about their views concerning the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) and some proposals for conference topics. The plan was to meet with indigenous governmental leaders for a little more than two hours. Then, separately, State representatives would meet with indigenous organizations and groups for another two hours. What was the intended outcome? The State Department wouldn’t say.
Only after strong "encouragement" by the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS), and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), did the State Department belatedly issue an agenda and explanation of the “consultation.” No indication was given whether the US government would state its policies regarding the World Conference and the UN Declaration–not surprising, given that the US government had consistently made it clear that it opposes language Declaration language such as “self-determination,” “territory,” “collective rights” and the principle of “free, prior and informed consent.”
The State Department’s description of the “consultation” stated that individuals seeking to speak must give advance notice by email, and individuals would be given two minutes to speak, after which federal officials would comment. Tribal governments would be asked to comment on six topics including violence against women, indigenous nations participation in the UN, participation in the WCIP, establishing a UN monitoring body concerned with the UN Declaration and working inside the UN to implement the UN Declaration, essentially reducing the “consultation” to a list of time slots. This begs the question: What would Indian nations get? What would be the benefit politically or strategically that Indian officials could expect after traveling to Washington DC for this meeting to speak for only two minutes? Such a charade could not be called an intergovernmental meeting much less a “consultation.” The US government would be the only beneficiary since it would be able to tell the UN and other governments, “we met with the Indians.”
What prompted this sudden desire by the State Department to meet with Indian government leaders and Indian organizations several years after the adoption of UNDRIP? Before July 2013 there was no movement at all by the US government to engage Indian leaders concerning the World Conference or the UN Declaration. Indeed, all of the US efforts concerning the UNDRIP was to stall and oppose it. It was only after a simple social reception that CWIS designed and planned for the Quinault Indian Nation ,Wampanoag, Tlingit and Haida and NCAI to host selected UN member states in New York on May 20 of 2013 that the State Department took notice. Recognizing that the US government hadn’t been invited, Economic Advisor for the US Mission to the UN, Laurie S. Phipps, asked, “Why wasn’t the US government invited?”
It was only after this that a “Listening Session” was proposed by the State Department. Tribal officials rejected the proposed session and in August counter-proposed a meeting for October 2013. That meeting was rejected by the State Department because they would not agree to enter into a dialogue and negotiations with tribal governments on the World Conference modalities and UN Declaration.
American Indians engaging the United States in connection with the WCIP lifts tribal/federal political relationships out of the BIA and into the State Department, with the State Department fully unprepared for this new reality. Until encouraged, one must surmise that the US government had no interest or intention to do anything with Indigenous America to consider how the Declaration could be implemented. Why should it? US opposition to the Declaration was vigorous and consistent from the 1980s to the point where it initially voted against it in 2007. The US government simply did not and does not want to implement the Declaration.
Recognizing that reality, CWIS fashioned a response to the State Department that basically said: If you want to talk with Indian governments you must be serious, informed and willing to engage in a dialogue. Unless the US response is favorable to that perspective, Indian nations have much more to gain by engaging other UN member states in dialogue to promote and develop strategies for implementing provisions of the UN Declaration and for discussing its implementation at the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The State Department still planed to hold its consultation on May 9, 2014 – unserious and unprepared to engage Indigenous America.
For those Indigenous leaders and indigenous organization representatives who attended the May 9 Consultation they must now consider what Indian, Alaskan Native and Hawaiian Nations got as a result of meeting with US officials. Dialogue between nations and states must be mutually agreed to. Neither side must be permitted to dictate the conditions and framework within which discussions and negotiations will take place. That is the principle idea behind the UN Declaration.
If Indigenous America enters into a “consultation” with the United States, without first mutually establishing the ground rules, they effectively leave the United States to dictate the terms and outcomes of a meeting. Indeed, indigenous nations the world over will leave states to dictate future policy unless they too demand a mutually agreed intergovernmental framework within which to conduct mediated, third party guaranteed dialogue and negotiations. That is what Indigenous America should be getting.
Dr. Ryser is the Chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, a former Acting Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, and a former staff member of the American Indian Policy Review Commission. He holds a doctorate in international relations and he is the author of Indigenous Nations and Modern States, published by Rutledge in 2012.