American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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United Nations, Indians and

The United Nations was formed in 1945, in San Francisco, when fifty nations came together to declare their commitment to the codification of international law for the purposes of promoting world peace and cooperation. Within the UN Charter's statements was the resolution to protect the equal rights and the self-determination of all peoples, as well as to bring an end to colonialism and to work with colonized peoples to develop self-determination. It was this clause that led American Indians to seek the redress of grievances through the United Nations.

The earliest attempt to petition an international body for recognition of Indian rights came in the 1920s when several members of the Iroquois Confederacy came together to appeal to the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, to recognize their right to sovereignty. After two years of exhaustive work, Deskaheah, the envoy's leader, realized he would not meet with success. International appeals were set aside until Vine Deloria, Jr. again raised the issue in Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. Published in 1974, Deloria's book introduced a new generation of American Indians to the concept of international justice and nationhood.

This new sense of nationalism took definitive shape in 1974 at the first International Treaty Council (ITC) held in South Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation. The ITC, originally headed by Russell Means and Jimmie Durham, was a branch of the American Indian Movement (AIM). At the council, numerous elders from various Indian groups came together to discuss the principles and process of activism and determine a future route to pursue recognition of their rights from the U.S. government. It was agreed that, to attract broader international attention, they would need to frame their demands as that of one sovereign nation to another; therefore the group set about creating relationships with newly decolonized and independent countries. Such a legal context is well rooted in Native American history since treaties were often negotiated on similar terms. The ITC was granted the status of a nongovernmental organization in the UN and in 1977, in Geneva, appeared before the NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indian Populations. There they testified about the land theft and discriminatory practices of the U.S. government.

In 1980, two delegations were sent to meet with the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, as well as to speak at the Fourth Russell Tribunal on the wrongs committed by the federal government against American Indians. It was hoped by the International Treaty Council, who had organized these delegations, that the United Nations would hear and respond to their plea for self-determination. In 1981, at the NGO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the Land, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations was formed as a subpart of the UN Economic and Social Council. Its purpose was to review and assess the living conditions and treaty rights of Native peoples.

By 1983, however, American Indian access to the appeals process of the UN was being constantly parried by the United States' invocation of a clause in the UN Charter that defines colonized territories as those that are geographically separated from their invaders by thirty miles of ocean and by another section of the clause that guarantees territorial integrity to all states. Nevertheless, the fight continues as people from nations around the world continue to take an interest in human rights issues for Native peoples in the United States and elsewhere.

The UN Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Populations produced the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1993, which became a framework for the desired relationship between nations. The Declaration called for the respect of basic human rights and cultural identity, as well as for the protection of indigenous land bases and natural resources, political rights, and, above all, Native self-determination. In addition, the United Nations has worked to incorporate the protection of Native rights into its program for environmental protection through the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

Vera Parham

Further Reading
Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1974. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. New York: Dell.; Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1985. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Grounds, Richard A., George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkins, eds. 2003. Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.; Jaimes, Annette M., ed. 1992. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance. Boston: South End Press.

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