“I am the river and the river is me”: How New Zealand is defending Maori worldviews.

Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in indigenous communities today is the laws that oversee their affairs but do not incorporate their own intrinsic values.  Western society has become so accustomed to a worldview developed through sets of values such as Christianity that it becomes difficult to separate these perspectives from our every day lives.  But not all peoples hold the same values, including the Maori in New Zealand.

Recently, New Zealand attorney general Chris Finlayson worked on agreements between the New Zealand government and various Maori groups to enable a swath of land or entire body of water to be granted personhood in the eyes of New Zealand law.

“In [the Maori] worldview,” stated Finlayson,”‘I am the river and the river is me’.  Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

This idea seems foreign to those who view “personhood” as something that belongs only to a human being.  But in a worldview that sees spirituality and what constitutes as living in a different light than what many Westerners see, this definition applies to traditional lands is completely logical.

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The former national park, Te Urewera, existed from 1954 to 2015 and consisted of 821 square miles of North Island.  Recently, the Te Urewera Act took effect so that the government abandoned its formal ownership and the land became its own legal entity, including having “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” per the statute that was passed.  In other words, the park was granted personhood; a river system is expected to receive the same designation soon, once it passes Parliament.

This classifications seem like “unusual designations” for those accustomed to non-Maori worldview, yet the legal status is similar to that of corporations who are also not an individual human being.  The decision to grant personhood was a “profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” according to Pita Sharples, the minister of Maori affairs when the law passed.  The settlement resolved the ongoing argument between New Zealand government and Maori groups over the guardianship of natural features within the country.

One great advantage to passing this law for the sake of conservation is the power it gives to the land itself.  Lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself without any need to demonstrate how a human being is impacted while defending the land’s protection.

The river set to receive similar status is the Whanganui River, the third longest river in New Zealand.  To the Maori, it is “an invisible and living whole, comprising the river and all tributaries from the mountains to the sea – and that’s what we are giving effect to through this settlement,” according to Mr. Finalyson.

These new designations do not mean people cannot still enjoy Te Urewera like when it was a national park; it simply means special permits for activities like hunting must be issued through a new board that represents the river.  This board will consist of both government and Maori representatives.

The hope now is that this landmark decision will set precedent for other indigenous communities around the world whose worldviews and cultural paradigms are not being incorporated into the laws that govern their traditional and sacred sites.  Finlayon has already began discussions with Canada’s new attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, on how these concepts can be written into Canadian law.

Will Canada be next?

obligatory COP22 fundraising post.

If you want to learn more about my work and COP22, please check out the link to our GoFundMe fundraiser:

GoFundMe – COP22

I included a summary there.  Please consider supporting us through that link.  Also, please share the fundraiser on social media or even by email to people you know.

If anyone prefers making a direct donation, such as to our delegation at SustainUs, please email me for details at kayla.devault@sustainus.org – thanks!

Your Privilege is Showing: How Climate Change Movements Miss the Point

Let’s cut to the chase: The current climate change movement, on both a national and international level, is an excellent cause with a plethora of misguided notions.  Not a piece you were probably expecting to come from a 2016 COP22 Youth Delegate candidate.  But it’s a piece that has to be said, and it has to be said now.

Before we continue blasting the world with our thoughts about environmental and social injustices, before we unite across state lines and borders to commit ourselves to challenges of the best intentions, we need to realize the lenses on our own faces.  We need to become familiar with the privileges we have that give us a voice.  We need to be aware of the hypocrisy of our actions, and how some of our actions actually silence those who, for whatever cause, have a limited participation.  With so much of our advocacy moving into cyberspace, we must acknowledge how many off-the-grid victims of climate change are left out of the conversation.  We use globalization as a strength, but isn’t globalization also our biggest enemy?

PRIVILEGE ON THE CLIMATE CHANGE FRONT
Many of us have privileges for different reasons, and if you’re reading this right now you already have one: internet access.  It’s so crucial for us as individuals to understand what privilege is and also for us to acknowledge it.  In order to make any true social change, understanding privilege and power is key to success.  These privileges are things we have access to in our lives that are in fact luxuries.  They might even be social classes or citizenships we were born into that were simply a roll of the dice.  Yet these privileges affect us both passively and actively.

When privilege affects us passively, it may be because, e.g., we do not experience discrimination or struggle financially day-to-day.  A lack of discrimination, or a lack of financial difficulty, therefore becomes our accepted norm.  In fact, it might not even occur to us how many privileges we have because we haven’t experienced a lack of that privilege.  On the other hand, privilege affects us actively when it creates a lens through which we see the world.  We have a certain idea of how life “should” be, usually based on our norms, and we end up transposing our ideas cross-culturally without even realizing it.  It’s sometimes hard to see a lens when we don’t even realize we are wearing it.  (Click here to read more about how I think our cultural lenses affect our conversations with “developing”, “impoverished”, and even indigenous communities in an interview by Chloe Maxmin.)

Today, we live in a global economy.  Our actions, more than ever, have a rippling effect that touches even the most remote face that we will never get to see or know.  This is so evident to those passionate about climate change and carbon emissions.  We understand the earth is one being, that the trees are its lungs, and that water is a sacred, shared source.  Our days move in a rhythm with the same fiery, gaseous, and extinguishable sphere in the sky.  Even before the internet, we were synchronized in this way.  Our existence, whether spontaneous or planned, relied on this synchronization in order to come into being.  Yet we are weaving that interconnectivity even closer to the point of complete interdependence.

So how does this globalization affect the movement against climate change?  The more and more we become interdependent in our global economy, the more and more we rely on international movements to address global changes.  Carbon emissions is at the forefront of this struggle.  However, we can’t help but be hypocrites; for, as we strive to resolve shared issues from globalization – like carbon emissions – through international efforts and coordination, we are in fact reinforcing the same principles we are trying to defeat.  We look to international leaders, we rally the people from every corner of the globe, we use the effective global communication tool known as social media, we buy cotton shirts in support from unknown material and labor sources, and we hop on a jet plane to get us everywhere in between.  In this way, we become hypocrites – and we exclude those without the same privilege as ourselves from the conversation.

A LIMITED PARTICIPATION
Social justice and environmental justice are not mutually exclusive things.  In fact, our Western lens tends to separate all things that should not be separated.  To think that human rights can be preserved without addressing environmental protection is a foolish notion that will destroy us if we cannot separate ourselves from it.  Yet as the culture of modern, Western society strives increasingly to separate the two, the inseparability between indigenous communities and the protection of their natural resources become evermore clear.  Our disconnect from where our food comes from, who makes our clothes, and even our cultural values translates into a disconnect from humanity and social justice.

When we operate with this disconnect, we risk framing our actions and the reasons why we do them in a way that limits how people feel they can participate.  This circles back to privilege and to having an expected vision of what life should be like.  It’s easy to make a movement where you encourage people to shower only 1 minute a day, ride their bike instead of drive to work, and buy only locally-sourced, organic foods.  Well, there are many places in the world where the population cannot participate in such a movement.  And it doesn’t have to be a remote corner; sometimes it’s in the American backyard.  Even where I live on the Navajo Reservation, many people don’t have running water so they can’t reduce shower time; they might hitch-hike to work, but they can’t bike clear to the border cities where the work and the bus routes only connect major towns a few times a day; and we live in a “food desert” where some folks don’t have electricity for refrigeration, so the choice is usually between a bag of chips or canned conventional food.  Yet it’s undeniable that the Navajo Nation is feeling the effects of climate change.  In some ways, these changes are contributing to the food desert effect.  So how can these exceptions be inclusions?

My example is just one of many, and it’s something I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve traveled.  So often the people being affected the most by climate change are the same people who don’t live with the luxuries that we “cut back on” here and there to “reduce” our impacts.  Of course, it isn’t just about how we rally ourselves socially and who is or isn’t included in social media movements.  It’s also about who is making the decisions on how we live and our health.  The policy-makers who separate themselves from the rallying public and who negotiate behind closed doors are making decisions that will affect the health and prosperity of literally every being in the world.  Talk about privilege, and talk about power.

Another example that I think really embodies the same concept of limited participation actually has to do with public art.  Public art is such a powerful tool of communication, a wordless language that transcends boundaries and delivers messages of varying complexity.  But public art can also be incredibly exclusive.  In the United States, public art is too often used as a tourist statement to encourage people to visit and come into an area.  Sure, it might positively impact local business, but the art the movement introduces is static pieces that live among the unintended audience.  The art isn’t meant to necessarily do anything for the citizens in the area, and it especially tends to exclude certain citizens like the homeless.

A classic example of how public art can be exclusive is the Fremont Troll of Seattle.  The bridge where this art piece is now used to house sleeping homeless people and some alleged drug activity.  As a way to “creatively address” this “problem”, the “public” united to install the Fremont Troll.  On the surface, it looks like a nice idea; but really, the statue displaces the “problem” rather than addresses it – and it most certainly alienates the people the art is actively targeting.  It simply strengthens and widens that social divide/gap.  It reinforces the already present issue that homeless people are not viewed as citizens, as part of the public.  The alternative?  Public art that is in fact a fluid space, inviting participation from the community.  Urban peace gardens are an example of this.  They serve as educational platforms open to any human and they rely on the community’s efforts to keep the installations running after the artists have created them.

If we really want to make a difference on the climate change front, we have to be aware of how we limit participation.  Maybe we are limiting others, and maybe policy-makers are the ones limiting us.  Regardless, we have to avoid reinforcing these gaps by building a Fremont Troll and to instead create a change that runs deeper than just a bandage on a communal wound.  We have to actively seek voices and participation from all demographics and situations, in spite of the nature of the movement and because of the movement itself.  Movements that look to include all kinds of experiences, and which add real perspective to privilege in every form it takes, it’s those movements that are more like the education tool of the urban peace gardens.  They work to include every story into the need for change. 

Ironically, Chloe’s blog also touches on this issue, describing her experience between “us” and “them” while participating in COP21.

THE HYPOCRISY OF OUR METHODS
As I mentioned briefly when addressing privilege, the methods we have to have access to in order to participate – such as transportation, cell phones, and social media – are also methods that reinforce our hypocrisy.  The most obvious is when we have to take a plane or a car to a conference on climate change, or to promote having Zero emissions by 2050.  But some of them aren’t as obvious, and not acknowledging them weakens every effort we could dream of making to combat a changing climate.  Do you know the environmental and social consequences of your cell phone?  Of the coffee you drink?  The clothes you wear?  The manufactured bike you ride?  The alternative energy you promote?

While I admire the #ZeroBy2050 movement from the COP21 Youth Delegates last year in Paris, I think it is also a good example of how we tend to really miss the point.  Yes, zero emissions is an amazing concept.  But there are numerous flaws.  Perhaps the biggest offender is the support of renewable energy.  During the #ZeroBy2050 movement at COP21, the participants were fighting to get language entered into the Paris Agreement that would call for the complete phasing out of carbon emissions by 2050.  Similar to the Break Free campaign, which aims to abandon fossil fuels completely, this movement vehemently promotes “clean energy” in place of emissions-generating operations.

I’m a Masters candidate in Mechanical Engineering for the purpose of studying alternative energy, what goes into the systems, and how they have yet to improve.  I am in this field solely for the purpose of understanding the technologies and what we are actually promoting.  One of the biggest flaws of these alleged “clean energy” sources: they depend enormously on the mining industry.  I’ve experienced across so many different organizations and communities this diehard approach to going “alternative” without having seriously considered that the “alternative” is not “clean”.  True, renewable sources will last us longer, but the current technologies we have leave us tied to mining, no matter how much we want to keep it all “in the ground”.  And it’s not just the metals and rare earth materials that go into fuel cells/solar panels and wind turbines, it’s also the metals and chemicals in our painted bikes and modes of transportation and the gold in the circuitry of all our electronic devices.

Yet, the more you think about it, our world works in a balance.  That’s part of what we are fighting for, right?  To maintain the atmospheric balance.  To reverse rapid changes we have made since the Industrial Revolution to which Nature is struggling to adapt.  But we can’t completely eliminate carbon emissions.  It sounds radical to say, but carbon emissions are also part of the balance.  When we say “carbon emissions”, we simply mean “carbon dioxide” – a key component to the atmosphere.  Too much of it can have serious ramifications.  For example, too much CO2 in the atmosphere heats the earth during radiation.  It also causes an imbalance in calcium carbonate precipitation in the ocean water, leading to the acidification of the ocean and the dying of coral reefs.  (Read my term paper on this topic here.)  But the same can be said if we dramatically reverse and completely eliminate carbon emissions.  We have to be careful that we don’t promote the idea that no carbon dioxide equals a healthy planet.  Rather, we have to find a way to strike a balance.

Saying we will not burn fuels that create carbon emissions also means we must strike down every effort to promote biomass energy.  Why?  While burning coal, oil, and gas does produce far more emissions, burning woody mass is not “clean” either.  Here in the southwest, biomass offers an alternative to fossil fuels that also has an alarming abundance.  When we get forest fires, they tend to rage for long distances at greater intensities.  The tendency is to fight them, yet forest fires are crucial to the ecosystem here.  Certain seeds only open when burned, generating young trees.  Fires create breaks that keep disease from spreading across entire forests.  Climate change, sadly, is having a negative impact on the natural phenomenon of these fires as well.  All of these factors result in crown fires that lick up the dense, dry, unburned undergrowth and fuel the intensity of the flames.  Encouraging people to burn this undergrowth through biomass projects would help reverse our negative impacts on the natural cycle of fires, but, of course, it would technically produce carbon emissions.

My mom always talks about diet by saying “Everything in moderation.  You can have too much of any thing, even if it’s good for you.”  I think our attitude about climate change and natural phenomenon should be like that too.  Not nonchalant, but in a way that accepts there are meant to be periods of drought, there are meant to be periods of flood – as long as it’s the way of the world deciding what happens and not humanity’s greed that is causing the changes.  I think this perspective is really important and grounding if we want to seriously make a difference.

When I was younger, I used to be zealous about changing light bulbs. Then my focus shifted to changing the systems that determine how we use energy, because, as the saying goes, “we need system change, not climate change.” As a youth delegate to COP21—the international climate-change conference in Paris last December—I witnessed the most sophisticated political skills the world has to offer focus on one goal: to change the fundamental components of our energy systems. They failed. In Paris, I learned that there is an even deeper level of change required to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not system change—it’s human change.

-Chloe Maxmin, In 2016, No More Human-As-Usual

It really is human attitude and perspective that is the underlying, root cause of so much turmoil in our world today.  It is a disconnect from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the social/environmental impacts of getting those products to our hands.  We can’t fully depend on policies to govern how we rule ourselves.  As Chloe says, the change for humanity and the health of the world has to come from within.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
I don’t have the solutions.  In fact, I go through days of doubt when I’m convinced there is no solution.  But what I can say is self-awareness is at the core of this movement.  For the collective human body to make a change, that change has to come from within the individuals.  To create this change and self-awareness, we have to acknowledge where we do and don’t have privilege; we have understand the implications of everything we do, purchase, and consume; we have to be aware of the lenses we have.  We have to include, not exclude.  We have to share stories alongside facts, because it is the facts the policy-makers want to see and it is the stories the people want to hear.  And always, always, always, we have to keep an open and honest perspective.
To see how these topics have surfaced in my own global challenges, and how I’ve questioned “What does solidarity look like in the eyes of climate change?”, click here to read my experience in Nicaragua from May 2016.
 
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A repost of a watercolor I did after being inspired by the street art in Nicaragua.  Read my post on my trip to Nicaragua for more information.

Nicaragua

The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) has periodic trips, both domestic and international, that enable participants to receive education on certain topics and to engage with local communities.  For two years, I have been scheduled and rescheduled for a trip to Haiti.  Finally, when the trip was canceled this April, I had an offer to transfer to a trip to Nicaragua.  With the help of a financial award, I was able to attend the May 2016 Climate Change Justice trip with UUCSJ.

An Untold History
Perhaps the most baffling part of the trip was the historical background we were given.  We were asked to read Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle which describes, as the title would suggest, not only the history of Nicaragua but the intense trifling the United States has had.  Between this text and then several class sessions in Managua at CEPAD with instructors such as Aynn Setright, we were able to grasp the complex social, economic, political, and cultural chaos that makes modern-day Nicaragua.

The histories general start with the recorded ones the Spanish brought.  The enslavement of tribal peoples from the various geographical regions of Nicaragua is no new story to the Americas, sadly, and its largely Mestizo population today is testimony of that.  Then, in later centuries, interests in creating a canal across Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua adds to America, Britain, and Spain’s desire in controlling the land.  The Liberals of Leon and the Conservatives of Granada, we are told, disputed back and forth over where the Capital would be and who would be in charge until it was settled that Managua, directly between the two, would take over.  (Ironically, no indigenous groups built at Managua because it is on the fault line.  As a result of moving the capital here, earthquakes have destroyed the city, the largest stopping the clock on the cathedral tower in the cultural plaza.)  Periods of unrest are the trend in the 20th century, with the United State’s William Walker declaring himself as Nicaragua’s president, the control of a corrupted National Guard, and then three generations of dictators under the Samoza family.  In 1979, the Sandinista Revolution resulted in a period of reform until 1990.

To this day, however, the elections do not go without the United State’s meddling in them, and corruption continues in the modern “democracy” – especially in program spending and addressing the class gaps.  As the book we read told us, the GDP for Nicaragua has been at about $800 with most of the population earning about $200 annually.  Cheap labor, rather than coffee, is considered the major export of Nicaragua.  This “export” contributes to the gap.  We witnessed these gaps and also the lush spending of the modern government.  Google “Trees of Life” to see the way thousands of dollars have been spent in Managua: artificial tress with lighting have been constructed all over the city, some with paid guards posted at them 24/7.

Coffee Problems
Meanwhile Nicaragua continues to struggle with its issues of a very monocrop-based economy.  Presently, the coffee industry is its major crop.  The rich soils from volcanic ash contributes to its success.  However, changes in the climate have altered the environment of the various altitudes and regions in Nicaragua that were once naturally ideal for these crops.  Additionally, arroyo, or “coffee rust”, is killing crops at a rate that is threatening the future of campesinas.  When these farmers sell to companies that don’t actively seek for Fair Trade agreements, the gap between the farmers and the middlemen increases.  Now, Nicaraguans fear what will happen if they cannot overcome the coffee rust.

After spending several days in Managua, our group traveled to Prodecoop in Esteli to learn about their Fair Trade program.  We also visited various programs such as FEM and Las Diosas, which work to employ and support women, educate women on health, and prevent domestic violence.  On the way out of Esteli, we headed north towards Honduras and stayed two nights with homestays in the little village of Quibuto.  Quibtuo is in the Fair Trade coffee business and has a complex organization of small farmers working together to support themselves.  My host dad walked me around his farm and showed me his coffee trees, including the leaves that were tainted with coffee rust.  His finco included many contraptions for sorting the coffee cherries before they go to a beneficio.  He also picked some beans from his sieves and showed me what he calls “cafe oro“, also verde.

We got to ride to the top of the mountain, which was sadly dry for the rainy season, and visit a large farm on the hillside.  There, we worked at a demonstration area to prepare soil with ash, plant coffee beans in rows, cover them with weeds and water them, then select “matches” (sprouted beans) to plant in small bags that we prepared.  We took a couple of bags that were already trees over to a farm.  There, we were shown how banana trees had been planted as fast-growing shade sources.  Under these trees, we dug a couple of holes, cut the bottom and sides of the bags for good root starting, and planted the trees.  That night, we finally had thunderstorm.  The rain on the tin roof was so loud, I was convinced our shack was going to wash down into the dry riverbed at the bottom of the mountain.

A couple of things I learned from this experience: 1) I can actually have conversations in Spanish; 2) I want to study climate change in Nicaragua to support these indigenous communities; 3) buying Fair Trade (100%, not just partial, certified) is really important; and 4) Equal Exchange, who had representatives on the trip with us, is exactly what it advertises itself as being: 100% Fair Trade and actively working with these communities.

Mining Problems
I also got to visit the Guardians of Yaosca River (and to swim in the river).  The long and winding road from Rancho Grande took us to the riverside where an outdoor feast was arranged.  On the way, we stopped to observe a mountain.  363 natural springs, they said, exist in the mountain.  B2Gold, from Canada, is threatening to do open-pit mining in that hillside.  None of the community members are in support, yet B2Gold keeps manipulating the situation.  We also passed the entrance to an existing mine.  Next to it was a billboard showing B2Gold’s ‘support of community health’, ironically.  “That man in the hat,” said one of the Guardians, pointing to the billboard.  “Did not give consent for his face to be on the B2Gold billboard.  He is not in support of the mine.  But they keep manipulating things to make it look to the public like we are in support.”  He told us they no longer sign documents, unless it is their own petition, because B2Gold will just transfer their signatures to something saying they support the mining of the mountain.

On the riverside, two young women sang a song.  It ends “I cannot live without water, I cannot live without air, I cannot live without forests, but I can live without gold.”  I was surprised by how little has been covered on the problems of mining and exploitation of communities in Nicaragua.  I also became interested in learning more about MARENA, the organization that I have since discovered should be responsible for environmental impacts and protection in Nicaragua.  (We later had met with a priest in Rancho Grande who didn’t believe there was any accountability; to me, there appears to be an organization, but I’m guessing different presidents oppose MARENA’s “meddling” in their profits when trying to exploit labor, resources, etc. – and speaking out against the government has been resulting recently in missing people or corpses.)

While people were quick to boycott jewelry, someone reminded us that electronics use gold in the circuitry.  Our phones, our computers, everything.  I also reminded them that solar panels, wind turbines, cars,…those all depend on mining as well.  Maybe not of gold apart from circuitry, but various minerals and metals nonetheless.

To read more on this topic, here is one article I have managed to find: B2Gold at Rancho Grande

Although this is not an extensive coverage of my trip, or of these topics, I wanted to put something out there so people can understand the injustices that continue to happen in Nicaragua.  The resilience of the people, despite recent huge population losses from the revolution, is really impressive and somehow contagious.  The street art in Managua and across the countryside, often with “FSLN” emblazoned in paint, was also inspirational for how social movements happen, continue, and are remembered.

To end, I scanned a water color I worked on this week.  It features the National Bird, a Turquoise-Browed Motmot (Guardabarranco Comun).  These guys apparently bury their eggs.  He’s on a branch above new leaves, some with Nicaraguan flag patterns on them, protecting the sleeping babies.  Behind the bird, outlines of revolutionaries and also the famous image of Sandinista himself.  The red and black colors represent the FSLN.

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Civil Society Consultation

I will try to keep this brief.

After the United Nations’ 2nd Universal Periodic Review of the United States, there was a later opportunity for the Civil Society Consultation with the US delegates.  I was on the official list that we had to speak….but I found myself not on the list when the delegates began calling on people.  Someone spoke up and they agreed to allow me to speak on behalf of indigenous concerns.  I’ll include what I read to the delegates, then I’ll share how they responded to me, including when I approached them after the meeting:

“Several statements today were directed at the United States’ failure to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and many issues were not addressed.

As a member of the Generation Indigenous youth challenge, I am particularly concerned by the high suicide rates and disproportionate exposure of indigenous youth to substance abuse, incarceration, poverty, and adequate health services, as well as the overrepresentation of children in foster care.

As an indigenous woman, I am alarmed by the unacceptably high rate of violence against my demographic. 1 in 3 indigenous women will be raped in her lifetime, 70% of the offenders being white men from outside of the community.

These statistics are imperative to address as they inhibit fulfilling obligations to sustain indigenous cultures and to promote self-determination.

Not only have the historical traumas of Removal and other past Indian policies been documented as contributing directly to these problems, but so have the psychological impacts of the stereotyping of indigenous peoples by ignorant, outside communities.

The only modern exposures these communities often have to indigenous peoples are through inadequate public education and through grotesque caricatures, racial slurs, red-face, and cultural appropriation used as mascots in educational systems and lucrative sports industries.

These inaccurate representations perpetuate ignorance, discrimination, and the sexualizing of indigenous women. They provide platforms for hate speech and the continued silencing of indigenous peoples who live in fear of verbal and physical repercussions to their dissent of such mistreatment. The continued mascot issue therefore perpetuates and worsens the continued neglect in and discrimination against those in Indian Country.

I ask:

  • Why does the United States continue to allow places of education to have racist mascots?
  • Why does the United States continue to allow lucrative national sports teams to bear and profit from racial slurs and racist logos of marginalized citizens?
  • Why does the United States not protect the cultural rights of indigenous peoples and end the cultural appropriation of sacred and religious symbols, such as headdresses and eagle feathers, and also the desecration of sacred sites?”

Several responses were given in regards to indigenous concerns brought up by the different members of our committee.  (We also had folks representing Guantanamo Bay’s need for closure and reconciliation, police brutality – including the brother of the woman recently shot in Chicago, discrimination, transgender women of color – represented by a woman of just that category, immigration issues – by a Mexican-American immigrant, etc.)  All of our indigenous questions were answered by completely inadequate or inappropriate responses, or at least that’s how I see it…

First of all, in the question of upholding treaties, we were told that our treaties our “different” – that they also require a domestic enforcement that they are “prepared to look at”, ignoring completely the government’s complete obligation to uphold any international treaty, that they wouldn’t be “domestic” if they properly acknowledged tribal sovereignty, and that they shouldn’t have a choice of when they decide to “look” at it – this country was founded by treaties and this is imperative to address.

Petuuche Gilbert specifically voiced concerns about scared places and USDA Forest Service Lands.  We were told that these sacred places issues are “some of the most difficult to address” because their are interests in both sides and conflicting uses of those lands.  I sort of went into disbelief for a moment, then turned to Chief Gary Harrison and asked, “…Isn’t that position completely illegal?” to which he nodded.  There is obviously a huge gap between law, law interpretation, and law enforcement…

We had asked about tribal funding, and were told that it’s “very, very expensive” to assist tribes who lack resources, etc.  Again, federal obligation, folks.  That’s why this country exists – it’s a deal with Indian Country for adequate services.

Talk of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) arose.  The delegates claim to be working on implementing ICWA better and that they’re collaborating with the NCAI on this issue.  Along with that, they’re also tackling the lack of data collection, saying they’re “working very hard on how to collect better data.”

As for my question, Kevin K. Washburn, assistant secretary to the Department of the Interior, essentially did not answer my questions at all.  Instead, he took the moment to brag on how great it was that a Gen-I youth was present, that’s what they need and want, that’s the purpose of the program…….to the point that it was as if he’s tooting his own horn.  In my opinion, Generation Indigenous is youth empowerment but in one sense it’s also encouraging the youth to make changes instead of forcing the government to assume all responsibilities it’s obligated to assume.

Washburn also told me how he believes tribes are ultimately responsible for overcoming these issues of suicide, domestic violence, etc.  Again, I don’t think this is totally true.  Today, the US spent so much time bragging about the dollar figures it has spent on Indian Country and the number of acreage recovered…but if you look at those same statistics in regards to 566 of any other nations, those figures are completely inadequate.  It’s my understanding of the law that the US government is obligated to get tribes on “even footing” on account of the historical trauma and disparages they’ve been forced to undergo in the process of founding this country.  And with limited resources on their concentration camps…I mean…Reservations…..how are they expected to thrive in resource-less isolation?

Afterwards, Washburn elaborated for me on what he had been saying.  As an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t know my side and want to make a positive difference.  I’m guessing a lot of his responses were solely because he’s a politician and actually has a pretty tricky job not violating his limitations on what he can say.  I told him about my involvement with AISES, he gave me his card, and I decided he is a good contact to maintain if we want to make change in the future of Indian Country.

 

The 2nd Universal Periodic Review of the United States

I’m going to spend one post specifically explaining what the UPR is, what it’s like to participate in the UN Human Rights Council, and how today’s review of the United States went.

The Universal Periodic Review

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Universal Periodic Review process which allows for its 193 member states to be evaluated by one another on their human rights failures, successes, and on-going efforts.  The cycles were every 4.5 years – now every 3.5.  They begin with a national report from the country to be reviewed, pre-submitted questions by the working member states, and a written report summarizing the findings after the UPR by the “troika” – a unit of three pre-selected member states, different per each review.  Essentially, the Universal Periodic Review is an opportunity for countries to openly discuss and make recommendations for one another under constructive criticism.  The idea is that the UPR sessions are reasonably short and efficient, but that they can make huge strides towards achieving a universal and international standard for human rights across all of the member states in the United Nations.

Participating in the UN Human Rights Council

There are two ways really of participating in the Human Rights Council: as a delegate, or as a civilian.  This year, I was fortunate enough to participate as part of the civilian society.  I have not been working towards this HRC nearly as long as the others (most have been strategizing for more than a year, at least), however I was asked to represent the Southeast Indigenous Peoples’ Center which had already been submitting shadow reports in previous events, like the Permanent Forum in April.  My involvement began when I wrote a supplement report for their specific concerns with indigenous human rights disparages.

The UN Human Rights Council occurs in Geneva, Switzerland.  It’s actually very easy to get to: the airport is right there on the edge of Geneva, you can get a free train/bus pass from a kiosk when you first arrive, and the stop “Nation” takes you directly to the square in front of the UN Headquarters (where you will see the classic rows of member state flags).

(Funny side story: One of the art pieces in the square is a giant “wooden” chair with one of the legs busted out.  I overheard today that one of the delegates was standing in the square this week and complaining that they still hadn’t fixed the chair.  Apparently he thought a car had gone off the street and hit it, hahaha!)

Once you get to Nation Square, unless you have a very special UN pass, you have to use the side entrance.  I think one of the bus lines takes you there, but I always just walked.  You go to the left of the UN and walk a fair distance up the hillside to the gated entrance directly across from the Red Cross building.  There, you will find several lines depending on what kind of pass you have (if you even have one yet).  The gates to the right that do not go through security are like the ones at the front of the building – most special access only.

When I first arrived, I didn’t have a badge.  I had to go through security and to the desk inside to have my credentials verified and a pass made.  Unfortunately, when I first arrived, I was also not on the “special” list – or at least we couldn’t find how I was listed.  I ended up with a non-ECOSOC (UN Economic & Social) pass.  In this case, they give you a badge that gets you into the conference, but you cannot participate on the floor in the review room (the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations room).  So, on Thursday, I was able to check out the review of Bulgaria, but I had to enter building E40, go up one floor, and enter through a back way that led me to the gallery.  From the gallery, you can watch from all around the room through glass windows, on a few rows of seats in each sections, and with the neat little ear pieces that are seen throughout all of the UN rooms.

Once I had confirmed my association with the US Human Rights Network, I was invited on Friday to return to the desk behind the security gates to have an official badge printed.  This badge either lasts as long as the conference (mine goes to May 31, 2015), or they’re annual, depending on your association with the process.  Some US Human Rights Network invitees had the annual pass, but they still had to enter in the same gates that I used.  This pass was the key to entering through security in the review room and actually sitting behind the delegates during the review of countries.  I needed this to be in the US Review.

As for events, since I was participating for United States NGO/human rights rallying in the civil society, I attended a couple side sessions, the US Review, press conferences, the Civil Society Consultation, and other events that our network arranged, such as a presentation at the Graduate Institute a few blocks down from the UN which was directed towards human rights college students there.

In my next post, I will describe my involvement in the Civil Society Consultation.  But first, the main attraction…

United States 2nd Universal Periodic Review

The United States has only had one previous UPR, in 2010.  This was a historical UPR to attend, because never had the United States had a follow-up to another review.  It would be the first time that state members could accuse the United States of not having followed through on commitments since their 1st UPR.  The event was scheduled for 9am to noon this morning, keeping in line with a quick but efficient UPR process.  The UN doors, we were told, opened at 8am – but someone called in to find they actually opened at 7:30am.  I got to the UN at about 7:15am and was first in line along with a couple other of women from our US Human Rights Network.  Fortunately, we were all early enough that we got seats on the floor for the UPR.

Yes, it really was that crowded.  As I learned this week, our country is not exactly that “land of the free” that we often sing (and brag) about.  I already knew this from the work I have been doing, but I never realized how much the other countries know that and very much want to give the United States an opinion on what it’s doing improperly.  This is evident just by the participation of the member states: When I attended the Bulgaria review, the troika was present as well as a handful of countries who had recommendations to give.  When we got to the UPR for the US, I was told there were approximately 122 member states who were vying for a chance to give the US an earful.  Because of the incredible demand for the floor with such a short process to begin with, the speaking times per state member, which were already no more than 2 minutes apiece, were universally cut down to a mere 65 seconds to deliver 1) a welcome, 2) an optional appraisal for the work done and continued participation, 3) a list of human rights concerns noted in the country that the member state finds particular offensive, 4) a series of recommendations and urges the member state has for the United States to complete before its 3rd UPR.

And now for a review of what was happening – here is a list of the countries who had time slots to speak, in the order of delivery:

Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Korea, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay, Brazil, Viet Nam, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Botswana, Venezuela, Bulgaria, Burkina-Faso, Cape Verde, Canada, Chad, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cote D’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Korea, Dem. Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Vatican, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Bolivia, Maldives, and Uzbekistan.

There were various themes, depending on the country presenting.  This is key to our strategizing as NGOs.  You may wonder, as did one individual at one of our press conferences earlier, why NGOs are coming to Geneva and our answer is this: Because we need to make changes, and we have to rally the pressure from other countries who believe in the changes we are asking for because they are the ones capable of making recommendations on behalf of our causes.  We see this as an effective strategy to pressure our own government into changes things demanded by The People to be addressed.

As I said, there were various themes: the need to eliminate the death penalty, to close Guantanamo, to commit to measures against pollution/reduce admissions for climate change, to respect privacy of citizens and those abroad (including digital communication), create equality for women and minorities, etc.  Lots of talk was done in regards to children rights, women rights, minority rights, police brutality, racial profiling, discrimination, labor rights especially concerning those in agriculture and those who are immigrants, protection of families like immigrant families, the need for abortion availability and assistance for rape victims and similar, etc., etc., etc.  About 1/5 of the member states directly voiced concerns for the US’s inability to adapt the UNDRIP (Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), and many questions on the treaty violations, especially by China.  Pakistan, of all places, acknowledged the rights of Hawai’i and Alaska in the indigenous concerns realm.

Here are 21 of the countries from my notes who made very clear and obvious statements about indigenous concerns during their 65 seconds to review the US:

Nicaragua, Peru, Moldova, Sierra Leone, Spain, Sudan, Macedonia, Albania, Australia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cape Verde, China, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, India Iraq, Uzbekistan.

I’m not surprised by the Central and South American countries who had statements regarding this – as they are all part of this indigenous American system.  They also all had immigration and migrant worker concerns.  As for some European countries, they often face scrutiny on their treatment of the Romani peoples, as I heard in the review on Bulgaria.  The northern most countries of Europe also have an indigenous history.  The subcontinent of India and African countries, I suppose even the Middle East, all have very diverse indigenous communities that we often don’t think about.  Even China is faced with a plethora of dialects and diversity.  Australia, of course, has its share of indigenous issues.  However, New Zealand seemed reserved in attacking the US from this standpoint (perhaps because the Australian continent is struggling to address indigenous issues properly themselves).  Interestingly enough, Canada had no input on the indigenous situation (probably because they are almost identically as guilty).

Basically, I noticed two problems: 1) indigenous issues (which I was there for) were mentioned, but the US completely neglected answering them properly – if at all; and 2) there are so many things in the US that are not up to international standard.  In particular, this involves issues on healthcare, eliminating the death penalty, racial discrimination, etc…

The US also didn’t seem to make too much progress since their first review.  That was duly noted by several countries.

Hopefully this has been informative, and, with that, I will now move on to my next post regarding the Civil Society Consultation, key to getting our individual voices out to the US delegates during the conference.

She’s Canadian; next thing we know, she’ll take it to the UN.

I remember reading that comment a couple of weeks ago on one of the Biloxi Facebook pages.  A Biloxi alumnus and supporter of the continued use of BHS’s racist and stereotypical mascot/name was stereotyping and discriminating Deloria Many Grey Horses.  This was in April, before I realized how involved I would be getting in indigenous human rights issues.  But now I find the comment funny, because Deloria has not gotten the United Nations involved in this issue.

I did.

Several blog entries/articles I have been writing have recently gained the attention of a number of organizations.  The Southeast Indigenous Peoples’ Center in particular asked me to write a supplementary document for the Permanent Forum in New York on April 30th.  Roughly a week later, I found myself on a plane bound for Geneva.  That’s where I am now, as a representative for indigenous youth, the US Human Rights Network, and the SIPC.  On Monday, I will be sitting in the UN room with all of the media and delegates, the representatives at the podium to be addressed for the second time ever on their shortcomings in human rights issues.  For the first time ever, delegates in the room have likely seen (or at least heard) about the complaints of “Native mascotry” in the US.  And, if they attended one of the side events, it’s likely these spokespeople even have a copy of my one-pager with three pictures on the back page: one of the Cleveland Indians mascot, one of the Washington logo and name, and one of several Biloxi band members marching in Northern Plains-style headdresses.

Ironically, the comment I read on Facebook motivated me the most to travel to Geneva and address the U.N.  It wasn’t just because someone was being snarky; it was because someone thought this is a joke, not worthy of the UN…or worse, that the UN is a joke.

But these issues are already being talked about, just in a different context – and in a different country.

For example, when I first arrived on Thursday, I was given a general pass.  I sat in the gallery and listened to the review on Bulgaria.  Most commentary was friendly and kind, suggesting that more be done but congratulating Bulgaria on its progress thus far.  Until Russia stepped up to the microphone.

Russia was incredibly harsh regarding the way Bulgaria continues to mistreat Roma peoples (or maybe just the linguistics of Russian are so harsh that it translated as such).  Russia accused Bulgaria of not providing enough care for children and called for funding to be cut to state groups who promote racism of the Roma peoples.  And for those of you who don’t know, The “Romani” is the correct name for what you might call “gypsies”.

Next, Serbia adds to Russia’s opinions, concerned by the racism that exists in Bulgaria despite existing ethnic diversity.

Sierra Leone offered a different perspective, focusing on gender stereotypes and how to prosecute people for their hate crimes.  The delegate also addressed her concern for victims of hate crime (“hate speech relief”), such as a need for women/domestic violence shelters in Bulgaria.

Slovakia called for more than just Bulgaria to work in unison, as part of a larger Roma integration strategy, especially in regards to children welfare.

All of these perspectives were interesting and I realized the Romani are, in many ways, like the indigenous peoples of certain parts of Europe.  They don’t live a “standard” life, are stereotyped, and are viewed often as less than humans.  It made me wonder what it would be like if the United States were finally scoured for all of their similar mistreatments of indigenous peoples protected by broken treaty rights.

Then, today, I visited two side events.  The first was the International Indian Treaty Council, focusing on indigenous problems (but all of those discussed regarded the United States).  The second was a more general discussion on American human rights deficiencies.

Andrea Carmen (Yaqui) discussed the US’s process of authorizing itself to dismiss treaties, and to declare it will make no more new ones.  She argued this is how the US silences indigenous peoples, by ignoring them and putting them under plenary power with no legal basis.  In later discussions, she brought these points up again in the case of the seizure of Hawai’i.

Chief Gary Harrison (Alaska) called for the decolonization of Alaska, proving that, by legal definition, the United States does not own Alaska.  Alaska was “bought” from Russia, but Russia never conquered Alaska, therefore it was not Russia’s to own in the first place.  He even explains how the process to vote for Alaskan statehood was completed by only settlers as it took five white people per Native to verify their “competence” in voting.  He spoke out against mining in Alaska and how it causes problems in indigenous villages, such as pollution, rape, and murder.  He defended their right to clean drinking water, and for salmon to live and spawn in clean waters, saying they have spent so much money cleaning up, yet mining companies want to return and re-pollute recently cleaned salmon streams.

Christina Snider spoke first about the concern of children welfare and having cultural households, then also about women’s rights and violence against indigenous women (and children).

Petuuche Gilbert (Acoma) focused on how the entire country was founded on the unethical idea of “manifest destiny”, stating that laws continue to be made in order to keep the land “in the hands of thieves”.  This is his explanation to the continued land-grabs and exploitation.  He also calls “domestic sovereignty” an “oxymoron”, saying “they made it up to control us, our land, our people.”

The floor was then open for discussion, and they took three questions.  I ended up grabbing the third slot.  My statement was (maybe not quite as eloquent because I was nervous!  But this was the gist.): I am here to represent indigenous youth for several organizations.  In indigenous youth populations, suicide rates are incredibly high, and substance abuse as well as the idea of “no hope” are also plaguing communities.  Self-worth is low, because there is also a prevalence of disrespect from outside cultures.  Through my personal experience and the experience of others, I have come to realize the significant of the mascot issue and how it perpetuates disrespect, lack of understanding, and this “no hope”/low self-worth experienced in such indigenous communities.  What I want to know is, why can blackface be illegal and yet redface is okay [especially since it represents scalping, not skin color!]?  Why haven’t these mascots been banned when the change would be so simple and have such a positive impact?  A lack of education of our peoples also perpetuates the lack of respect, thereby perpetuating such discrimination and racism – people don’t even understand why it’s wrong.

I received a lot of nods from the board.  They started with the questions in order, then returned to mine.  Andrea Carmen stated that the UN permanent forum that was just held had a lot of input about the vastly disproportionate youth suicide rates in the indigenous populations of US and Canada, influenced directly by all these aspects of Reservation/urban Indian life that had been addressed in the side event.  She also pointed out the connection between the history of child removal and residential schools, of disgracing what it is to be indigenous.

Christina Snider said that she is very involved at the National Congress of American Indians in the problems of cultural appropriation and the use of indigenous mascots.  She argued it is indeed very intrinsically linked to the issues of youth, like high suicide rates, juvenile justice issues, and the “prison pipeline system”.  She says, “Until we can respect ourselves as people, these issues will keep happening; until other people can respect us as not being pasted on their bumpers, painted on their faces, and worn on their heads at Coachella – how can we help ourselves if others cannot respect us as people?  It’s all connected.”

Finally, as time was running out, Chief Gary Harrison added two key words: historic trauma.  He shared that his father was murdered in front of his whole family and that the man who did it received one night in prison.  He said, “When crimes are not rectified, this causes historic trauma.”  Indeed, I remember reading articles about how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is experienced by many people living on US concentration camps (Reservations).  Chief Harrison continues, saying the mining camps contribute to these feelings of “no hope”.  He said that, when these camps come in, the men get the jobs, then the community members see all these people come in with money and they don’t have any money or any way to take care of themselves….”And you wonder why they’re committing suicide.”

After the meeting, Chief Gary Harrison approached me in the hallway and thanked me for bringing up that point.  He elaborated more on the psychological aspect of the issue, of historic trauma/PTSD, and we discussed the lack of appropriate education in the American system regarding indigenous histories, affairs, etc.  It was very encouraging to see an Elder acknowledge the complications of Native mascotry and how they’re not acceptable.

Later, we reconvened at the Graduate Institute for presentations by the US Human Rights Network. All sorts of issues were represented.  We discussed indigenous issues, southeast Asian deportations, torture crimes by the US government (delivered by men in the US military, and also an attorney for victims of Guantanamo Bay), police violence, and even a transgender woman of color stood up, nearly in tears, explaining her life expectancy is 35 because she chooses to live as who she is and has no protection.  The event was followed by a social with dozens of students.

Well, there’s a re-cap of the last day and a half.

So, to reiterate the original point I made in this post – yes, the mascot issue is now a prevalent discussion in the 2nd US review… And, yes, Biloxi was used as a prime example of racist mascotry in the public education system.