I arrived in New York on May 11th intent on experiencing everything I have ever heard about New York in the time I would be there. I had been there a few times before for meetings and interviews but never for this long. I had a little over two weeks. I know, to all those mathematicians out there, 14 days does not amount to the ten in the title. Well, as luck would have it,
I had to fly back to Arizona in the middle of my stay in New York for a last minute meeting. Arriving in New York, I could tell from the start that it was going to be memorable. I flew in with a good friend,
Ande Somby, at 11:30 on Sunday night, threw my bags in the room and headed off to a deli for the infamous pastrami on rye New York is known for. Well, at midnight, a pastrami on rye is a little heavy to take – but it still tasted good. Besides being called the Big Apple, New York has a reputation as a city that never sleeps, I would do my best to find this out over the next two weeks.
The next day the adventure began, while my nights were free,
I had actually come to New York to attend the Second Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations (UN). The agenda looked promising as the theme this year was Indigenous Children and Youth. First I had to go through security to get a pass to gain entrance to the halls and rooms secreted away beneath the UN where the meetings would be held. In the deep recesses of the UN, I entered this large circular meeting room that was to be the principle room for the Indigenous caucus and Forum for the next two weeks. The tables and chairs were also in a circular pattern with names of each member country and UN organization in front of a series of microphones. This week, however, it would be Indigenous delegations from around the world that would be seated here – some would tell stories of unbelievable hardship involving genocide, ethnocide and even cannibalism and others would inspire us with stories of great victories and the resurgence of their culture and languages.
Walking into this room, one could immediately sense that something was different here. Sure, there was protocol, flags, delegations and dialogue but there was also this overwhelming sense of kinship. What set this apart from other meetings in this room was an abundance of smiles, bright traditional clothes, laughter, presents, ceremonial objects. Elders, children and this underlying feeling that in spite of the efforts inflicted on Indigenous peoples over past generations – We Are Still Here!!!
The opening was filled with ceremony, song and prayers for guidance. It would begin as it should and would take as much time as it needed. The tables outside of each door were littered with papers of presentations that would take place that day. Each speaker that made the roll for that afternoon would have 5 minutes to present their speech before the Permanent Forum. All would be recorded and the Forum Members, eight Indigenous representatives and eight representatives nominated by states party to the UN, would review these requests, create a database and come up with recommendations for those thought to need the most urgent attention. The Chairman of the Permanent Forum is Indigenous – a Sami leader from Norway and member of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Mr. Ole Henrik Magga.
The agenda of the Second Session while having the theme of Indigenous children and youth was to cover a number of mandated areas: a) economic and social development; b) environment; c) health; d) human rights; e) culture; and f) education. The concept of a permanent forum dedicated to Indigenous issues was officially proposed at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. After a number of workshops and further discussions, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established by resolution the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on July 28, 2000. The mandate of the Permanent Forum is to provide expert advice and recommendations to the Economic and Social Council and other UN agencies, programmes and funds. It was also established to raise awareness and facilitate the integration of Indigenous issues throughout the UN system. Finally, it was designed to produce and circulate information on Indigenous issues.
Slowly, I sit, put a plastic earpiece over my ear, flicking through numerous languages I am only vaguely familiar with, I rest on a channel that spouts English. I wonder, will there be a day that we bring a Cree translator here to occupy one of these channels? I settle in for some serious listening. But it is hard to do as I spot friends coming in with different delegations. Suddenly I am in the halls meeting tribal chiefs from Africa, Sami Presidents of Parliament, Maori representatives, Aborigine delegations from Australia, Native American delegations and of course, other Crees. I met Eugenie Mercredi from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation from Manitoba who tells me of a plan to expand the reservoir on their traditional territory significantly to create a giant reservoir above Winnipeg. The story is sad and familiar but in the history of the Cree tribes on the western side of James Bay the word compensation is almost non-existent. I sit near a youth leader from a Cree community in British Columbia and she tells me of her earnest desire to learn Cree syllables the way her grandmother used to read and write. I promise to send her what I can. I start to meet other tribes attending the Forum – Mohawk, Dineh, Dine, Navajo, Naskapi, Migmaq, Mayans, Shaur, O’Odham, Oneida, Sioux, Lakota, Peublo, Metis, Taino, Caribe, Salish, Innu, Big Mountain people, Alaskan Inuit, Greenland Inuit, Norway Sami, Finland Sami, Swedish Sami, Native Hawaiins, Tiawanese Indians, Japanese Indians, Phillipine Indians and numerous Latin American delegations.
In the hallways, we sit and talk about things great and small -of home, of hunting, of struggles, of language, of culture, of beliefs and of hopes. It is like a great circle where all come to talk and listen, where people come to be healed, where people come because this is where their journey has lead them. It feels good. Now that I know most of the delegations and organizations in attendance, I go back into the meeting room as I wish to hear the words of these delegations that have converge on New York -they will have a voice after generations of silence and what better place then at the seat of nations – the United Nations.
The Caribe leader talks of the concerns and issues facing his people and the resurgence of their culture in the Carribean. He says that it is with great pleasure that he has sitting right next to the leader of the Taino people from Puerto Rico. The Taino people were the first people that Christopher Columbus saw when he landed in the Americas and wrote in his ship’s logs that he thought he was in the garden of Eden as these naked people were running around in paradise. Wait a minute, did not National Geographic tell us in the March 2003 issue that there were no more Taino in the world. Well, that is not true, I hear the Taino leader sing in Taino. I hear him talk of culture and DNA testing that confirms there is still a strong presence of this tribe no matter what a magazine might say. I learned form a Taino friend, a little known fact that Taino people were a part of the Caribe Tribes diet many generations ago – hmmm,
I think, I hope this is not why the Chairman of the Caribe Tribe is so happy that the Taino Chairman is right next to him. We break for lunch.
Reality sets in as we sit and hear a shocking presentation by one of the delegations to the Forum that military and armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo are carrying out mass murder and cannibalism on the Indigenous pygmy tribes.
Years of concerted efforts in Congo have led experts to conclude that the brutal violence and reprisals have been primarily focused on the pygmies.
Njuma Ekundanayo of the Permanent Forum described the situation as dire and that these people were on the verge of extinction. Families are forced to hide their children from the military and neighbours. It is appalling to think that cannibalism is being carried out in a concert effort. The value of this UN Forum is quickly realized as we break so the representatives can meet with the President of the Security Council to discuss the situation. The President gave assurances to the Indigenous peoples that this matter would be brought to the attention of the world community and the Security Council would deliberate action to stop the atrocities.
The next day, I recognize some friends from the Indigenous groups in Taiwan. It is good to see them, so I ask where they are sitting in this great circle. They relate a story of how they cannot come as themselves but must sneak in under a non-government organization (NGO). It is because Taiwan is not recognized as a nation by China who is a member of the Security Council and powerful member of the United Nations. China’s refusal to acknowledge Taiwan has lead them being denied admittance to the United Nations. China also does not acknowledge its Indigenous peoples other than as minorities. It makes me wonder why they would want to have a government representative on the Indigenous Forum then? So, not only do the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan face marginalization from their own country but they also face it in the UN system as well.
At a lunch break, I go to a side room where the Sami, the Indigenous peoples of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, are putting on a presentation on the Finnmark Act. The Finnmark Act, is a land management act introduced by the Norwegian government which could significantly impact the Sami control over their ancestral lands. The Sami had been negotiating with the Norwegian government for 23 years concerning the recognition of their rights to ownership and possession of their traditional lands where they are still a majority in. Also, the Sami want acknowledgement of international law and procedures in the ar eas of Indigenous rights and affirmation of their status as an Indigenous people and state. The Norwegian government disregarded the years of collaborative work in order to promote a bill of their own. In this bill, it calls for a mechanism whereby industrial development in the Sami territory can be facilitated without the need for just compensation. While the Finnmark Land Management Commission appears to have equal Sami and regional government representation. In the event there is an impasse, the state appointed representative can defer the decision to a government Ministry – so de facto control remains with the government on any important decision or in the event of a deadlock. The Sami Parliament (Samediggi) from Norway met about a week ago where they voted resoundingly to reject the Finnmark Act. It remains to be seen if the Norwegian government will acknowledge the Sami rejection of the Act or push this Act through without Sami input.
The Assembly of First Nations representative, Vice-Chief Ghislain Picard, urged the Forum to support the International Elders Summit to be held in Southern Ontario to conclude the Decade of Indigenous Peoples in 2004. She spoke on how our children need the wisdom of our Elders. Later she denounced Canada for its inactivity in implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Vice Chief Picard further stated that while Canadians enjoy a high standard of living, Aboriginals in Canada live in conditions that would rank them lower than countries like Vietnam, El Salvador and Botswana.
Canada makes a number of presentations at the Permanent Forum and has a booth in the hallway promoting their new super Indigenous website called Aboriginal Planet. Ms Shannon Beauchamp from the Canadian delegation spoke on education. She talked of how the rate for completing high schools of Aboriginal students is still lagging behind those of non-aboriginals. She stated that Canada recognizes that the most significant contribution it can make to Aboriginal communities is in the area of education.
Mr. Fred Caron from the Canadian delegation spoke to the Permanent Forum on culture. He highlighted the government’s commitment to preserving, revitalizing and promoting Indigenous languages and cultures in Canada by allocating $170 million in 2002. He also announced the creation of an Aboriginal Language and Culture Centre for the year 2004-2005. He stated that the Government of Canada recognizes that to preserve these languages is at the heart of preserving Aboriginal cultures, identity and their future. Also, as a testament to this effort, Canada has declared June 21st National Aboriginal Day and funds the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.
Mr. Keith Conn from the Canadian delegation spoke to the issue of Health. He spoke on how the government recognizes the challenges in the area of health are enormous but remain a high priority for the Government of Canada. The government recognized the need to help in early childhood development for Indigenous children and has committed $320 million to this effort over the next five years. The Government has also committed $25 million over the next two years to help combat the high incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in First Nations communities. They also are committed towards helping end the high incidence of youth suicides in First Nations and released a report from their working group in March 2003. The government announced in the February 2003 Budget that $1.3 billion was allocated to improve First Nations and Inuit health systems. Furthermore, in the Throne Speech 2002 there was a significant number of announcements concerned enhancing services to Aboriginals in the areas of: health, education, culture, business development, water and sewage and policing.
Other presentations throughout the two weeks were by UN and world organizations. Indigenous delegations, NGOs and coalitions of members. There were some recurring themes from the presenters and experts at the Forum. One such theme was the need to provide the resources and support so that Indigenous children and youth can be educated in their own language and culture. While our system is not perfect, in the eyes of the Indigenous world, we, the Native Hawaiins, Maori, Sami and Navajo, have obtained something that they are still striving towards.
Another such recurring theme was the deteriorating health of Indigenous peoples at the hands of such toxins as industrial pollutants, drugs and alcohol. The Indigenous peoples of the world recognize the impacts that these have had on our children and people. There is a need for states, corporations and organizations to be held accountable and help set up the necessary services and facilities to counter the decades of damage these substances have done to our peoples.
At the end of the Permanent Forum, the Chairperson, representatives, rapportuer, secretariat and experts put together a number of Recommendations that will be submitted to ECOSOC. The Recommendations of the Permanent Forum at the close of the Second Session dealt with the exploitation of children, environment, economic and social development, health, human rights, culture, education and the Forum’s future work.
The Recommendation dealing the exploitation of children called for the World Bank,
International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to do an in-depth study of the issue of trafficking and sexual exploitation of Indigenous girls and to look at setting up social programs in some countries to counter this.
In the Recommendation on the environment, the Forum called for more corporate accountability and the cleaning up of abandoned mines, polluted waters and compensation for adversely affected communities because of development and resource extraction.
The Recommendation on economic and social development calls for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to set up a workshop on free, prior and informed consent as it relates to indigenous land and resources.
In the Recommendation on health, the Forum urges states to expand their health care systems to give more holistic methods of treatment for Indigenous children. It also requests the World Health Organization to undertake a study on youth suicides in Indigenous communities.
In the Recommendation on human rights, the Forum requested the Secretary-General of the UN to study ways in which UN bodies have addressed violations of human rights on indigenous peoples and called for all states to adopt the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Recommendation on culture called for states to introduce Indigenous languages in public administration structures and to provide support for Indigenous media. This is to promote the resurgence of Indigenous languages and cultures, recognizing the alarming rate at which Indigenous languages are disappearing.
The Recommendation on education called for states to reinvigorate Indigenous history and culture in education systems as a way to strengthen Indigenous peoples identity. It also urged states to focus on countering problems such as truancy, illiteracy and high drop-out rates in schools where Indigenous people live.
The Forum also recommended that states develop projects dealing with agriculture, fishing, forestry and crafts to counter the rate of exodus of indigenous peoples from their traditional territories to find jobs.
The Forum Rapporteur, Willie Littlechild of Canada, made a recommendation that the Department of Economic and Social Affairs conduct a three day workshop on techniques to gather data on Indigenous peoples.
The consensus of the Permanent Forum was to recommend to the UN General Assembly to extend the decade of Indigenous Peoples to another 10 years as work has been done but it is too early to say if the objectives of the United Nations when establishing the first decade have been met.
The final Recommendation stated that the Third Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is to be held in New York from May 10-21, 2004. The theme for the third session would be Indigenous women. The session will seek to address their national and international status and participation. As the Chairperson Ole Henrik Magga put it, ‘Indigenous Women are our grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, daughters,…they are the foundation of our communities.’
The President of ECOSOC, Gert Rosenthal of Guatemala, expressed his admiration for the work of the Forum. He stated that the Forum is an important body that brings Indigenous issues to the attention of other UN bodies and organizations. It also draws upon the similarity of issues faced by Indigenous groups thus creating an Indigenous constituency or association in the world community.
The closing speech of the Chairperson of the Permanent Forum Ole Henrik Magga put the two weeks into perspective. He began by reminding us that although many Indigenous nations were gathered here over the past two weeks, we must remember that many other Indigenous groups lack the resources and means to attend the Forum. Therefore, it is important that we remember when we are talking about Indigenous rights, it is their rights we are discussing as well. He encourages all to be action-oriented and continue on with the good work they have been doing to promote and protect Indigenous rights. The Permanent Forum would like to see Asian and African states participating in future Forums as they are particularly concerned with health and welfare of these Indigenous peoples. The representatives had a positive meeting with the Security Council and UN groups concerning the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The presence of Indigenous children and youth at this Forum has been inspiring and he was moved by their participation. The Forum recognizes the need for the Indigenous right to language and that states need to provide the resources to allow for adequate instruction for children and youth in their mother tongue. For those, who did not get the opportunity to speak, there is a database of presentations and your materials were reviewed in making the Recommendations. In the 1st Session of the Permanent Forum in 2002, there was the beginning of dialogue between the UN agencies and Indigenous delegations, it is good to see that this has intensified in the Second Session. We all have dreams, we must learn to take the small steps today instead of waiting for the giant leaps – they might never come. We must be practical in the steps we take. To borrow from an Indigenous proverb from Africa – “the oxen are slow but the earth is patient.” The Chairperson Magga then talked of a sacred stone located in Sami territory that protects them, he then yoiked a song of blessing to the participants to protect them on their journeys home.
A yoik is a traditional song of the Sami that is thousands of years old. In a yoik, you do not sing about something but it is believed you bring into existence the essence of the subject being yoiked about. The Chairperson of the Permanent Forum is a traditional Sami and has been taught from childhood the ancient ways of his people. Last year, a good Sami friend, Ande Somby, who is also a traditional yoiker, made the first English yoik after meeting me, entitled the Cree hunter.
Koimairish Ole Mulo of the Maasai Tribe (Kenya) gave a traditional blessing in his native language to end the Second Session of the Permanent Forum.
Well, at the start of the article, I said that my days would be occupied at the United Nations but my nights would be free and I would find out if the city ever sleeps. So, the first crucial ingredient to a good night out is many friends, in this case, Ove, Ande, Jenni, Kristina, Armand and Heidi, were a start. We took a cab ride to a shady area of the city with pockets of gangs outside, but we were intent on experiencing New York. The club we entered was not particularly inviting, but after they saw us relaxing and enjoying ourselves things were okay. The highlight was that once the music began, two factions in the crowd split – each sending out their best breakdancers, both men and women. They were incredible to say the least.
The next night we went to Columbia University to give a performance to faculty and students. We decide to head into Harlem from Midtown. We have to change subways three times to get there. So, this is the New York subway system, people are in a rush and no one looks at you – it is a mix of too busy and apprehension. As we head into the subway at Grand Central, there is a human fly climbing up the side of the Chrysler building. He made the evening news and some people are watching but by the time he reaches near the top, people have lost their interest. Someone in the crowd mumbles, it was good an hour ago but you really have to do it faster to our attention. After the concert we hop back on the subway and head back to a club in Midtown near our hotels. At closing time our numbers are slightly diminished and I should really head to bed but that question is still nagging in the back of my mind – does this city sleep? So, we head to an after hours place in Chelsea. It turns out to be karaoke night and a number of the delegates are singing before the club finally shuts down. The city does sleep.
The next night we are on our way to a gallery opening for an artist who knows someone in our group. It is a large concrete room in Soho with a picture on each way. Perhaps eight pictures in all but it is drawing a crowd. We go to a private party afterwards, filled with artists, models and the occasional celebrity. So, this is New York. One thing you learn quickly in New York, if you are a local, then you are not as interesting. If you are from out of town, you are a celebrity to a city that craves the new. We head out to a few other places along the way home – we stop briefly at the Hog and Heifer. This is the bar that inspired the movie Coyote Ugly.
The fourth night out in New York, we are on our way back to Chelsea. Someone in our group was invited by a group of musicians to a private party debuting their new set of music videos. The guests included the who’s who of the music industry. The music videos were good. It is interesting, these musicians moved from little towns to come to New York, invest all their money into nights like these in hopefully be the next music sensation. We move to a New York landmark club that will accommodate more of us. It is exotic and packed, so after a few hours of dancing we move onto another premiere. This time in the East Village, a DJ’s new hiphop album is being released. The music is good what’s with unisex washrooms?
The next day is a day off, so the Chairman Ole Henrik Magga, Jenni Laiti (Finland) and I head off to the Native American Museum in the Battery. It has far too much rodeo displays and too little of Indian artifacts for our taste. I learn that Sami reindeer herders are quite proficient with a lasso. The gift shop is the redeeming feature of the museum as it has books, music and jewelry from Indian tribes all over North American. We take a walk to the site of the World Trade Center and down into Soho and Canal Street. By the afternoon, the delegates have a picnic planned in Central Park. That night a group of us head out to the East Village for supper, celebrating Norwegian Independence Day.
In the next week, we head out to Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village to go to some blues clubs. There are always live bands and the food is terrific in New York. As the week winds down, so do we. We spend more time in restaurants then consuming the city.
I squeeze in some time at the Metropolitan Museum. I am impressed by the Indigenous artifact collection that dates back to 1 B.C. There are intricate gold masks, silver cups, gold knitting needles and numerous other implements that have survived for over 2000 years. I visit the Empire State Building and a number of other sites.
It has been a good trip. The meetings have been incredible, the food delicious, the sites unbelievable, the intoxicating part of the city is there is a multitude of things you could do or eat or see at any given time. I did not succumb to the New York bagel, being a loyal fan of the Montreal version, but a slice of New York pizza is heaven. I say goodbye to many new Indigenous friends who by now are like brothers and sisters, realizing that they are a big part of what made my ten days in New York so amazing.