A Place at the Table: The United Nations Established a Historic New Forum for Indigenous Issues. What Will It Mean for Native Peoples around the World? (Action)

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The mere usage of the term "indigenous" itself, it should be noted, has been a thorn of contention in some countries, particularly as there is no absolute, unilateral usage and acceptance of it. The government of India does not acknowledge that there are "indigenous" people in its territories at all. Rather, notes Anna Pinto of the Northeast India based indigenous peoples' Center for Organization, Research and Education, "It has an official list of what it calls 'scheduled tribes,' an arbitrary list of groups that it considers to have tribal characteristics."

In Australia, being an Aboriginal person of the original Native peoples subjugated by European invaders is essential to defining ones indigeneity. In the Philippines, however, those defined as indigenous peoples comprise groups from more remote sectors of the country "whose ancestors were never conquered by Spain," according to noted regional leader Victoria Tauli Corpus, of the Indigenous Peoples Network.

To assume that an indigenous person, by definition, is automatically nonwhite or non-European would be incorrect, as the Scandinavian Arctic region's blonde-haired, fair-skinned Saami people reveal. So, too, is the idea that a country's indigenous peoples must be also of a different race than the ruling group. In much of Africa, notes the region's elected representative to the Permanent Forum, Dr. Aytegan Kouevi of Toga, "there are some peoples indigenous to particular areas which have been marginalized not by Europeans but by other black Africans who have come from elsewhere, ignoring those who lived there first.

"Each government must change their mentality," he warns, to recognize the diversity within the state."

In Latin America, the peculiarities of the former Spanish colonial system's micro-categorization of race and racial mixtures among its Native, African, and Spanish descended subjects adds yet another complex layer to the indigenous question. For countries like Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, et al--where the overwhelming majority of citizens are Indian by blood (85 to 95 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook 2002)--individuals of mixed Indian/European ancestry are rendered categorically--many would argue, divisively--apart as "Mestizo," much the same as South Africa's otherwise-native "Coloured" population has been. "This process of negation with regard to indigenous identity runs deep in our history," acknowledges Xochitl Galvez Ruiz, a cabinet minister and head of Mexico's Office for the Development of Indigenous Peoples. "To be seen as 'Indian' was to be discriminated against, and so parents would not want their children to be identified as such."

Welcomed At Last

Nearly 80 years since a delegation from the Cayuga Nation first petitioned the League of Nations (unsuccessfully) for inclusion within its membership, the world's indigenous peoples have finally been welcomed at the proverbial table among world leaders who forged the alliances, signed the treaties, and initiated the economic development which has heretofore determined their destinies. For two weeks during the month of May, the historic first session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues took place at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Comprised of a panel of eight regionally elected indigenous representatives--Willie Littlechild and Mililani Trask representing Native Americans and Hawaiians, respectively--and eight government appointed experts, the Forum gathered to discuss, advise, and debate the myriad concerns which bring commonality to otherwise highly diverse peoples.

From Australia's Tortes Strait Islanders to Bolivia's Aymara to the Russian Aleur, they are united in their quest for self-determination and equal representation within national governments, fair access to health care, education, natural resources, and economic development, the protection of cultural and intellectual property rights, and acknowledgement and respect for their own distinct traditions, languages, religious beliefs, etc. …