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Native People Address the United Nations
Edited by Alexander Ewen
Clear Light Publishers, 1994, 176 pages

This book brings together the statements of nineteen leaders of native cultures — from North, Central, and South America to the Pacific Rim, Africa, Eurasia, and the Arctic — made to the General Assembly of the United Nations as it launched the International Year of the World's Indigenous People (1993). The book includes a Foreword by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and a Preface by Rigoberta MenchĂș, recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. A nine-page introduction, drafted by the Native American Council of New York City (host of the December 1992 talks of indigenous peoples) outlines "An Indigenous Worldview." The book also includes four brief reports on the struggles of indigenous peoples in 1) Central and South America, 2) North America, 3) the Pacific Rim, and 4) Africa and Eurasia. Finally, there are two appendices: a "Statement of Indigenous Nations, Peoples, and Organizations," and the "United Nations Draft Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights."

In their own way, each of the book's sections shed light on the global nature of the plight facing indigenous people: the disappearance of diversity and traditional ways of life, ecological degradation, repression of native rights movements, and the loss of vital knowledge about how to live in harmony with the environment. The statements made by the nineteen indigenous representatives describe these issues with examples drawn from their own cultures. Anderson Muutang Urud of the Kelabit tribe of Sarawak, Malaysia, points out that his people have lost their native forest lands to logging companies. "Our lives are threatened by company goons," he says. "Our women are being raped by loggers who invade our villages. While the companies get rich from our forests, we are condemned to live in poverty and eventual genocide." Davi Yanomami of the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon Valley describes the invasion of garimpeiros (gold miners) who not only ravage their lands but exploit his people and spread disease. Thomas Banyacya, a Native American Hopi elder, talks about the costs to his people of the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974 which mandated the removal of Navajos and Hopis from their native lands, ostensibly to resolve conflicting claims to land between the two groups, but largely as a result of pressure by mining and energy industries.

These and other violations against the human rights of indigenous people call out for hearings in legitimate national and international settings, according to many of the representatives. It is only in recent years that world legislative forums have begun to acknowledge indigenous nations and represent the voices of the world's 300 million indigenous people. While this is a step in the right direction, many call for specific actions by the United Nations toward further representation and action on behalf of native people. For instance, Marcial Arias Garcia, a Kuna Indian from Panama and the director of the Continental Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations and Nations, proposes the establishment within the United Nations of an Office of Indigenous Affairs, as well as the ratification and implementation of Convention No. 169 of the International Labor Organization, a convention that recognizes some of the ancestral rights of indigenous people. Similarly, Donald Rojas, president of the World Council of Indigenous People, calls for the creation of a high-level mechanism such as that of a high commissioner on indigenous issues charged with overseeing the social, cultural, and environmental issues of indigenous peoples. Many representatives express the need for greater attention to and funds in support of indigenous issues in the next decade.

Above all, the statements of the native leaders express a vision of more diverse and holistic approach to global social and environmental issues. Poka Laenui, a Native Hawaiian and president of the Pacific Asia Council of Indigenous Peoples, emphasizes human values over those of "property and economic values ... to measure the health of a society. Similarly, William Means, president of the International Indian Treaty Council, says, "Today, we begin the process of seeing indigenous peoples of the world not as primitive and backward, but as human beings with our own dreams and aspirations, our own value systems, and our own yearning for international recognition of our human rights, including the right to self-determination."

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.