Tupac Enrique Acosta is a member of the Nahuatl Nation and serves as firekeeper for the Nahuacalli, Embassy of Indigenous Peoples in Phoenix, Arizona.
The 18th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) takes place 22 April to 3 May 2019. The theme of the session will be: “Traditional knowledge: Generation, Transmission and Protection”
– The United Nations, as in so many other areas, gives lip service in support of Indigenous issues while lacking the political will and enforcement power over individual member states to comply with the protection of fundamental human rights for the Original Nations of Indigenous Peoples of the world.
It took 47 years since the 1960’s UN declaration in support of the right of “all peoples” to self-determination to be extended to Indigenous Peoples, with the adoption of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But twelve years later, those words have not moved far off the paper on which they are written. Indigenous issues are still being subsumed under the individual domestic rubric of the member states of the UN Nations General Assembly, in defiance of the commitment to universal human rights that self-determination invokes and professes for all humanity.
It is no accident that the last four nation states to support the Declaration – Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States – were precisely those nations where the Anglo-European colonizers of the British Empire globally entrenched their colonial relationship with the Indigenous Peoples subsequent to the decline of Great Britain as a world power.
The devastation and genocide of Indigenous Nations and territories continues till today, but under a new mantle of progress called “Development”.
For the Original Nations of Indigenous Peoples of the Great Turtle Island Abya Yala [Americas], we know that the subjugation of Indigenous Peoples started 526 years ago with the sword and the cross are now perpetrated with trade agreements and the empty promises of dead letters from the United Nations.
It is all a reflection of the continuing pernicious influence of the Doctrine of Discovery, the series of 15th century papal bulls in which a succession of popes authorized European explorers “discovering” lands in the New World that were not occupied by Christians to consider those lands vacant – terra nullius, in the words of the Doctrine – and to seize those lands in the names of their sovereign and enslave those people who lived there.
Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the Americas, in a 2015 speech in Bolivia went so far as to apologize for the sins of the Church – not individual conquistadores, but the Church itself – in the subjugation and colonization of Indigenous peoples during the conquest of the Americas.
But even as the Pope denounced the “new colonialism” of global capital oppressing Indigenous peoples, he ignores the pleas by a wide array of Christian denominations, including the World Council of Churches, for the Church to renounce the Doctrine. It is ancient history; the Papal Nuncio at the United Nations has said.
But it is not ancient history. It remains the basis of all Indigenous land law in the United States, and across the continent. In Mexico, the entire legal infrastructure since independence from Spain in 1836 is also based on the dictates of the Doctrine, known as the legaloid concept of Original Property of the State.
That is why Indigenous peoples take Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s recent letter to the Spanish king and the Pope asking for apologies for those genocidal colonial campaigns with little more than a grain of salt.
We know the Doctrine of Discovery’s impact is still pernicious. We see it in the Trump Administration’s racist immigration and refugee policies in the United States, which refuses to even recognize the historical reality of the descendants of those Indigenous peoples who have traveled freely across the US-Mexican border region before it even existed.
We see it in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsinairo has emboldened racist attacks on Indigenous Amazonian communities in the name of promoting even more destruction of ancient forest and waterways that sustain the entire planet.
We see it in Mexico, where President Lopez Obrador has pushed ahead with the tourism-promoting “Maya Train” across the Yucatan peninsula, tearing through the jungles and rivers in Indigenous homelands without even legitimately consulting the indigenous peoples who have lived there since time immemorial.
And we see it in the continuing devastation that a capital-centered economy, with its extractive industries that destroy the air and water we all rely on for survival, threatens the very future of global humanity. The stakes could not be higher.
We had hoped the UN’s creation of the Permanent Forum and passage of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples had started to turn the battleship of oppression at long last, but we have been disappointed. Instead of extending the universal human rights enshrined in those actions to include protection for Indigenous Peoples, the UN member states have subsumed them to the interests of the nation states that wield the most power with the UN’s halls.
That is why we will take to the streets on Monday, April 22, in New York across from the UN on the first day of this year’s session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to let delegates know that we will not be quiet, and we will not ignore the continuing impact of the racist and white-supremacist policies let loose on the Western Hemisphere by the Doctrine of Discovery.
And we will continue to call on the United Nations to live up to the commitments it has made to ensuring that the universal human rights it professes to champion before the world extends to the Indigenous peoples as it has, at least in word, committed. We call for world peace, and peace with Mother Earth.
We know the United Nations is far better at its words than at its deeds. We are here to say that is not enough.