Over 2,000 people registered for the 22nd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the largest international gathering of Indigenous Peoples, according to the United Nations (UN).
“I also saw a lot of people who’ve been in the struggle for many years,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non Kenneth Deer, who is the chief administrative officer of the World Indigenous Association, which has consultative status with the UN.
The forum took place at the UN headquarters in New York City beginning April 17 and is closing today.
The forum was opened by Tadadaho Sidney Hill of the Onondaga Nation in his traditional language. According to Deer, it is customary for Haudenosaunee to open the forum, which has happened every year since the forum’s inception in 2002.
“It’s always a very impressive and proud moment to see that the Haudenosaunee is put in a prominent position in the UN,” said Joe Deom, alongside Deer, attended the forum representing the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee (HERC).
Among the topics discussed throughout the forum were land and water issues, climate change, human rights, and government oppression of Indigenous sovereignty, said Deer.
“Generally, everybody seems to have the same issues that we’re dealing with,” said Deom, whose work at the forum was cut short due to illness.
A section of the forum evaluated what has been accomplished since the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, which brought attention to the need to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the protection of Indigenous reproductive rights, and the need for establishing a process for returning human remains and sacred objects belonging to Indigenous Peoples around the world.
“We’re looking to put pressure on states to carry out what they promised that they would do,” said Deer.
While Deer participated in the UNPFII, his presence in Manhattan was driven by a specific mandate: to lobby the various ambassadors and world leaders to support the inclusion of Indigenous nations in the UN general assembly, granting them “observer status” – a right that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has been lobbying for since 1923. Deer spent much of the two-week stretch networking with politicians and bureaucrats, urging them to support the inclusion of Indigenous nations in the UN general assembly, which will be tabled this fall through a resolution drafted by Bolivia and Ecuador.
“A lot of real work takes place in the hallways and the coffee shops,” said Deer, who met with representatives from the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as the presidents of Columbia and Brazil.
“We’ve been meeting with these states quietly and pushing for their support for enhanced participation,” said Deer. He and Deom also met with Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, who hosts a breakfast with representatives of First Nations located within Canada. According to Deer, Rae confirmed his support for the conferral of observer status on Indigenous Peoples.
On April 20, the President of the UN general assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, hosted a hearing on the enhanced participation of Indigenous Peoples, which was opened by Brennen Ferguson of the Tuscarora Nation. The hearing continued with a panel discussion that Deer was invited to speak on alongside professor Claire Charters (Ngāti Whakaue, Tūwharetoa, Ngā Puhi, Tainui), who represented the Pacific region, and Mariam Aboubakrine (Tuareg), representing Africa.
Currently the right to address the UN General Assembly is reserved for dignitaries representing nation states, and spokespeople for non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
“We are a people that have a governance structure that predates European contact. As a matter of fact we don’t really know how old it is. That’s how long that we have existed,“ said Deer, in his speech. “We are a government. We are not an NGO.”
In his speech, Deer told the story of Desgahe Levi General, a Cayuga chief who travelled to Geneva to address the League of Nations and speak on behalf of the Haudenosaunee as a self-determining people, but was prevented from doing so by a majority of nation states, citing a lack of membership to the league. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy then formally applied for membership in 1924, but the application was never brought to the floor for a vote. For fear of being arrested, he never returned to Canada and died in Tuscarora shortly after his trip overseas.
“We always wonder what would have happened if the Haudenosaunee were elected to the League of Nations in 1924, and I think that the world might be a different place,” said Deer.
“Today, in 2023, in the 21st Century, Desgahe still cannot address the United Nations General Assembly and cannot address the Human Rights Council,” Deer continued.
“It’s time. We cannot wait another hundred years.”