Dream Catcher: First Nations Address the Community of Nations, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Apr

motherearth4

We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  Chief Seattle

If our prayers were suddenly answered, would be we ready? Or would we look behind us for the familiar things, the people, the habits, the routine?  Joyce Sequichie Hifler

Hold on to what is good, even if it’s a handful of earth.  Pueblo Prayer

Today is Earth Day, and it already promises to be a clear and cool late April day here in New York.

Many who acknowledge the day in more than superficial ways rightly claim that each and every day should be devoted to an examination of our practical values and commitments.  They urge us all to build on the smaller changes we are all-too-willing to make and that might actually deflect attention from the larger shifts in lifestyle that global circumstances now require of us.

Some are able to redirect energies and commitments in ways that are both pragmatic and inspirational.  But too many of us have already fallen off the sustainability wagon, abandoning the harder journey and settling for token gestures of action and rhetoric. Most of us are willing to contribute some part of ourselves to the sustainable future that our children will require, but our habits run deep and in directions (and with values) that in the main hold limited promise for our children’s future.  We struggle to make our small changes based on contexts that are themselves not really conducive to change.

As a First Nations prayer of unknown origins suggests, “We have forgotten who we are,” exploiting to our own ends, distorting our knowledge, abusing our power, seeking security largely for “our own.”  This is a heavy indictment on what is becoming here a lovely spring day, an indictment directed as much at the systems we have evolved as it is towards the minds and souls of individuals too busy resisting their own evolution.

At the UN over these two weeks, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous People has been meeting in its 17th session. We certainly haven’t attended all the discussons, but those we have – both plenary and side events – have added good value.   While a range of issues regarding the health and dignity of indigenous peoples have been raised, the primary focus of the discussion has been on representation – seeking a formal role for indigenous people in the UN General Assembly and other key UN organs with a level of status lying somewhere between that accorded member states and that of NGOs.

For some of the indigenous delegates –and for some of the rest of us – these representational discussions are not new.   In many parts of the world, indigenous peoples struggle to hold their own amidst a barrage of corporate incursions, formal and informal discrimination and government neglect that conspire to threaten livelihoods, languages and the ecosystems on which they depend.   Representatives of these groups – and those who support their diverse concerns – are becoming more and more skilled in linking issues interests and demanding rights-based attentiveness in multinational forums.  If the logistics of some “special status” could be successfully addressed – perhaps resulting in “observer” status — indigenous representatives could then experience a greater assurance that states would no longer be able to establish policy to address indigenous issues behind the backs of indigenous people.

This would be a welcome development at several levels.  And yet I wonder (as we do with persons with disabilities who will come later this year and the women who took over the UN for the CSW in February) if the indigenous delegations understand fully what the UN is capable of and what it isn’t?  And, perhaps more importantly, whether these delegations are more likely to change the UN, or to be changed by it?

It is difficult to exist within UN headquarters and not “play by its rules,” accept its political compromises and “thick” protocols. Indeed, were it not for the geographic origins and traditional clothing worn by some delegates, it would be a challenge to discern how this Forum differs from other Commissions.   The rooms and protocols reflect the same dynamics of power and communication.   People from diverse indigenous contexts read prepared statements that in some instances merely serve as a petition for the right to come and read more prepared statements in a wider range of UN conference rooms beyond the Forum itself.  As in other UN settings, the podium drives the process, giving priority to UN agencies and related “experts” seeking to brand their indigenous bona fides, which in some instances are considerable.  But the overall tone seems to serve as a message to indigenous representatives that “you are in the place you need to be,” that this is where the action is for you and “your people.”

I’m not convinced, at least not at face value.   There are few groups at the UN who cover the range of UN processes as we do, and we can confidently report that there is scant discussion of indigenous issues in formal UN settings aside from the two weeks of the Forum.  Moreover, there is little indication that the UN has in any way been impacted by the values that lie at the heart (if not always reflected in practice) of indigenous life.   Our collective resistance to truth telling, especially on matters of peace and security (Yemen is a good case study here); our ability to smooth over the many rough edges of global threat by burying urgency in a garden of bureaucratic consensus; our incessant habit of publicly “thanking” states for statements that in some instances seem as intended to undermine as enable our collective responsibility to peace, rights and development; these and other dimensions of our institutional culture could stand a steadier dose of indigenous perspective.

But such perspective comes with a risk.  As with many people on this Earth Day, our institutional habits here at the UN are highly resistant to change.  And I sometimes fear that the more people line up on First Avenue to get through UN security, the more people who petition to participate in the UN’s institutional habits, working methods and too-often politicized outcomes, the less likely that the cultural changes that we need to see in this policy space will actually come to pass.  Why change when we’re so “popular?”

It is not, of course, the task of indigenous communities to “save the rest of us from ourselves” nor to “fix” institutions that have often neglected indigenous values and interests.  And I am not inclined to sentimentalize the spiritual messaging of indigenous communities any more (or less) than that of their large, western, institutionalized counterparts. But it is not unreasonable to hope that the higher-profile presence of indigenous representatives being sought in all facets of this policy space could actually inspire and impact the way we routinely “do our business” and not merely replicate some of the least effective of our already considerable stable of unaddressed habits.

Certainly the value perspectives are in place within indigenous cultures to help shift our collective course.  In a passage called “Sacred Instructions,” attributed to William Commanda and Frank Decontie, we find a litany of indigenous values and practices that can transform lives, communities and, yes, even bureaucracies:  practicing kindness to self and others, expressing care in all our life settings, thanking the creator at all times, achieving humility as the path to wisdom and understanding, and practicing honesty with self and others.

None of this is easy in an age of competition, personal branding and ambition and none corresponds to any of the UN’s existing “rules of procedure.” Moreover, the mere stating of any aspiration is certainly not sufficient to making it incarnate in the world.  But I am convinced that the planet would be on a more sustainable path if these values and practices were less negotiable within our community, national and global institutions; if some of our complaining could be bathed in thanksgiving; if some of our incessant public relations could adopt a lens of humility; if some of our overly-politicized discourse could defer to our responsibilities to truth telling.

This Earth Day, we have more to do than finding the right colored bin for our ever-less-likely-to-be-recycled waste.  We must instead better prepare to receive the “answer to our prayer,” a prayer for justice and respect, yes, but a prayer for grace to help us cherish the things we have soiled, lift up the things we have brought down, share more of the love we keep hidden behind dispassionate eyes, and risk more honesty within our communities of policy and practice.

And perhaps above all, to hold on to what is good and offer more of what is good to others.

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