Tribes Need to Push Climate Change Reform Now

Dina Gilio-Whitaker , Indian Country Today, 9/16/14


As ICTMN reported recently, indigenous peoples will be at the forefront of upcoming United Nations and civil society events in New York City. The long anticipated, one and a half day World Conference on Indigenous Peoples will be immediately followed by a one day United Nations Climate Summit. Immediately preceding the Summit is a three day Climate Convergence conference and march in which indigenous groups like #Idle No More And International Indian Treaty Council are taking a lead role.

Unlike a decade ago, climate change is no longer a topic limited to the ranting of left-wing radicals and only the daftest of fools continue to deny its reality. The evidence is staring us in the face with each new catastrophic weather event and satellite image of melting polar ice caps. And scientists and politicians alike know that indigenous peoples are the canaries in the proverbial coal mine. Climate refugees are by and large indigenous peoples from island nations and other low-lying regions being inundated by rising seas, to say nothing of those displaced by famine and drought from changing weather patterns.

No one is unaffected, even in the so-called “first world.” Fourth World nations are on the frontlines of climate disaster; the Quinault Nation received a sobering wake-up call earlier this year when a state of emergency was declared after a seawall breach caused severe flooding. Northwest coast tribes are also affected by a disastrous decline in shellfish due to ocean acidification. The Columbia River plateau region is expected to become more vulnerable to drought, warmer summer temperatures, and more extreme weather episodes. Earlier snowmelt and reductions in snowpack will stress some reservoir systems, and increased stress on groundwater systems will lead to a decrease in recharge and ultimately decreases in salmon populations.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the havoc climate change is and will continue to wreak, not just in the Pacific Northwest, but all over Indian country. Climate change demands the ability to mitigate and adapt to the damage and disruption being caused to traditional ways of life in indigenous communities. It does also, in fact, present the opportunity for Indian nations to respond in ways that reinforce their self-determination by developing their own unique approaches to mitigate and adapt to climate change. At this point every native nation in the US should be adopting a tribal climate change policy (TCCP).

In 2008 I wrote a research paper on the need for TCCP, specifically for the Colville Confederated Tribes. Back then, tribal nations were only just beginning to think about how to prepare for climate change. It’s interesting to see how much has changed since then. For example, the Obama administration in 2013 moved to support tribal self-determination through climate change action when it included tribal participation in an executive order promoting national climate change preparedness, something almost unimaginable in the Bush administration of 2008.

While such initiatives focus on funding, TCCP should be culturally responsive to individual nations. I wrote that “it must encompass cultural, political, economic, and legal considerations; in other words, it should be ‘holistic’ to be meaningful and effective. It should be rooted in traditional cultural values drawn from ancestral teachings and stories which teach respect for the land and all that lives on the land, in the sky and in the waters (traditional environmental knowledge and spirituality). Those teachings inform appropriate action and are guiding philosophies as much for today’s people as those of the ancient past.”

I wrote that “functionally, TCCP should take into consideration mitigation efforts as much as possible; however, at this point adaptation efforts must be pursued with priority simply because climate change impacts are unavoidable. It should take into account that while current international efforts addressing climate change (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) are focused on the actions of Member States, the voices of indigenous peoples is marginalized. They must be inserted because it is indigenous people who are more disproportionately affected by climate change as well as being vulnerable to the dysfunctional elements of the carbon trading system. We need to remember that within the global conversation of how to deal with climate change, it is the Social Greens who most represent our interests, and it is with groups that espouse this ideology that we must ally ourselves most closely.”

Six years later, we have witnessed not just the solid alignment with the Social Green movement, but indigenous peoples taking the lead in climate justice activism. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 proved not to be responsive enough to indigenous peoples, and it was the bravery of Canadian First Nations women who gave birth to #Idle No More, now perhaps the most recognizable contingent of indigenous peoples in the world of climate justice activism.

The upcoming events in New York, however well attended and organized they turn out to be, are unlikely to produce any sweeping changes for indigenous peoples. And there may even be legitimate reasons to be leery of the NGO industrial complex driving today’s climate justice activism with whom indigenous nations are partnering. At the end of the day though, it’s all just a reminder that Fourth World/indigenous peoples must be proactive by creating and implementing their own plans for the inevitable future of a warmer world.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.



Indigenous Nations Call for Full and Effective Participation of Indigenous Nations in United Nations

In lead up to 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples tribal nations engage in global dialogue concerning the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


National Congress of American Indians

Washington, DC – Indigenous governments, including the tribal nations of North America, are seeking an official status within the United Nations in the lead up to the High Level Plenary to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) in New York City in September of 2014.

In late May of 2013 during the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City, more than 72 tribal nations and ten Indian and Native Hawaiian organizations – including NCAI, called on the UN to adopt rules to recognize the “regular and permanent status” of constitutional and customary Indigenous governments at the UN and become fully inclusive of all Indigenous governments. More specifically, the joint statement (download) made three recommendations for consideration leading up to the WCIP:

1)      That a new monitoring body be incorporated within the UN to help guide implementation of the Declaration by members states of the UN;

2)      That the UN take action to address the issue of violence against Indigenous women, including convening a high-level conference to discuss this matter, ensuring any monitoring mechanism of the Declaration pay particular attention to Article 22, and to appoint a Special Rapporteur with a specific focus on violence against Indigenous women and children; and

3)      That the UN take action to give constitutional and customary governments of Indigenous Peoples a dignified, permanent status within its processes, which acknowledges their rights as self-governing nations.

In a global meeting held last week in Alta, Norway, tribes continued to advocate that the UN adopt rules to recognize the “regular and permanent status” of constitutional and customary Indigenous governments at the UN and become fully inclusive of all Indigenous governments.

Currently, Indigenous governments have no official status in the UN.  Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are given a formal ‘consultative status” in UN processes and are relied upon in matters affecting Indigenous Peoples, while the elected or traditionally appointed governments of Indigenous Nations are often denied an active role in discussions affecting their people.

The global meeting in Alta was held to prepare for the UN’s High Level Plenary Meeting to be held in September 2014, and produced an Outcome Document (download) with recommendations for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with input from 7 Indigenous caucuses from throughout the globe. Recommendation 2.10 states:

Pursuant to the universal application of the right of self-determination for all Peoples, recommends that the UN recognize Indigenous Peoples and Nations based on our original free existence, inherent sovereignty and the right to self-determination in international law.  We call for, at a minimum, permanent observer status within the UN system enabling our direct participation through our own governments and parliaments.  Our own governments include inter alia our traditional councils and authorities.

Participating in the Alta Meetings were – Chairman John Sirois, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; Chief John Giesbrecht, Kwikwetlem First Nation; Chief Wilfred King, Gull Bay First Nation; and Dwight Witherspoon (Tribal Council Representative) and Leonard Gorman (Executive Director, Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission) on behalf of the Navajo Nation.

Frank Ettawageshik (Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Executive Director, United Tribes of Michigan) also participated as an official delegate of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

Statement of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI):

“The tribal nations that participated in these meetings helped continue the push for full and effective participation for Indigenous nations in the UN. NCAI has an NGO status with the UN, yet believes that tribes should be afforded their full and effective status, and is committed to acting as a resource for tribes wanting to participate in UN discussions. NCAI insists that Indigenous nations need an active, direct voice within the UN, especially considering that Indigenous nations remain at the forefront of the world’s most challenging issues – from climate change to poverty.  To recognize the autonomy of Indigenous governments and afford them a rightful seat at the table is a critical step to fully implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. NCAI is committed to providing technical assistance to tribes in making the push for each of these issues. Each of these recommendations remains a priority for Indigenous nations as we move forward toward the 2014 WCIP. “


About The National Congress of American Indians

Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights. For more information visit

Recommendations by 72 Indian Nations and Others for World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

Darwin Hill

Statement Of Umbrella Groups National Congress Of American Indians, United South And Eastern Tribes, And California Association Of Tribal Governments, 72 Indigenous Nations and Seven Indigenous Organizations

Twelfth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
(May 28, 2013)

Agenda Item: 6. Discussion on the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

Speaker: Darwin Hill, Tonawanda Seneca Nation

By the Navajo Nation, Yurok Tribe, Hoopa Valley Tribe, Tonawanda Seneca Nation, Quinault Nation, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the Confederation of Sovereign Nanticoke-Lenape Tribe (including Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, and the Nanticoke Indian Tribe of Delaware), the Crow Nation, Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Nez Perce Tribe, Shoalwater Bay Tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, the National Congress of American Indians, California Association of Tribal Governments (32 Tribes), United South and Eastern Tribes (26 Tribes), the Native American Rights Fund, the Indian Law Resource Center, National Native American AIDS Prevention Center, Papa Ola Lokahi, the Native Hawaiian Health Board, Americans for Indian Opportunity, and the Self-Governance Communication and Education Tribal Consortium.

This statement is made by 72 Indian nations located in the United States and acting through their own governments. Also joining in this statement are ten Indian and Hawaiian Native organizations. The indigenous governments making this statement speak for their citizens or members totaling more than 515,000 indigenous individuals. These nations govern more than 19 million acres of territory, and we own more than 16 million acres of land.

We believe that the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is an important opportunity for the United Nations to take much-needed action to advance the purposes of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially to promote the implementation and realization of fundamental rights. Despite the shortcomings of the process, creative and effective action must be taken by the United Nations to press for implementation of the Declaration’s principles, since violations of indigenous rights are actually increasing in many parts of the world. Violence on a horrific scale is being inflicted on indigenous communities, and increasingly it is inflicted on indigenous women, as recently reported by the Permanent Forum’s own Study on the extent of violence against indigenous women and girls and by the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas.

Without adequate implementing measures by states as yet, the Declaration is having little significant effect in reducing human rights violations against indigenous peoples, and violations appear to be increasing in many countries. Some states profess support for the Declaration, but in practice they ignore the Declaration’s requirements. The increased incidence of adverse actions violating indigenous rights is apparently due in part to growing pressures from climate change, increased demand for energy, and increased competition for natural resources in indigenous territories.

Rex Lee Jim (left), Vice President of the Navajo Nation and Darwin Hill, Chief of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, participate at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Rex Lee Jim (left), Vice President of the Navajo Nation and Darwin Hill, Chief of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, participate at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Sadly, we cannot yet say that the Declaration has reduced the attempts to destroy indigenous cultures and societies, or the taking of indigenous homelands and resources, or the economic marginalization of indigenous peoples. Without effective implementing measures and without international monitoring of indigenous peoples’ rights, the purposes of the Declaration cannot be achieved.

Our greatest concern is for the physical security of our people, especially women, and of our homes. Our right of self-determination is our most important right – it is the right that makes all other rights possible – and it is also our right that is most at risk – most likely to be violated. Our lands and resources and the ecosystems where we live are most precious to us because they are essential to our existence. We believe that United Nations action is critical to addressing these rights and all of the rights in the Declaration.

We offer three recommendations for action that we hope can be adopted by the World Conference.

First, we recommend that the United Nations establish a new body responsible for promoting state implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and monitoring states’ actions with regard to indigenous peoples’ rights. At least four regional indigenous caucuses have now made the same or a similar recommendation. Such a monitoring and implementation body must have a mandate to receive relevant information, to share best practices, to make recommendations, and otherwise to work toward the objectives of the Declaration. Such an implementing and monitoring body would do more than anything else to achieve the purposes of the Declaration and promote compliance with the Declaration.

Second, we recommend a three-pronged course of action to address the problem of violence against indigenous women:

a. A decision to convene a high-level conference to examine challenges to the safety and well-being of indigenous women and children and to share perspectives and best practices.

b. A decision to require that the UN body for monitoring and implementing the Declaration (recommended above) give particular attention, on at least an annual basis, “to the rights and special needs of indigenous . . . women, youth, children and elders . . . in the implementation of the Declaration”; and

c.  A decision to appoint a Special Rapporteur to focus exclusively on human rights issues of indigenous women and children, including but not limited to violence against them and on changing state laws that discriminate against them.

Finally, we recommend that action be taken to give indigenous peoples, especially indigenous constitutional and customary governments, a dignified and appropriate status for participating regularly in UN activities. Indigenous peoples deserve to have a permanent status for participation in the UN that reflects their character as peoples and governments. This is a problem that has already been studied and examined within the UN system, and now it is time to take action at last so that indigenous peoples do not have to call themselves NGOs or depend upon ad hoc resolutions to be able to participate in UN meetings, processes, and events.

The full text of our recommendations is available on the web at, and on paper in the meeting room.

We have begun conversations with states about these recommendations, and we look forward to speaking with as many state delegations as possible. We are also talking with other indigenous peoples and we are eager to hear the ideas of others. We are not inflexible about precisely what actions should be taken by the UN, and we hope that broad agreement can be reached about the general principle or idea of each of these recommendations. When the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples 2014 has decided to take action, then it will be necessary to create inclusive processes, with the full participation of indigenous peoples and indigenous governments, to elaborate these decisions and put them into effect.

We call upon all countries to make a commitment for action to implement the Declaration and to support these modest and workable recommendations for UN action.

Thank you.

Darwin Hill is Chief of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation.