OPINION

Going Beyond Denial

Going Beyond Denial

Rapid, tumultuous change has come to our homelands in my lifetime. In fact, I travelled only with my family only by dog team on the ice and snow the first ten years of my life. So you can appreciate and imagine what that—that changes have happened so very quickly in our homelands in the Arctic. And, of course, that kind of tumultuous change, together with historical traumas, have created an incredible breakdown of our society in the Arctic. And we rate one of the highest suicide rates of our young men in North America. And so, this is the backdrop in which all these other new changes on the new wave is happening. The first wave arrived in my lifetime, in my mother’s lifetime, in my grandmother’s lifetime. And now, the second wave is really coming hard, and that’s environmental degradation. So we are already experiencing rapid changes, which is human-induced climate change. We have experienced, of course, the poisoning of our country food as a result of toxins coming from afar and had to deal with that intensely at the global level. And in fact, I worked very closely with Tom Goldtooth around the world, as we negotiated the Stockholm Convention with the global community to stop these toxins from getting into our food source, into our bodies, and in high, high levels in the Arctic in the nursing milk of our mothers. And so, environmental issues indeed are not just about the environment. When it comes to indigenous peoples, they are very much about the health and well-being of not only our bodies, but our cultural survival.”

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit-Canadian activist, representing the 1,50,000 Inuit in Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Greenland, spoke with composure, dignity, and immense feeling at the Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization in 2006, a year before the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was adopted by the United Nation’s General Assembly. To a large extent, her views and her concerns about the preservation of their past and the sustainability of their future is shared by the 370 million indigenous people in the world.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed on August 9 each year to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population. This event also recognizes the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection. It was first pronounced by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1994, marking the day of the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in 1982.

Some of the earliest inhabitants of North America came from Asia over 30,000 years ago across the Bering Strait, and during the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, they moved further South. Therefore, the whole concept of Columbus discovering ‘India’ is not only historically inaccurate but also condescending and insulting to the aboriginal descendants. If there was one thing he did discover, it was the ability of humans to buy and sell fellow humans like commodities. It was, after all, this wave of organized institutions and booming economies that initiated the first slave-trade. After Spain and Portugal had had their chunk of the world’s fertile land and gold mines in a short spurt of time, they ran out of favour with the locals, for their lack of tact, and ran out of their precious loot, for lack of prudence. France, Holland and England quickly moved into the picture and practised a more sophisticated, longterm, sustained form of colonialism.

In the 18th century, the European settlers defined ‘civilized’ people in terms of literacy, organized religious and political institutions, and urbanism in the trade sector. Since the aboriginals they encountered, practising rudimentary subsistence agriculture and hunting only as much as required, lacked all of these qualities, they were often referred to by the white man as ‘noble savages’. Such haughty terminology is seen in the books, poetry and letters written by prominent public figures like Thomas Jefferson and William Wordsworth. Like in all their colonial expeditions, including the one the British partook much later in India, their trades in fish and fur slowly grew into the complete structural exploitation of the indigenous people in America. In their obnoxiously repetitive defence: they came, they saw, they civilized. The fact that what they laud themselves for as being angelic assistance, was for the original inhabitants of the land, the start of a long process of their way of life and their rich cultures being taken off the map and pushed into the dusty corners of people’s imagination of the stereotyped ‘nomad’, either did not occur to them, or is a convenient oversight. The façade of etiquette, decency, and refinement built by the white men in the eyes of these ‘barbarians’, fortunately, came crashing after their boorish conduct in World War I.

When the Declaration to protect the livelihood, land, and rights of these aboriginals, a considerable number of whom survived the many passive and active massacres by the European settlers and created a community of direct descendants, was adopted by the UNGA in 2007, four countries voted against it: USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Being countries that have an active aboriginal community, their chief objections lay in the provisions for selfdetermination, meaning that these people could freely determine their political system and pursue independent social, economic and cultural activities, and the suggestions for control of the natural resources on the lands they have historic claim on. Both, if implemented in full force would be politically explosive for any nation-state. However, this Declaration is not a legally binding document, but a mere moral code to set a standard and take a stand, and all four countries eventually came out in support of it. As inconvenient as it might be for governments to address this, when it is so much easier to simply ignore the people living on the fringes of their first-world havens, the fact of the matter is that they were here first. Their homes were either forced or manipulated out of the gullible hands of their ancestors, and now their immediate well-being is threatened by the shameless pollution of every source of their livelihood, not to mention the cultural marginalization they have faced for centuries. With their subsistence-based lifestyles, they have not been contributors to global warming, climate change, soil erosion or wildlife endangerment. The bees do not owe their imminent demise to the hunting and gathering of the indigenous. In a world that has built a global institution like the United Nations, existing purely on the will of its members, and is heading towards achieving a fair, representative government in a majority of the world’s countries, that any community should be treated with disrespect and kept out of the purview of justice is shameful. The UN might not have the power to enforce, but binding laws in all countries with tribal or aboriginal populations, securing their land, resources and their traditions are well in order and way overdue.