The Background: "Idle no More"

“There is no conception the meaning of which is more controversial than that of sovereignty. From the moment it was introduced into political science, it never had a meaning which was universally agreed upon. ” ~ Lassa Oppenheim

The twenty five hundred Haida people residing on Haida Gwaii are among 370 million self-described “indigenous peoples” alive today on the planet. Generally defined as people whose community pre-existed the larger nation state that enveloped them, indigenous peoples comprise about 4,500 distinct cultures speaking as many different languages and dialects. They account for 80 to 90 percent of the world’s cultural diversity, and while only being 5% of the world’s total population, they occupy about 20 percent of the planet’s surface area. They reside within and across the borders of 75 of the United Nations’ 184 recognized countries. They thrive in tropical forests, boreal forests, deserts, tundra, savannas, snow, prairies, islands and mountains; and they occupy every remaining complex biotic community (“biome”) on the planet. Many of them, like the Haida, regard their ancestral territories as a “nation” and would draw a very different map of the world than those found in most modern atlases. Instead of 184 "sovereign" countries, theirs would demarcate thousands of independent ... and sovereign ... nations.

Although for most of the millennia they have survived these small nations knew little of each other’s languages, cultures or lifeways, they have somehow managed during the last 75 years to organize one of the most impressive worldwide social movements in the history of mankind. It began in 1923 when a Mohawk chief named Deskaheh led a small delegation of American Indians to Geneva Switzerland. There they called upon the recently formed League of Nations to defend the right of their people to live under their own laws, on their own land and according to their own faith. They were turned away at the gate, but the event is still remembered by indigenous peoples worldwide as the first foray in what would become the most unexpected political uprising of modern times.

In the decades that followed Deskaheh’s futile venture, millions of very poor, almost illiterate people, living in thousands of small communities, without electricity or communication infrastructure and speaking thousands of different languages, managed to organize a global protest for land and human rights that has literally changed the way the world regards land tenure, the commons, human rights and sovereignty.

As the world shrank and transportation accelerated, inhabitants of the most remote villages began to discover that they were not alone. There were others like them on almost every continent – people with unique dialects, diets, cultures and cosmologies who were at best misunderstood, at worst oppressed by the dominant nationalities that surrounded them. They began to communicate, and to meet, and through interpreters they learned of ways that aboriginals in societies like Haida Gwaii had succeeded in protecting their cultures and recovering the independence, tenure and ancient homelands lost to colonization. They began to resist assimilation and petition for recognition of territorial rights. And people in the “developed” world, particularly anthropologists, human rights lawyers, social activists and members of organizations like Cultural Survival, Survival International, EcoTerra, the Forest Peoples Programme and First Peoples Worldwide who valued cultural diversity as much as biological diversity, came to their aid. Links were established, networks formed and new NGO’s founded, from the Arctic to the Kalihari, from Micronesia to the Amazon Basin, some with fewer than 100 members, others with millions.

By the 1960s indigenous peoples and their organizations were formally petitioning national courts and governments, international bodies and the World Bank to have their civil, economic, and cultural rights recognized. And they began to confront transnational extractive industries that were treating their homelands as if they were part of a global commons available to anyone who needed the resources above and below the ground.

As the 1960’s, a decade remembered for its strife and protest, unfolded, new and somewhat less polite tactics were tested – non-violent direct action, passive resistance, labor strikes, public demonstrations, litigation and boycotts. It was an era of civil disobedience, when the worldwide resistance of minorities to oppression and injustice was joined by the vibrant force of native people.

In 1974 indigenous leaders from North America, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand established The World Council of Indigenous Peoples. WCIP was immediately granted consultative status by the United Nations, which later established The U.N. Forum on Indigenous Issues.

In 1977, American Indians petitioned the Decolonization Committee of the United Nations for

  • recognition of their sovereign right to self-determination,
  • full ownership of their communal lands,
  • control of their natural wealth and resources,
  • cultural freedom,
  • informed consent prior to any activity on their lands,
  • self-representation through their own institutions, and
  • the freedom to exercise their customary laws.

As the League of Nations had fifty years beforehand, the U.N. ignored the petition and denied the Indians access.

In the years that followed indigenous communities continued to challenge all the assumptions and mechanisms that resulted in the dispossession of their lands. The global movement for native sovereignty called them "pockets of resistance." They have been more successful in some countries than others. In 1973 the Canadian Supreme Court in Calder et al vs. Attorney General of British Columbia challenged the way Canada structured aboriginal rights. Then in 1982 The Constitution Act recognized the inherent aboriginal rights of “First Nations” and paved the way to another Supreme Court decision confirming first natives’ original title to the land.

In Australia, on June 3, 1992 the High Court in Eddie Mabo and Others v. The State of Queensland affirmed ancestral land title to Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders who were also compensated for the losses incurred when all land in the new colony of Australia was declared terra nullius (unoccupied) and therefore state property of the government. By the close of the twentieth century Haida Gwaii had become an inspiring pocket of resistance and aboriginals across Canada declared that they would be "Idle no More," a declaration that has become a rallying cry for indigenous sovereignty world wide .

In Africa and Asia, particularly in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, the Congo, Botswana, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, where all land unoccupied by colonial settlers became ‘state lands,’ indigenous peoples have not fared as well; in some countries because colonial governments did not recognize them as indigenous, in others, like Botswana, because all inhabitants, including recent colonial settlers, were declared to be “indigenous” no matter how long they had been living in a particular area or territory. In all those countries laws that govern the management of wildlife and forests, have led to people losing access to land and resources upon which they had depended for generations.

At the 1982 World National Parks Congress in Bali, Indonesia, the rights of traditional societies to “social, economic, cultural and spiritual self-determination” and ‘"to participate in decisions affecting the land and natural resources on which they depend” were affirmed by global conservationists, who had never been regarded as a friendly force by native peoples, millions of whom had been evicted from homelands though the creation of national parks and other “protected areas.” While indigenous delegates at the Congress were disappointed that political self-determination was explicitly excluded from their proposed resolution, they were not surprised, as they knew from bitter experience that almost all national governments regard indigenous rights to own and control specific territory as a prelude to secession. So instead they supported “the implementation of joint management arrangements between societies which have traditionally managed resources and protected area authorities.”

In 1983 a special meeting on Indigenous Peoples was convened by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and a process set in motion that has since allowed indigenous peoples to press the UN General Assembly for a recognition of their rights. Tens later the UN General Assembly declared 1993 “The International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.” After the dedication Erica-Irene Daes, chair of the indigenous delegation complained that the event was “about to become the poorest and smallest of its kind in the history of the United Nations.” She didn’t stop there.

“It continues to be a matter of great disappointment to indigenous peoples, and to me,” she said, “that some Member States cannot yet agree to include [us] in the family of nations. In an age which has overcome racism, racial discrimination and colonialism in so many fields, there are Member States that still perpetuate a myth as old as the European colonization of the Americas that indigenous peoples are legally unequal to other peoples.”

The following year the 48th session of the UN General Assembly proclaimed the next ten years to be an “International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” established a permanent forum for indigenous peoples and began the process of drafting a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Eleven years after the first draft of that resolution it was finally approved by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and was sent the General Assembly for a final vote. Meanwhile the permanent forum continued to gather every year with little attention or support provided my member nations. Ted Moses, ambassador from the Grand Council of Crees in Quebec describes the forum as “an orphan within the UN system …. barely recognized or acknowledged …. And appears not to affect the work of the United Nations.”

While they awaited approval the Declaration, through the years, indigenous peoples formed new "pockets of resistance" and pressed other international bodies such as the, the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, the International Labor Organization (ILO) the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization of African States, all of whom have passed some form of declaration supporting indigenous peoples’ rights to:

  • Self-determination
  • Ownership control and use of communal lands.
  • Freely disposition of their natural wealth and resources
  • No deprivation of their means of subsistence
  • The free enjoyment of their own culture and traditional way of life
  • Informed consent prior to activities on their lands
  • Self-representation through their own institutions
  • Free exercise of customary laws
  • Restitution of and compensation for land already lost.

Although none of the ILO, CBD or OAS declarations are truly enforceable, despite their inclusion in treaties, they are often regarded as a body of international law protecting indigenous rights, and both the IUCN and its World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) have recognized these advances and called upon governments to comply with them. In 1994, the IUCN revised its categories of protected areas to allow indigenous peoples to own and manage protected areas. Five years later the WCPA adopted guidelines for putting these new conservation principles into practice by placing emphasis on indigenous co-management of protected areas. These precedents eventually helped the Haida obtain land tenure and sovereignty on their islands.

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, indigenous peoples were recognized for the first time as a ‘Major Group’ that should participate in sustainable development. Agenda 21, which was approved by all parties to the Summit devotes a whole chapter (no. 26) to the subject. It reads:

“Indigenous peoples and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.”

At the Summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity, a legally binding international agreement, enjoined all parties to the Convention to endorse section 8j , which reads:

“Subject to its national legislation, [to] respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources.”

There have also been triumphs, few and small indeed, but potential models indicating that restitution of traditional homelands and recognition of indigenous rights are not incompatible with effective conservation.

  • In Annapurna, for example, village communities are given an opportunity to gain an income from trekkers who come through the sanctuary.
  • In Zimbabwe, local participants in the CAMPFIRE program manage wildlife reserves and collect revenue from controlled hunting and protein from wildlife culls.
  • In Indonesia where national law does not recognize indigenous rights to land, parks authorities have nevertheless granted de facto land rights and involve communities in park management.
  • In South Africa, the Khomani San, once expelled from their lands and scattered to the winds – and who were thought to have become extinct – have not only recuperated their language and revived their settlements but have had their land restituted. They are now being progressively granted rights of access and use in large chunks of their former territory.
  • In Australia, several protected areas have been returned to their original owners. For example, what we call Ayer’s Rock – Uluru to Aboriginal – is now recognized as being owned by indigenous people who co-manage the area as a National Park. And Mt Cook has been returned to its Maori owners.

What these stories have taught both conservationists and indigenous peoples is that in order for collaborative conservation to work it must advance beyond the shop-worn buzzwords of partnership – “capacity building,” “stakeholder,” “participation,” and “conflict management” -- and allow real transfers of power and economic benefits to local communities, as well as recognition of indigenous land rights. It was these principles that paved the road to autonomy for the Haida and led directly to their co-management of Gwaii Haanas, the Canadian National Park in the southern reaches of the Haida Gwaii archipelago.

On September 13, 2007, after more than two decades of heated international debate, the United Nations General Assembly finally got around to voting on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 143 nations were in favor, 11 abstained and 4, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States voted against the measure.

Although the Declaration is non-binding it does affirm that “that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples.” Thus it articulates the individual and collective rights of 370 million, as well as endorsing the self-determination of their culture, identity, language and political status, while emphasizing their right to remain distinct, pursue their own visions of social development, maintain and strengthen their own institutions and traditions, and to pursue the economic system of their choice.

The Declaration also prohibits all discrimination of indigenous peoples and in a section that is of particular interest to native people contending with international conservation, the text advocates their full participation in all matters concerning them. It also guarantees their right to participate, if they choose to, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state or states that annexed or enveloped their homeland.

The text of the Declaration includes a few things that seemed to presage the Haida experience, among them

  • Article 4 which guarantees “autonomy, or self government in matter relating to internal and local affairs.”
  • Article 8 which protects indigenous peoples from “dispossession their lands, territories or resources.”
  • Article 10 which reads “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.” And the text of
  • Articles 18 – “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions”
  • Article 19 “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.” And perhaps most significant to the Haida’s forty year struggle for sovereignty
  • Article 26—“ 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired. 2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired. 3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.”

If enforced, all those articles would protect native homelands like Haida Gwaii and their inhabitants from being marginalized in negotiations between NGOs and national governments. And each of them can be cited by native communities in any U.N. member nation as a binding declaration in support of their sovereignty.

General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Kalifa described the Declarations passage as another “major step toward the promise and protection of human rights and fundamental freedom for all. However, she warned that “even with this progress, indigenous people will still face marginalization, extreme poverty and other human rights violations.” And she predicts that they would still be “dragged into conflicts and land dispute that threaten their way of life and very survival.”

San Bushman Jumanda Gakelebone called from the office of First Peoples of the Kalahari in Botswana to say how “happy and thrilled” he was “to hear about the adoption of this declaration, which,” he says, “recognizes that governments can no longer treat us as second class citizens and throw us off our lands like they did.”

Kenyan Ogiek leader Kiplangat Cheruiot believes that if signatories abide by the Declaration, it will place “the lives of [millions of] indigenous peoples on an equal footing with the rest of the world’s citizens.”

This Declaration was a long time coming. It reflects decades of perseverance and hard work by people who formed a thousand or more "pockets of resistance" and declared themselves "idle no more". It was a triumphant accomplishment, and in the history of this remarkable social movement will long be remembered by native people the world over, as will the date: September 13th 2007, a day that will also be quietly celebrated by the elders of Haida Gwaii.

This chapter should close with an observation from Siegfried Wiessner, a professor of international law at St Thomas University in Miami who has studied and written about indigenous sovereignty.

"Indigenous sovereignty, like any claim to sovereignty, is notgranted. It inheres in its bearer; it grows, or it dies, from within. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoplesis based on the universal recognition of their claim to self-determination on their lands, an aspiration that lies at the heart ofthe rising indigenous peoples’ claims to re-empowerment. Inimportant respects, particularly regarding their rights to theirterritories, their culture, and internal self-government, theDeclaration reaffirms pre-existing rules of customary internationallaw and treaty law. The right to recapture their identity, toreinvigorate their ways of life, to reconnect with the Earth, to regaintheir traditional lands, to protect their heritage, to revitalize theirlanguages and manifest their culture—all of these rights are asimportant to indigenous people as the right to make final decisions intheir internal political, judicial, and economic settings. The flame ofself-determination, however, needs to burn from inside theindigenous community itself. International and domestic law can,and should, stand ready to kindle, protect, and grow this flame untilit burns fiercely, illuminating the path for the ultimate goal of self-realization of indigenous peoples around the world."