Listening to Indigenous Voices: Reflections on my twenty years of service
Listening to Indigenous Voices:
Reflections on my twenty years of service
by Sandra Sheridan
At 5% of the world’s population, the 370 million Indigenous peoples around the world continue to face issues of violence and brutality, continuing assimilation policies, dispossession of land, forced removal and relocation, denial of land rights, impacts of large-scale development, abuses by military forces and a host of other trials. The United Nations works with these issues in various ways, through non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil societies, states, and UN agencies.
Twenty years ago, Sunray Peace Village in Lincoln, Vermont sought to become an NGO in association with the Department of Public Information (DPI) of the United Nations so that they could became a member of the NGO Committee on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I was asked to participate. Taking on this role has been an honor and a daunting responsibility. I cherish the endeavor, and I always strive to hold the vision of the peoples of many nations coming together in harmony and good relationship, especially those of the Native Americans.
Navigating the United Nations system is a complex, layered, and multi-faceted journey. To hold the vision for the continued recognition of the voices of Indigenous peoples and the NGOs that represent them is challenging, particularly as NGO access to the UN keeps shrinking. In the midst of this, I find myself looking for clarity of purpose and for heartfelt ways of being while dealing with politics and personalities, which can be spiritually trying. I am a simple organizer. I create spaces, get speakers, coordinate logistics, and email a lot. None of my tasks are particularly romantic contributions, but what has kept me willing to serve consistently for so long is my knowing that what we all do is critical to pursuing our mission.
The goals of the NGO Committee on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are to educate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies about the history, culture, language, aspirations, and contemporary issues of concern to indigenous peoples. The Committee is composed of NGO representatives from around the world including religious organizations, peace organizations, Indigenous people’s organizations, and others.
In my work, I have witnessed how the Committee has worked to make great strides forward by advocating for the UN to create and pass the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration is a now profound historical document that provides a framework emphasizing the rights of indigenous peoples to live in dignity; to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures, and traditions; and to pursue their self-determined development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations. Among other points, the Declaration affirms that:
Indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such;
All peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind;
All doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin, racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable, and socially unjust;
That Indigenous peoples, in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind.
Voted on by the general assembly in 2007, the Declaration took 23 years to develop. Although it is not a convention or international law, it is still a powerful tool that has been referenced and used in courts of law to support the rights of Indigenous peoples globally. Interestingly, the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Canada voted against the Declaration. Almost ten years later, in May of 2016, Canada reversed its stance on this issue. With leadership changes, the other three countries eventually approved it as well.
Having experienced deep betrayals from occupying cultures, Indigenous peoples around the world have historically developed a mistrust of non-Indigenous people, the UN, and even each other. Now, however, I am witnessing that a strong current of listening and cooperation has developed as many Indigenous organizations are working together to join their voices and advocate for their rights within the UN systems.
Growing cooperation between everyone can also be seen at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which meets the first two weeks of May every year at the UN. Eight Indigenous representatives and eight governmental leaders from various regions of the world come together on a panel to discuss and make recommendations concerning Indigenous issues. Prior to the larger meetings many caucuses will come together to clarify their concerns. In the first years of this now 15-year ongoing forum, I was moved by the presence of flowers on the dais, which is rarely if ever witnessed at the UN. Indigenous representatives would bring seeds to be placed near the flowers as symbols of promise, growth, and fertility. After a few years, the flowers and seeds disappeared, and I have often pondered the thought that perhaps the flowers and seeds have done their job and are germinating and blossoming into new hope for all.
There are so many issues impacting Indigenous peoples around the world that never make it into the mainstream media. I pray frequently for the countless numbers of Indigenous environmental workers who put their lives in danger while trying to protect the life of their communities. An example of this is the March 3, 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist in Honduras. For years, Ms. Cáceres, a Lenca Indian, had vigorously opposed and organized against the proposed Agua Zarca Dam, which was to be built on the Gualcarque River near her native land. There are far too many stories of efforts for environmental protection of Indigenous lands that end in death.
There are also, however, stories of hope.
The Standing Rock Sioux Nation have been the protectors of the waters and land in North Dakota. While they have been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, they have seen themselves as protectors of the earth not just for this generation but for many generations to come. The Earth is sacred. Water is life itself. Native peoples from all over North, Central, and South America have traveled to North Dakota to spiritually support the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s efforts to protect the land and water from what I would call corporate greed. Mutual acts of support like this give each other the courage to stand for their people.
We have a lot to learn from our Indigenous friends about proper care of our environment. Indigenous cultures have for centuries looked at their natural environment in relationship with all life, teaching that there is no need for human beings to overpower or have dominion over nature. This Spirit of interconnectedness understands that to destroy a river by building a damn is to destroy the earth’s fecundity.
The awareness that, as the family of life, we are all connected with one another and with our natural world empowers me. What we do, what we think, and how we act has an impact not only on our immediate interactions but also on generations forward. As the Sunray NGO representative to the UN, I find myself constantly using the Sunray teachings in navigating my role as a non-Indigenous ally. I find that there is foundational strength for pursuing collaboration and change embedded in of some of the core teachings:
Honor the light in all.
Compare nothing; see all for its suchness.
Respect all life; cut away ignorance from one’s own heart.
Speak only of the good qualities of others.
With great gratitude, my courage to do this work comes from the purpose and vision I receive from these teachings of the Ywahoo lineage of the Tsalagi/Cherokee people. I know I am doing the right things when my heart sings with the knowledge that we can all be a part of the solution to the historical and modern day terror of genocide and injustice. We simply must let our inherent wisdom nature grow and shine forth. And that is what I work on every day.
Sandra Sheridan is a physical therapist, practicing in New York City and Piermont, NY. As a member of the Sunray Meditation Society for more than 20 years, she has studied the teachings of Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo. In 1996, she became the Sunray representative to the NGO Committee on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations where she has since served as committee member, secretary, and treasurer.