How To Decolonize the Earth
The people fighting for indigenous rights at the United Nations
For this year’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Bolivian president Evo Morales spares no heat in his opening remarks. His ideology is simple, but not simple-minded. Morales stands before the world, the president of the plurinational state of Bolivia, and proclaims the primacy of the indigenous peoples’ worldview and their vital stake in saving the planet from the hellscape created by the Western capitalists.
“Part of this movement means I have to express my great joy that we, as indigenous peoples, are now in the United Nations,” Morales says. While the emotion may not show in his stoic face, it’s in his words. “We, indigenous peoples of the world, are now able to debate not just provide indications of how we think, but to provide, as our ancestors have done, we are able to defend life, humanity, and Mother Earth.”
The crowd of delegates is made up of predominantly indigenous representatives from all the continents, along with UN representatives from the various member nations. Together, they swell the General Assembly.
Evo Morales proclaims to us that this a righteous struggle, “Brothers and sisters, I want to say to you, today, that this democratic and cultural liberation is a cultural revolution.”
Morales reminds the UN diplomats gathered here amongst the indigenous peoples today in the General Assembly, “We are human beings. I would ask the president of this event to change the wording here, when it comes to discussing indigenous issues, as peoples, we have rights. It shouldn’t be ‘indigenous issues,’ but the rights of the indigenous peoples of the world.”
This last line is met by a thunderous applause from all in attendance, including this reporter. It’s a good line, delivered well, something we should all applaud. Morales pauses to let the wave of expressed solidarity be heard and felt. Then he returns to the pains of the past.
“For 108 years, we were a colonized state. And now we are plurinational. When we shake off the yoke of foreign domination, particularly US domination, and that of the IMF, we are better economically, better democratically, better culturally, better in every way.”
More applause from the gathered indigenous delegates. Even the blonde-haired, pale-skinned, reindeer-herding Sami people from Sweden, Finland, Russia and Norway. Evo Morales summarizes his opening remarks with a reminder of the power of solidarity.
“This is why organizing is important— to free ourselves from what is imposed on us from on high and from outside. So, brothers and sisters, I wish you every success, and call upon you to share your experiences, your way of life, and thank you very much, indigenous peoples of the world.”
Morales leaves the stage as if carried off by the sound of the soccer chants of “Evo! Evo! Evo!” And so begins the United Nations 17th annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
After Morales, the President of the UN takes the podium.
“In March, I convened a high level event on water,” President Miroslav Lajčák says, proud of the UN’s action on the subject, “During it, we heard from a Autumn Peltier, a thirteen-year-old water activist, from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation. She spoke about the crucial role that water plays in her community. She told us about her fears that this water will dry up, or become too polluted to drink, so she made a call to action. And I want to echo it today. She said ‘We can not just pray anymore, we must do something. And we need to do it now.’ We can no longer talk about indigenous lands as if they are like any others. So I am glad we are focusing on this issue for the 17th Forum.”
Although this year’s theme is the lands, territories and resources of the indigenous peoples of the world, the real theme seems to be: “Now is the time for action.”
A Swedish representative to the UN, minister Alice Bah Kuhnke, mirrors this call. She’s a well-practiced diplomat. In her lilting Swedish accent she asks the gathered delegates:
“What does it mean to be forced to forsake your heritage? To be forced to speak another language than your own? Indigenous peoples all over the world have been exposed to racism as well as human rights violations and abuses through history and to this day. As state representatives we must listen, engage, and act to pave the way for a better future. For us, the Nordic countries, promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples remain long-standing priorities. We are committed to do our part to ensure the realization of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a milestone in recognizing the status and rights of indigenous peoples.”
This legal milestone, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was established on September 13, 2007. It was approved by 144 member states and opposed by only four.
Can you guess which four nations? I’ll give you a hint, they’re all former British colonies.
They were: New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States.
In the subsequent decade since it was approved, UNDRIP has served as the principal document guiding this international body and its member states on indigenous issues. It took 25 years to be debated, negotiated, and then finally approved with a vote of the General Assembly. Now it’s a binding international agreement. It’s one small victory. Indigenous peoples will require many more.
After the opening day’s events, I meet-up with Victoria Gemmill, a UN representative and delegate for the Seventh Generation Fund For Indigenous Peoples, an advocacy organization that has special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council. She’s returned to the UN to represent her tribal nations and to advocate for Native issues and rights. Together, we go looking for a nearby address, recommended to us for an evening side event. We were told there’d be food.
We find our way upstairs to a multipurpose room and sit through a series of presentations from other delegates, ones eager to share their experiences from the last year, as well as agenda items they’d like to see get more focus in this year’s forum. They are prepared.
Side events, such as this one, seem to be where the actual important meetings take place. While reps from the member states gather to listen to speeches in the UN in the daytime, the indigenous nations use all of this outside time together to organize and sew deeper and more connected bonds of common cause. Evident in this multipurpose room, they truly see themselves as part of one extended family spread across all the continents of our world.
The next day, I’m introduced to an important elder. He’s in his eighties, but he’s flown in to attend the Permanent Forum. To call this elder important doesn’t properly convey how integral he is to this whole process. There would be no Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues without him.
As possibly the most revered member of this Permanent Forum, many people wish to make demands on his time. However, typical of his worldview, he’s generous with the life he has left. We sit in the lobby of his hotel just across the street from the UN, and for three riveting hours this celebrated elder tells me exactly how we all got to this moment.
His name is Oren Lyons. He is the faith-keeper of the Turtle Clan, a leader from the Onondaga Council of Chiefs, and a proud member of the Haudenosaunee of North America. With his even tone and calm demeanor, Lyons walks me through the maze of obstacles that led to this forum on indigenous issues.
“We initiated the first meeting at the UN in Geneva in 1977. I was the leader. I put that together.”
There’s a tiny hint of pride when Lyons recounts his personal history with the indigenous movement, “We first met in 1972, here in New York, in front of the UN. Along with several leaders from the Lakota country. But we could not penetrate into the United Nations. So we held a meeting in a park outside the UN.”
Barred from entry, but unwilling to back down, indigenous leaders from North, South and Central America held their international convention of marginalized delegates out in the open under the ceiling of a blue sky rather than inside the General Assembly.
“At that time, the delegation asked us— us being the Haudenosaunee — if we would take on the responsibility of international leadership. They said we had the longest experience, which of course we’ve had. Our leaders were on a first name basis with Benjamin Franklin. They said that since we were on the international level, would the Haudenosaunee take on the responsibility of international leadership. And we agreed.”
But first the Native delegates agreed the populations of the Americas needed to forge a new common identity. Lyons explains how this is the first and most important step in decolonization, to decolonize the language of one’s mind. To self-identify.
“In 1975, there was a meeting in Port Alberni in Canada, off the coast of British Columbia. George Manuel was chairing that, he put that coalition together with representatives from North, South and Central America. We had to come to a conclusion: How would we call ourselves, if and when we met in consultation with relations with the rest of the world? So, we went through all of the general discussions of ‘We are…um, Native people…yeah, we are Native people…and we’re American Indians….eh, that’s a terminology applied to us…but not by us.’ And so, we decided on indigenous. We determined at that meeting we would call ourselves the Indigenous Peoples of the Western hemisphere.”
With the invention of this new term, their present efforts were uncoupled from the long-running narrative engine that drove their colonial past.
“One of the delegates from an indigenous nation from Ecuador, said, ‘Ever since the conquistadors invaded our country in 1493, we’ve suffered terrible losses and deprivations.’ The Spanish had called them Indios. And they said, ‘We earned that with our blood. And so, we will agree to use indigenous for the purpose of one mind being together. However, when this subject is broached, would you please remind people that we have earned the term Indios with our blood.’ And I am passing that on to you, right now, because we said we would.”
Together, they cast off the historic, crushing weight of empires, with the power of their words.
“That’s how indigenous became our term for who we were. That’s why everybody here is using it today,” Lyons says with a lift in his voice. “All of these indigenous nations have their own names, have their own history. But as a collective, we are the original people. That was the point. Indigenous people means the original people. That designation is what is troublesome to colonizers.”
Lyons wants to ensure people understand how the Spanish conquistadors, abetted by the Pope in Rome, first legally conspired to deprive them of their lands, their resources, even their humanity. To do so, he recalls how Europeans brought their Inquisition and its cruelty to the Americas.
“The Doctrine of Discovery was a papal bull issued in 1493,” Lyons speaks with a patient, scholarly tone. “The Vatican, at that time, was mired in the Inquisition. It was a terrible time for the Church.”
Imagine if the Inquisition showed up at your front door with its full horror show of violent piety. Peak cruelty.
“When the Pope issued that 1493 Papal bull, he relegated the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere to something less-than-human. The Church annexed the whole Western hemisphere to their empire. Of course, we had no idea that this was issued. By a decree, from a human being, who had declared himself the Pope, or whatever. Without our consent, and without our knowledge. So, this past 500 years we’ve suffered their Inquisition. It continues right up to today. ”
In 1972, a group of militant young Native activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) staged an armed occupation of a federal building in Washington D.C. They picked the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These younger Natives, partly inspired by the Black Panthers, opted for armed revolution and insurrection. Lyons describes how these armed struggles ultimately helped win the American Indians a wave of supporters overseas, much like how the Black Panthers did the same thing just prior. Militancy was undeniably hip.
“They’d started the American Indian Movement to defend their citizens in the city from the rousting that was happening by the police to Indian people, ones who’d been moved to the cities as part of the removal process. The Indians in the cities were actually taken there to get them off the Rez, and open up the land. But when they got to the cities, they wound-up in the poorest sections. They had encounters with the police. All the time. So that’s how AIM came about, to defend those people on the streets. But in the meantime, we were organizing to come to the UN.”
Although the young may have been the most militant, it was a multigenerational response.
“There were still traditional people in each of the Indian nations. They had their traditions that were being maintained. The elders were stepping forward, and the young people were moving in that direction, rather than in the elective direction. It was our spiritual leadership that was now moving the country. The people followed the spiritual leaders. This all culminated in our travels to Geneva in 1977. I’m not certain what the number was precisely, but something like 140 delegates from North, South and Central America went. And the Haudenosaunee, we traveled on our own self-issued passports,” Lyons says, the pride showing in his voice again.
“Our position was quite simple: if they were not going to recognize us as who we were — we would just go home. We would concede nothing.”
Identities matter. Names matter. And most of all, language matters; it holds a unique perspective on how to look at the world and make sense of it. This is why minding one’s language is always the first step in decolonizing one’s thinking. As Oren Lyons proves, you can win big victories with just the power of words.
The next day, I return to the UN for a second round of meetings. We no longer gather on the floor of the General Assembly. Instead, the delegates and representatives of the member nations fill an enormous meeting hall. Most of the indigenous delegates are wearing some form of traditional dress, rendering the convention room a technicolor buffet of tone and texture.
In contrast, most of the UN officials wear suits and ties, or sensible dresses and pantsuits. They perform more like functionaries for a massive conversation, careful to be respectful, hesitant to offend or use language that could be misconstrued; they opt for formalities and stylized language of the diplomat. Except for one.
Jens Dahl is a UN special rapporteur and a highly principled man. He reads a prepared report to set the stage for today’s meeting. When he’s done, we’re reminded by the chairwoman of the forum that the various delegations will be give 3–4 minutes to present their recommendations to the UN. Each delegation hopes their statement will be added to the permanent record of the meeting, printed-up in a report similar to the one Dahl just read, one that will be circulated at a future date amongst the General Assembly of member states.
There is a very sad truth underlying this whole affair. The UN has invited more delegates than there is time for everyone to get a turn to speak. This creates a ripple of tension amongst the delegates. It’ll be a distinct loss to have to return home and tell the people and organizations that raised funds to send these hopeful representatives to the UN that their journey was fruitless, that they never even got to speak. Some of these people took 16, 18, and 20-hour flights, multiple days of travel from remote villages on the other side of the world. Some of the delegates tell me they’re staying three and four to a hotel room.
The chairwoman of today’s meeting does her best to allow everyone to keep hold of the hope she will call on them, that they will get their time on the floor of the UN. After many different delegations get a chance to air grievances, or make suggestions, a very beautifully-appointed man speaks into the microphone before him at his delegation’s seat at the forum.
The man wears a brilliant feathered headdress made from bright plumage of tropical rainforest birds. Chief Cheeba of the Zápara people of Amazonia reads from his prepared statement.
“The forest is a major interconnected network. Mining and oil exploitation, the felling of trees and building of roads, these are threats to the spiritual life of our forests. The spirits are suffering. They are telling us this. We feel this. This vision of nature as spirit, the ways and means of connecting with this spiritual life, the commitment to sustain these areas, these are the major contributions that we, the indigenous peoples of Amazonia, can offer to mankind.”
His headdress shakes with a wave of emotion that courses through him as he pleads for action from the international community.
“We urge states that, we, as indigenous peoples, should have the collective right of being able to join with this spiritual world of our forests. The state must acknowledge this right. And it must take the appropriate measures to defend us against any extractive activity in our territories. Secondly, our recommendation goes beyond overcoming this environmental planetary crisis, right now requires a new vision of the natural world as a spiritual one. Nature has rights, as asserted in certain national constitutions.”
To some, his vision of trees that communicate their pain, spirits of the forest, and Nature that suffers from oil extraction, may not sound as scientific and serious as climate change predictions. But it very much is. All during the week of the Permanent Forum, I speak with delegate after delegate about Olivia Arévalo, a deeply-respected leader of a band of Amazon indigenous people. She keeps coming up in conversation because she was just violently murdered, while we’re here gathered at the UN, talking about the same struggle. The 81-year old Amazonian elder was gunned down for trying to protect the waters, the trees, the land and spirits of the forest.
All of these indigenous delegates know what they are up against, what mortal dangers many of them face. They tell me they are willing to die for the spirits of the forest. They will protect the air, earth, and water with their life, if they must. Nothing is more important to them.
Listening to these indigenous peoples speak is to hear reports from the front lines of two wars: the fight to save humanity from the rapidly strengthening effects of climate change, and their fight to outlast the rapacious effects of colonization by European powers, and their descendant nation, America.
After a few more delegations pass the mic, the European Union has their time on the floor. The Irish representative for the EU speaks with a pleasing sing-song brogue.
“The European Union is committed to creating a comprehensive agenda to promote economic social and cultural rights. This includes stepping up efforts to protect humans rights defenders, including social partners who are working to uphold economic, social, and cultural rights, with a particular focus on human rights defenders working on labor rights, land-related human rights issues, and indigenous peoples in the context of inter-alia, land-grabbing, and climate change.”
That’s about as serious a commitment as any of the former colonizers are willing to make. A promise to “step-up efforts to protect” the vulnerable. No specifics worth mentioning. No concrete deadlines, no pledging of specific resources.
Instead, in that same pleasing Irish accent, the EU representative reports that, “In May of 2017, the EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted, for the first time in 15 years, council conclusions on indigenous peoples, reaffirming its commitments to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as to the outcome of the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. In those conclusions, the council underlined the importance of giving priority to actions to address the threats to and the violence against indigenous peoples and individuals as well as to human rights defenders in the context of land, natural resources, and the protection of environment, biodiversity, and the climate.”
When 81-year old women are getting gunned down, words like these ring rather hollow: “giving priority to actions to address the threats.” It’s not terribly inspiring to hear some council is “underlining the importance” of more talk when you’re literally fighting to live.
What Westerners don’t seem to get or keep in mind, but all these indigenous communities do, is a simple fact: we are all connected by the waters of the oceans and rivers, by the air in the sky; we can not be separated from each other. We share a responsibility to the earth and to each other.
But in a strange twist of Kafkaesque logic, this indigenous peoples’ view of the world, their sustainable relationship to the earth, is consistently rejected by those with money and power in favor of the recent wave of resource privatization. And, of course, they, who prefer to privatize, do not share. They prefer to claim, to own, to mine and extract, to carve resources from the earth. They use the waters of the oceans, and the air in the sky, to transport those excised resources and turn them into wealth for a few. Meanwhile, they talk about their new goals for global sustainability. It feels like some plot twist from a post-colonial horror show. A sick dystopian irony.
In a somewhat stirring show of support for indigenous peoples, the Canadian delegation chooses to cede their nation’s guaranteed time to a Native nation inside their borders, the Inuit people of Nunavut. The first elected Premier of the new Nunavut territory, Paul Quassa, addresses his fellow indigenous delegates with a quiet pride.
“Nunavut’s story serves as an example of a successful negotiations between the federal government and the indigenous peoples to recognize and implement the right to self-determination,” Quassa says, hoping to inspire others and to inspire Canada to continue its efforts at decolonization. He speaks of the power of self-determination and self-governance.
“We’re also very supportive of the government of Canada’s commitment to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the work taking place to reform laws to ensure its full implementation. I would like to thank our head of delegation, Minister Carolyn Bennett, for ceding her time to me. This simple act speaks loudly of the federal government of Canada’s commitment to listen to and work with indigenous peoples.”
There’s one former colonizer who’s notably absent, apparently unwilling to sit among the delegates and take the heat and criticism for its long and brutal history of colonization and post-colonial exploitation. The fact the United Kingdom is absent says a lot, if you ask almost any of the delegates for their take.
And then there’s the United States. They’re here, but it’s not helping. When the American representative speaks, a disruptive arrogance fills the room.
“The United States was pleased to welcome UN Special Rapporteur, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, to the United States for a site visit in 2017. Her report highlights positive developments, but also expresses the opinion that our government’s framework for consultation with tribal leaders are applied by each agency on an ad hoc basis, lacked accountability, and are ineffective. While we respect the Special Rapporteur’s point-of-view, we disagree with her conclusions.”
The groans begin to sound before America is done speaking.
“We would emphasize that US agencies regularly consult with tribal governments on energy and infrastructure issues in ways that allow for tribes timely and good faith involvement.” As the US representative plows forward, people begin to snicker.
Energy and infrastructure, baby. That’s all America seems to care about. At least the US doesn’t waste time pretending the country cares about health outcomes for its Native populations. That would be insulting. When she’s done speaking, there’s little to no applause. Then, the US representative stands up and leaves. No one seems surprised by the nation’s sudden exit from the world stage.
After lunch, the tension begins to tighten even more. Back in the meeting room, I spot one delegate who’s just found out it’s highly unlikely he’ll be called on to speak today. There will be no second chance tomorrow. As his anger rises, he’s shepherded to the back of the enormous meeting room. When he persists and shouts something unintelligible, his fellow delegates must physically restrain him. He’s a tall, lanky man, filled with passion. It takes two delegates to hold him back. To come all this way only to be denied a voice inside the United Nations — the symbolism of it feels like watching a slow-motion slap to the face.
Further frustrating things is one white ethnic group: the Sami, an indigenous peoples that live in numerous Nordic nations and are able to send multiple groups of representatives. It starts to feels like every fifth group on the microphone is someone to speak on their behalf. There’s the Sami from Russia, the Sami from Finland, the Sami from Norway, the Sami from Sweden, constantly, the Sami. This disproportionate number of white indigenous people hogging the mic starts to irritate those already short on patience and now forced to compete for time. Yet everyone who grumbles does so quietly so they don’t disrupt the spirit of solidarity.
Meanwhile, UN special rapporteur Jens Dahl, who can speak up at any time, is often given the floor due to his status. But he doesn’t seem to want to take up too much time. And every time he does speak up, which is often, it’s always to offer important points of clarification. In this way he’s able to give extra time to indigenous groups. Right now, he hops back on the mic to make a point about the nature of language and names used in the UN, by the UN, and how the international body should make extra efforts to use the names people call themselves rather than names, terms, and signifiers that are colonial holdovers of thought and marginalization.
Dahl cites a famous indigenous group as an example, “The people of the central Kalahari, they are called by different names — remote area-dwellers, bushmen, or whatever else they’re called— but they have different names for themselves. The reason why I take this up is, next year is the UN international year of indigenous languages and my suggestion is that somehow we make a recommendation that UNESCO show respect when they use names for indigenous peoples, and use the names that indigenous peoples call themselves. Not the names they are called by governments, which too often are derogatory.”
Dahl’s suggestion is met by a thunderous round of applause from seemingly all the delegates representing the indigenous organizations. It’s a rare peak moment of good feeling, provided from a UN official.
But then, on a far more somber note, a representative of the Global Women’s Coalition addresses the assembled delegates. She wants to remind the world of the grave consequences indigenous activists, journalists, and human rights defenders currently face in the fight to protect indigenous rights to their lands. Typically, it’s women and children who suffer the most violence.
“Political instability, militarization, forced displacements, which gives rise to violent situations affecting women, girls, and children,” the representative makes points no one in this room needs a reminder of, and yet all attention is riveted on her as she reports from the borderlands of survival. “According to Frontline Defenders, over 280 defenders of human rights were killed in 25 countries, in 2016. The majority of these cases were linked to land and indigenous rights; and the majority occurred in Latin America and Asia.”
Over 300 defenders of human rights were killed in 2017. The trend is rising.
As I walk out of the UN, done for the day, my spirit feels tested. Not broken, but weary, disillusioned. It’s hard to hold onto a positive vision of the future.
Victoria Gemmill asks if I’d like to drive over to Columbia University to attend another side event. Her group Seventh Generation Fund is co-hosting it. At first, I’m hesitant. I’m not sure how much more heartbreak my ears can take. She tells me it’s a side event focused on the feminist movement and solidarity with the indigenous women of the world. She says Gloria Steinem will be on the all-women panel. Now she has my attention. I’m curious what the feminist icon knows about indigenous rights.
Columbia University is clear across Central Park, on the other side of the island of Manhattan. Between rainstorms, the drive across town and through the world famous park offers a perfect moment to sit and enjoy the beauty of the golden hour of this spring day. The first buds of April are beginning to burst forth with folded hints of blossoms to come.
The evening side event is co-sponsored by Columbia Law School. Guest speaker Gloria Steinem will be joined by a panel of distinguished educators and activists. The moderator of the panel, from the event’s co-sponsor, the American Indian Law Alliance, is a motherly indigenous woman, a Lacrosse mom, a radiantly proud Onondaga woman named Betty Lyons.
At one point in the presentation, in a pause between speakers from the panel, Betty shares a personal story to show how little American public education focuses on indigenous issues and history.
“My own son was almost expelled from school for not making a picture of George Washington. He was at the ripe ol’ age of six. He said ‘No, I’m not doing it. I refuse. I’m not doing it.’ The teacher asked why. He said ‘Because Washington ordered the Clinton-Sullivan campaign, which raided our villages, starved our people, forced them to live in the woods, and he killed them.’ The teacher called me and actually said, ‘Did this really happen?’ And I said, ‘Yes. So when do I come pick him up?’ Because I was so happy that he stood up and spoke up for himself and his people, at six years old.”
The crowd applauds.
Later, Gloria Steinem is introduced. The grand dame of feminism rises up and silently addresses the room from the podium. She stands before the enormous university chalkboard. She looks both professorial and somewhat shrunken by time. Yet, as soon as she speaks her voice assures the room she’s lost none of the fire of her intellect.
“When something’s all around us, we’re made to believe there’s no alternative. And the great gift that you give us — I can’t tell you what a gift it is — is to know that this is not inevitable,” she says with a sisterly laugh. The “this” she speaks of is, of course, white capitalist patriarchy.
“We still are not learning in women’s studies, that the suffragists learned that there’s a possibility of an equal and balanced society because they lived in upstate New York. I think they had dinner every Sunday night with Seneca women— so they’d sit there in their corsets and watch those women with their beautifully-beaded soft tunics — they saw what an equal society looks like.”
Steinem steps further back in history to elucidate how terrified European men were of this notion of equality of the sexes, and how for centuries medieval witches were murdered in the millions as an example and a solution.
Then, apropos of nothing, Steinem says, “I was sitting here thinking about church architecture.” She stops, she catches herself. She turns to one of the young women who brought her to the event, and asks her, conspiratorially, “Should I say this?”
Her assistant gives her an emphatic “Yes!”
“I was reading this historian of church architecture, who said — like everybody knew it— that of course, religious buildings are mainly built to resemble the body of a woman, because the ceremony that they house — the central ceremony — is men taking over the power of giving birth. Okay. The whole notion of patriarchy is to control reproduction. And therefore, to control women. To control women’s bodies. But giving birth is still a great thing to be able to do, right? It’s sort of powerful, right? So the church architecture symbolized the fact that was a place where men gave birth to life. There was an outer entrance, inner entrance, labia majora, labia minora, a vaginal aisle up the center…”
Steinem pauses a moment. She pantomimes an amused face, and gestures like, “Voila!”
A few nervous laughs fill the silence that follows her hand gesture. No one expected this analogy.
I’m one of the few who laugh, and certainly laugh the loudest. Steinem looks my way. She wants to check who’s laughing at her vagina joke. Something about a man’s laugh booming loudest in this classroom mostly filled with women doesn’t sit quite right with her. But I mean well. I politely nod when she meets my eye. She smiles, satisfied, and returns to her story.
“The altar, in the middle — which was the womb––was where men, dressed in skirts, performed a rite. They’d say, ‘You’re born of woman, an inferior creature,’ and all that. So you’re born in sin. But…if you obey the rules of the patriarchy, ‘We can do women one better. We can rebirth you into everlasting life.’ Then they’d sprinkle imitation birth fluid over your head, give you a new name…”
All of the crowd laughs now. Not just me.
“I mean. And you’re laughing because it’s true, right?”
The crowd responds with “Yes!” and scattered applause.
“That’s how you get reborn through the patriarchy. And that’s what it’s all about. Hello!”
Steinem laughs at her own joke and definitely knows the crowd is laughing with her this time.
“I mean, that’s why they had to murder all the witches, who were also the attendants at birth, and were the healers, and so, on. That had empowered women. That meant they were very, very dangerous. It’s comforting to know — I think— that Europeans weren’t always crazy.”
More laughter; it’s funny because it’s true.
“If you think of the Khoi and the San, the people we all came from in Africa— they also had a circular culture not a hierarchical culture. People were linked, they were not ranked. Women controlled their own bodies, they decided when and if to have children. They had extremely sophisticated systems of healing and medicine. Even now, when I have been taken out in the bush by San women, they show you — ‘Here is what we use for headaches, and here is what we use for migraine headaches, and this is a contraceptive, and this is an abortifacient.’ They have a very, very advanced or wise medical systems.”
So far, Steinem has avoided any of the traps of the white savior complex.
“And the same is true, in India. Where the oldest part which is Kerala, which is down at the southern tip, and is also a matrilineal culture, where the women also are equal and living in balance, and it has the highest literacy rate, it’s far more egalitarian than other parts of India, far less subject to the caste system. It’s as if we are all striving to get over the illness of patriarchy which then caused overpopulation in Europe, which meant they had to invent racism to justify taking over other peoples’ lands. All of the elaborate ways of making a hierarchy, when we long to be, and are…a circle.”
This line is met with knowing nods, affirmations of assent expressed in “Mmhmms.”
Steinem continues, she’s found her rhythm, “There is no straight line in Nature. There is no rectangle, or square, or hierarchy. There are curves, there are circles, and we are now striving to get back to it. We’re just learning that the origins of the Constitution are in the Haudenosaunee’s articles of governance. I think that’s now taught in law schools. And that’s only in the last twenty years. And I’ve never come across a women’s studies class that admits the influence of the Seneca women on the suffragists. Have you?”
She turns to one of her fellow panel members, a distinguished educator. The woman replies in her pleasing and warm, NPR Weekend radio voice, “They’re just beginning to now.”
“So, we have the great comfort of knowing— and it is a great comfort— that much of what we want now once was here,” Steinem says, using a collective we, while also careful to pay respect to the indigenous community she is not a part of, “What we have now is not inevitable to human nature. And I suspect the majority in this country — if you look at the public opinion polls on the issues — the majority agrees now, on all the basic issues of equality. But about a third of the country, is in backlash against the fact that that is the majority realization. Also, they can see the first generation that are a majority of babies of color has already been born. They can see that soon we will not be a majority white country anymore. Whatever that means.”
The white elephant in the room raises it head.
Steinem continues, carefully, “Through no fault of theirs they were born into a system that told them they had a naturally superior place, because of race, and now they’re in backlash. The most dangerous time is after a victory. Not that our movements have been completely successful but they have changed majority consciousness.”
For added perspective, Steinem cites her status as an elder of her culture, “Personally, in my life, I’ve never seen, and I’m very old — I’m eighty-four, I always tell people my age because I’m trying to make myself believe it.”
This receives a big laugh from everyone, including her.
“Personally, I’ve never seen this much energy, continuous, self-generated — and I’ve never ever, in all of the important movements, seen this much consistent, self-generated, rebellious energy.”
Crowd applauds, as if for themselves.
“Perhaps we’re on the cusp of something here. In this room. And in the many rooms like this ones around the world. I think the best comparison, for me, has to do with domestic violence. Because it was from domestic violence that I learned, and I think many of us learned, that the most dangerous time, for a woman — it can be a man, but usually it’s a woman — trying to escape a violent household, is at the moment of escape. That’s when she’s most likely to be beaten or murdered, because she is escaping control. So, in a way, this country is at that point.”
The room has grown silent in the face of this truth.
“A majority of us, in a general way, are rejecting the old power,” Steinem says, tying everyone in the room together in a common cause. “We are beginning to understand a little bit of the wisdom, a little bit of the wisdom, that was here before Europeans came and perpetuated what was, and is still, the biggest holocaust in history. We’re just beginning to understand. So, in the same way that we would never tell a woman to stay in a violent household, we are not going to say stay, and we are not going to stop. But we are in that place of maximum danger. But also, maybe, about to be free.”
The crowd of mostly indigenous women erupts with warm, cathartic applause. In solidarity.
The next day, delegates attend smaller regional-based meetings and presentations by experts; there is no big gathering in a convention hall, or on the floor of the General Assembly. I immediately notice how important that feeling was––all together in one big room, talking, listening, sharing experiences, moving and working in common cause. As the week begins to wind to a close, that feeling of togetherness begins to wane. But it’s not lost. Instead, it feels like you now carry it inside of you, like this seed of hope, or perhaps an irritant, one that compels you to push for a better future.
Negotiating the many levels and hallways throughout the UN complex, I also notice that I no longer need directions, no longer feel confused by its labyrinth qualities. I feel comfortable here and hope that these indigenous delegates do, too, even more so. I think back to Evo Morales, standing at the podium of the General Assembly as he inspired all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, to consider how much stronger we are together than we could ever be apart. How this one idea, ultimately, will be what saves us.
As Morales put it, “This is a critical juncture in the UN. We have to shoulder our responsibility to guarantee the rights of Mother Earth. If we fail to do this, we can not be sure there will be any guarantee for life if we aren’t respectful of Mother Earth. It’s impossible to think there will be future generations. It’s not a question of bringing forward new ideas, but rather of recovering the ideas that were bequeathed to us by our forefathers who’ve lived so long.”
None of us can eat money or drink oil. Right now, that seems to be all the powerful value. The toxic obsessions of wealthy nations are dooming our shared environment. But climate change ignores borders. Thus, the message from this year’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, from those first threatened by ecological collapse, is equally self-evident and urgent: Act now.
For instance, New Zealand, who once opposed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recently granted personhood to a body of water, the Whanganui River, in order to protect its rights. The nation has changed their position, and is now following the lead of indigenous peoples.
As Oren Lyons explained to me, “A runner is probably the strongest and most honorable designation that a young person can have for a nation. Because a runner, at one point, would carry the whole nation on his back, from one place to the next, carrying the message.”
Right now, the indigenous peoples fighting to save all of us and our shared planet are the world’s runners. They promise to lead us into a better future. Whether we’re smart enough to listen to their message remains to be seen.