The Multinational Monitor


I N D I G E N O U S   P E O P L E S

Indigenous People Confer on Multinationals

Delegates Focus on Strategy

by Sally Swenson

The Washington conference on "Native Resource Control and the Multinational Corporate Challenge" was more than a conference on native land rights and transnational companies. To the more than 50 native leaders who attended, it was a conference on power.

Indigenous people need to "take power over our lives. And that means we feed our people, we clothe our people, we house our people," said John Mohawk, editor of the Mohawk Nation newspaper, Akwesasne Notes, and one of the conference's keynote speakers. "The question is, how are we going to translate our humanism into concrete political alternatives to colonialism?"

Initially, the goal of the meeting - to bring native leaders from around the world to discuss strategies against multinational corporations that are encroaching on indigenous land - caused frustration. As one participant said, "it seemed impossible to bring to one meeting the experiences of the South and Central Americans and those of the Australians and North Americans, who are clearly fighting different battles."

From these differences, however, emerged a unity. The delegates recognized that indigenous peoples around the world are frequently fighting the same multinational companies. This awareness brought home the need to develop an international communications network among themselves so that they could share information and coordinate activities.

Limits to the Legal Strategy

During the conference, participants expressed reservations about the prominence of law in any strategy for protecting indigenous land rights.

"The most basic deprivation that indigenous people have suffered is the confiscation of our own laws," said Vernita Katchatag of the Unalakleet people of Alaska. "The situation would be very different if we were in our own courts. If the dog were serving himself dinner, he wouldn't give himself the bone," she pointed out. But given the present realities, she added, the question is "how can Western law be used against itself?"

The "doctrine of trusteeship" is "the basic legal problem," argued Tim Coulter of the Indian Law Resource Center. The "native people are said to be legally incompetent," Coulter explained, allowing the government "trustee" to step in and say that "land that Indians have used and occupied since time immemorial belongs not to the Indians but to the nation." "Trusteeship is a mantle thrown over racism," Coulter said, and "must be defeated politically."

Law is simply one of the tactics available "when you've got to come to grips with what that mining company is doing in the next day or week," said Phillip Toyne, attorney for the Pitjantjatjara Land Council of central Australia.

In Hawaii, delegate Emmett Aluli reported, his people have been somewhat successful in using the courts to protect native rights. But they have also found Western legal processes to be inherently limited, he said; in the end, it's "the enemy, the transnational corporation, the government," that carries out the law.

"So we're very afraid," he said, "that we're setting up a lot more problems for the future by taking what we can get right now."

"One of the things that it's very difficult to get over is a success," echoed Canadian lawyer John Bayly. Due to Dene Indian opposition and public outcry, a Canadian government commission stopped the construction of a major gas pipeline through Dene land in the Northwest Territories.

But "the transnational corporations adapted," Bayly said, by providing the opposition with "far less ammunition." Information on projects is "much more limited and difficult to extract," Bayly said. "Now multinational corporations ask for permission to build with details to follow later."

The Activist Route

The consensus on the need to adopt move activist tactics became clearer during the following day's discussion of corporate accountability campaigns. Panelists involved in the Nestle boycott, specific shareholder actions, and campaigns for divestiture from corporations and banks who support South Africa emphasized the importance of communication, access to information, and international networks among groups fighting the same multinational companies.

Corporation-specific actions, such as shareholder resolutions and divestiture campaigns, are becoming more widely used by indigenous peoples. The Aboriginal Federation of Land Councils in Australia, for instance, has changed some policies of the Rio Tinto Zinc corporation through grass-roots lobbying of unions, churches, and anti-nuclear groups in England, according to Aboriginal delegate Shorty O'Neill.

Delegates emphasized that indigenous groups dealing with the same corporation should be able to call on one another when they want to influence company policy. Indian groups in countries such as Brazil or Guatemala, especially, need supporters in North America to place pressure on U.S. companies.

The delegates saw the creation of an international information network as a priority. And a strong feeling dominated the conference that international work must be accompanied by local action in order for profound change to take place. Indigenous people need to be "looking for the kinds of structures within our communities that will give us the right to develop ourselves under our own traditions, our own cultures, our own beliefs and our own abilities, and to decide what our futures shall be," said Fred Plain of the Nishnawbe-Aske in northern Ontario.

"A lot of work is going to go on in strengthening our own community," said Pat Dodson, chairman of the Aboriginal Federation of Land Councils. "And that's a lot to do, while at the same time trying to fight on all these other fronts."

Guatemala: A Call for Native Unity

The end of the conference was dominated by discussion of Guatemala. Delegates found that the situation there, in its threat to the land, resources, and survival of the 4 million Mayan peoples who are attempting to assert their rights, was a metaphor for indigenous struggles all over the world.

Indigenous peoples "need to point to the situation in Guatemala because it's the clearest, most forceful example of how `civilized society' lacks respect for humanity," said John Mohawk. "The assumption on the part of some people is that native peoples are trying to preserve some distorted status quo. But it's my understanding that what we're trying to do, what the traditions actually imply, is a respect for the human condition."

Many delegates went home with plans for community education programs on Guatemala and refugee support work.

The delegates' final statement condemned the genocide in Guatemala, but also carried hope for the Indians of that country. Our goal is that "those indigenous peoples will eventually govern themselves," said Jim Antoine of the Dene Nation. "And because they're such a large percentage of the population in that area, we have to think it is possible. If it's going to happen anywhere, perhaps the first indigenous government in the Western hemisphere will be there."

Sally Swenson works at the Anthropology Resource Center.

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