NGOs, Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations


NGOs, Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations

Sharon H. Venne


A non-governmental organization (NGO) cannot represent the rights of Indigenous Nations. Indigenous Nations must speak for Indigenous Peoples in any international and national gathering that affects our rights. State governments at the United Nations (UN) and other international gatherings have tried to corral Indigenous Peoples into an NGO system and away from our Nationhood. This chapter will explore these and many other issues related to our quest for our rights to be decolonized and to be free to have our own nations as intended by our Creation.

In order to understand an Indigenous relationship with an NGO, it is important to start at the beginning. Here I look at NGOs from our point of view as an Indigenous person who is part of an Indigenous Nation.1 It is sufficient at this point to write that our nations are not non-governmental. We are not an organization. We are not advocating anything in the traditional sense of the word. Indigenous Peoples are not arguing for a cause or pushing an agenda. We are Nations who have been colonized. Indigenous Peoples are trying to free ourselves from colonization. Our road to freedom does not come wrapped in NGO packaging.

Indigenous Nations: Inherent rights

It is always a direction from our ancestors to remind the reader that Indigenous Nations continue to exist on Great Turtle Island.2 Each of our Indigenous Nations has our own laws, our own government, and our own territories that have been in existence since our Creation. There are hundreds of Indigenous Nations residing on Great Turtle Island. In our territories, we have responsibilities to the lands and resources based on our laws. In our own ways, we lived in harmony with the Creation.3 In our territories, our clans set out their jurisdiction and responsibilities to the lands and resources. Our Clan Mothers carried the law of our Peoples. The Clan Mothers ensured that there was harmony and balance in the lives of all our Peoples. The harmony between Nations was the highest priority of our Peoples. When we refer to Nations, we are referring to all living and non-living entities. It is a worldview that guides and protects our lives for the future generations. Our ancestors based their decisions on the effect it would have on the seventh generation. This is not an ideal lifestyle. It is the laws of our Peoples. These are the laws that are overtaken by the work of NGOs.

During our time on Great Turtle Island, we made many contributions to our wellbeing. We had secure food sources, clean waters and good relations with all of Creation. There has been much written about starvation amongst our peoples. These stories usually end with the arrival of the visitors who supposedly saved us. Starvation did not occur until after the arrival of the visitors to our Island. The non-Indigenous visitors without any knowledge of the laws of the land destroyed the land, water and the resources.

Very extensive trade routes crisscrossed Great Turtle Island. In the east, the people grew corn and tobacco, a necessary element of certain ceremonies. Our ancestors would trade goods from our area for their goods. It was on these trade routes that the visitors were able to find their way across our Island. Then, the non-Indigenous person put their name on the route as if they had found it. The whole of Turtle Island is covered by these false names. Our goal as Indigenous Nations is to remember and honor our own names for our territories.

In our history, as told to us by our Elders, there are references to journeys from the east to the west, from the north to the south. Our Nations crossed our Island without any harm, as there were numerous peace and friendship treaties amongst the Nations. The Cree Nation has treaties with the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Dene Nation, the Lakota Peoples, and the Ojibway Peoples. This is a sample of our extensive treaty relationships. These Peace and Friendship Treaties were marked by certain exchanges that are a visual reminder of the relationships made by our ancestors. A couple of years ago, there was a ceremony with the Lakota Peoples to confirm the peace and friendship treaty made by our ancestors. This Treaty is important to our peoples. It deals with peace and friendship over large areas of central Turtle Island where our buffalo relatives roamed prior to the arrival of the visitors on our island.


This changed with the arrival of the non-Indigenous People on our island. It is really amazing that the arrival of a sailor lost on the big waters would have such a dramatic effect on our Nations. The arrival of the visitors brought death, disease and destruction to our territories. We have been engaged in a battle of survival of our Nations as colonization runs amok amongst our peoples and our lands. For nearly five hundred years, our voice was not heard. We were too busy trying to survive.

Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Nations of Great Turtle Island4 began the long journey back to our rightful place as Nations among the family of nations. This long journey began in the 1920s with the attempt by Deskaheh of the Haudenosaunee to speak at the League of Nations in Geneva (Venne, 1998; Lyons, 1993). At that time, Canada did not have a voting seat within the League of Nations because, as a colony of Great Britain, it had no real international personality. With the formation of the League of Nations, the British Empire inscribed itself. Under the British Empire were many commonwealth entities including Canada, India, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and many others. The British Empire had one vote. There were no votes for the different entities of the ‘Empire’. The confusion of rights at the League of Nations led to a commonwealth conference to resolve the issues. Despite the work of the commonwealth, the issue remains that Canada is a colonizer. Under international law, colonizers do not have a right of self-determination, whereas the colonized do.5 Deskaheh, living within a colonizer state, was able to lobby the Netherlands, based on Treaties made with his ancestors. As a result, he was given permission to present a petition to the League of Nations – until Canada approached Great Britain to stop Deskaheh from speaking in Geneva. The petition was brought from Great Turtle Island to have the League of Nations recognize the Indigenous Nations like all other nations of the world. Canada did not want the Indigenous Nations to be recognized. If Deskaheh was allowed to make a presentation as a member of an Indigenous Nation, the whole question of the state of Canada would be raised. This was Deskaheh’s goal. Canada’s goal was to ensure that he would not address the League as an Indigenous Nations representative.

There followed a volley of lobbying between states within the League. Deskaheh received support from the Netherlands, Estonia, Ireland, Panama, and Persia. However, Canada and Great Britain strongly opposed Deskaheh’s attempts to be received by the League of Nations. Great Britain regarded support for Deskaheh as interference in its domestic affairs, and lobbied Deskaheh’s supporters to back down. Canada and Great Britain’s efforts to prevent Deskaheh from appealing to the League of Nations succeeded (Titley, 1986, pp. 91–100; Veatch, 1975, pp. 121–124). The League of Nations tried to silence Deskaheh, but the Canton of Geneva recognized Haudenosaunee Peoples’ right to self-determination. In 1923, Deskaheh was invited by the Canton of Geneva to give a landmark address that would be remembered by citizens in 1977. In 1977 when the Haudenosaunee came back to the United Nations for an NGO conference, the mayor of Geneva, who had been a young boy in the 1920s, remembered that Deskaheh spoke. He remembered that the city of Geneva gave permission for the future generations to come back using their own passports. In 1977 and until this date, Haudenosaunee Peoples travel on their own passports into the canton of Geneva to attend meetings of the United Nations.

The colonial state of Canada, by contrast, took increasing action to stop the assertion of nationhood by Indigenous Nations throughout the 1920s. In the case of the Haudenosaunee, Canada made special efforts by attacking the traditional council. The traditional councils are comprised of the men and women of Indigenous societies. These Councils conduct the business of the Nation, including use and allocation of resources within their territories. In early August 1924, Canada ‘moved quickly to secure an order-in-council authorizing the change to an elective form of government for the Six Nations’ (Titley, 1986, pp. 110–134). The state took action in Geneva and in Canada to stop the assertion of Indigenous nationhood. Canada went one step further to impact all the Indigenous Nations living within Canada by changing the Indian Act6 in 1927 to prohibit Indians from raising money to defend themselves against the action of the state, or taking legal action against Canada.7 These are but a few examples in the long history of Canada denying Indigenous Nations our rightful place among the family of nations.

United Nations

It would take a new institution – the United Nations (UN) – and sixty-six years8 before Indigenous Nations could try to address an international meeting in our own voices. When the UN was established in 1946, there were many goals and objectives to achieve lasting peace. The UN Charter sets out this goal:

To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.9

With this goal, what has the UN done to support Indigenous Nations to gain our rightful place among the family of nations? Indigenous Nations have been asserting our rights as Nations while state governments who sit on our territories have resisted our attempts. Indigenous Nations have been determined to maintain peace since contact with the settlers. When our ancestors made treaties with the British Crown, it was for peace and friendship. Our Indigenous Nations continue to live in a peaceful way despite all the attempts by the state of Canada to dispossess and use our resources without our free, prior and informed consent. These are our rights as Peoples and Nations. The UN Charter supports our rights to assert our right of self-determination. Yet this remains a goal not realized, and in large part frustrated by, the work of NGOs in recent decades.

The road is no easier now than it was in 1946. Indigenous Nations struggle to survive. Same story – same process. Colonization continues. The NGO process has a lot to answer for because of its role in the continued denial of the voice of Indigenous Nations. We are not sitting at the table in our own right as Nations.

It is important to remember the history of the UN’s creation. The League of Nations failed to secure peace and harmony in the world. With the horrors of the Second World War, the ‘winning’ side decided to recreate an international organization. In the formation of the organization, there was an addition of a new entity – Non-Governmental Organizations (Jones, 1989, pp. 154–162). Within the rules of the organization, the criteria for being recognized by the UN system were set out through an NGO accreditation process. In applying to be recognized, there are rules for their participation set out in Article 71 of the Charter (see Appendix 3.1):

The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations, which are concerned with matters within its competence. Such arrangements may be made with international organizations and, where appropriate, with national organizations after consultation with the Member of the United Nations concerned.

There are three important criteria set out in Article 71 that limit Indigenous Nations in being classified as an NGO. First, an NGO has to be a national organization; second, there needs to be consultation with the member state. In the case of Indigenous Nations, we are not a single nation. There are numerous Nations across Turtle Island. It is the wish of the colonizers that we would be classified under one nation or organization. In Canada, the state enacted the Indian Act. The Act applies uniformly across Canada to many diverse Nations who have our own unique laws and governmental structures. However, the state of Canada wanted one form of government and one legal system. For a colonial power, this is easier to manage and sell to settler citizens. When Indigenous Nations complain about the legal structure imposed on us, the state easily points to the supposed ‘lack of cohesion’ that existed before. This is the same argument put forth to demand a single NGO represent all the diverse Indigenous Nations across our Turtle Island. But one NGO does not offer a solution to us under the rules of the UN. Thirdly, a significant aspect of the establishment of the criteria for the UN is a reference to ‘competence’.10 What is a matter of competence for Indigenous Nations? It is simple really: we are colonized since 1492. Where can Indigenous Nations go to gain peaceful decolonization? It should be the United Nations that was established to build and secure peace amongst the world’s Nations and Peoples. Instead, the states have used NGOs to manipulate and control the process to deny our rights as Nations.

Non-governmental organizations

Under UN rules, an NGO is a legally constituted organization created by natural or legal persons that operates independently from any government. The NGO office has specific criteria that have to be followed. Consultative status is granted by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) upon recommendation of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, comprised of 19 Member States.

In this process, there are three categories of status: General consultative status, Special consultative status and Roster status. General consultative status is reserved for large international NGOs whose area of work covers most of the issues on the agenda of ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies. Special consultative status is granted to NGOs that have a special competence in, and are concerned specifically with, only a few of the fields of activity covered by the ECOSOC. Organizations that apply for consultative status but do not fit in any of the other categories are usually included in the Roster. The Roster lists NGOs that ECOSOC or the UN Secretary-General considers can make ‘occasional and useful contributions to the work of the Council or its subsidiary bodies’.

In order to be eligible for UN consultative status, an NGO must have been in existence (officially recognized by a government) for at least two years, must have an established headquarters, a democratically adopted constitution, authority to speak for its members, a representative structure, appropriate mechanisms of accountability and democratic and transparent decision-making processes. The basic resources of the organization must be derived in the main part from contributions of the national affiliates or other components or from individual members.

In the many years that I have attended various meetings at the UN, NGO representatives have been subjected to various restrictions. In meetings, the time for NGO presentations can be cut from ten minutes down to two minutes. This is designed to silence the NGO representation. Of course, state representatives would argue that the time was running out and that NGOs are in the room to assist in the work, not to control it. It is a constant struggle. As a means to control the role of the NGO, state representatives suggest that NGOs should work together to produce an omnibus statement. It is another way to control the role of the NGO. Many NGOs happily go along with the process. Larger NGOs have more capacity to draft and lobby their statements; so smaller NGOs lose their voice in the process.

A state can also make a complaint to the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs against a particular NGO. Such a complaint when investigated could lead to suspension or loss of consultative status. If an NGO does not follow the rules as set out, they can find themselves suspended and unable to participate in meetings of the UN. In addition, NGOs must adhere to guidelines on speaking and materials submitted to the various bodies. For example, there is often a limit of one speaker per NGO under an agenda item, which causes great problems for diverse Indigenous Nations.

Many NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments. Indigenous Peoples refer to those as ‘GONGOs’ – Government Controlled Non-Governmental Organizations. Those NGOs have a lot of cash to travel and attend meetings. They cooperate closely with state governments by receiving funds directly or indirectly from state institutions. When an NGO takes funds from a state government, restrictions are placed on the funds. The deliverables become the goals of the state. These organizations set themselves up under the laws of the state. They attract individuals to their boards who do not represent Indigenous Nations but rather sit in their capacity as individuals. This dramatically destroys the voice of the Indigenous Nations. These kinds of NGOs do not report to the Indigenous Nations. They report to the funders. These organizations need to keep people employed and struggle to find those funds to stay afloat. In this atmosphere, it is easy to compromise the rights of Indigenous Nations.

There is no standard definition of ‘NGO’, unlike the term ‘intergovernmental organization’ that has a legal definition. The term that is often interchanged with NGO is ‘civil society’. Again, Indigenous Nations are not civil society. Indigenous Nations might develop our own intergovernmental processes but not as organizations. This is the general state of affairs that Indigenous Peoples encountered at the 1977 NGO conference.

1977 NGO conference

In the 1970s, the UN started to look into the problem of discrimination against Indigenous communities, Peoples and Nations as having political organizations and a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies on our territories. The UN Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities named José Martinez Cobo to undertake a study on this, which took twelve years to complete. Meanwhile, the UN was in its second decade dedicated to eliminating racial discrimination. At the same time, Indigenous Nations in Canada and the United States were experiencing serious difficulties. In 1969 Canada issued the ‘White Paper’ policy with the ultimate objective of getting rid of its constitutional reference to Indians and terminating the treaties made with the Crown.