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"Board Member Report,"

by Kent Lebsock & Tonya Gonella Frichner January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

“There is a common theme to our loss of land. This common source of strife for us is called the Law of Nations, Christian Right of Discovery and Terra Nullus (empty lands). It is a Christian doctrine that declared us heathens, pagans, and infidels. We were outside their civilizations and therefore not human and therefore we were declared non-beings and our lands were empty, open for taking from the first Christian discoverer. We submit that this was a conspiracy to take our lands by Christian nations and that it continues today.”

These words by Chief Lyons at the Fifteenth Session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations go to the heart of the international conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations. Recognizing the inherent unfairness of the premise, international law has been increasingly challenged by Indigenous leaders, often led by the Haudenosaunee, Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, within the world’s forums of human rights. The international legal history of Indigenous peoples is a story that deserves to be told.

The American Indian Law Alliance is proud to be a part of this contemporary advocacy by Indigenous leaders. International advocacy is a cornerstone of our efforts on behalf of traditional Indigenous communities and nations. Since its founding in 1989, the Law Alliance has believed that preservation of our ancient lifeways and support of our traditional elders and leaders constitutes the best strategy for the survival of our peoples.

Accordingly, there are three primary principles of our international advocacy:

1. The Law Alliance does not simply advocate for its own agenda. Instead, we provide resources, technical support and counsel to the leadership of Indigenous nations. International advocacy has always been a part of our leaderships’ strategy in land and treaty rights, and we follow the directives of both the Haudenosaunee and Teton Sioux Nation Treaty Council in developing our international programs and strategy.

2. Indigenous cultures are almost universally defined by our connection to the land upon which we live. The strategy of the Law Alliance, developed in concert with our Native leaders, is to preserve the land base of Native nations through international advocacy in order to preserve the land-based cultures defining us as unique societies. Without the land, our cultures will not survive.

3. We have been taught that part of our responsibility as members of Indigenous cultures is to always consider the generations to come, the Seventh Generation yet to be born. We believe that although international efforts are slow and sometimes mired in bureaucratic roadblocks, our efforts in the United Nations and other international forums are building a foundation for recognition and support that will benefit our future generations. It is our responsibility to clear the path for them and hopefully, in the future, our efforts will result in the creation of international covenants and laws that will protect, preserve and enhance Indigenous nations.

These three main points constitute the reasoning behind our international work. It is always important to remember this as we proceed with our efforts both at the United Nations and on our territories at home.

International Bodies

Throughout the 20th Century the Haudenosaunee, legally anchored by their own sovereign relationship to the foreign powers of Europe and North America, have carried this struggle to the League of Nations and, since 1977, to the United Nations. In 1923, Deskahe, a Cayuga chief, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to speak to the nations of the world about the Haudenosaunee treaties and the unilateral abrogation by the governments of the United States and Canada. Sadly, the League of Nations turned its back on him and would not even let him enter the building. Nonetheless, hearing his story and his efforts on behalf of his nation, the people of Geneva embraced him. The Lord Mayor of the City, Monsieur Ketterer, hosted a banquet in honor of the Hau–denosaunee chief, inviting the world’s diplomats, the press and the public to hear his message. This historic event was commemorated in a ceremony with the current mayor of Geneva on August 1, 1997.

In 1977, a group of Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere arrived in Geneva at great expense to themselves and our communities. They were from many great nations, including Cheyenne, Mapuche, Cree, Lakota, Mayan, Ojibway and, of course, Hau–denosaunee. They came to present our issues of survival: land, language art, music, conservation, economy, environment, treaties. The conference that resulted was titled the Conference on Discrimination Against the Indians of the Americas. It has left all of us who work with our communities and our nations with a powerful legacy – access to international forums from which legal challenges can be launched against unjust law and policy. The history of our nations’ international efforts are the roots of this legacy.

The Early Colonists

When dealing with Native Americans who had deep ties to their territories and powerful armies to defend their land, the early colonists on our continent were forced to confront the reality of existing, sovereign Indian nations. Even if native political systems were incomprehensible to Europeans, our sense of sovereignty was not. Reality dictated that they deal with us diplomatically, on a nation-to-nation basis. Treaties were signed to ensure the peace.

As early as the Jefferson presidency, the government began to consider a policy by which Indians would be removed to territories west of the Mississippi, thereby abrogating all existing treaties with Eastern Indian nations. Andrew Jackson brutally implemented this policy, forcibly removing many Indian peoples, including the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, to “Indian territory” in Oklahoma.

The systematic and ongoing violation of treaties and the wholesale rejection of existing treaty rights became the norm. The following decades would be characterized by unconscionable bad faith on the part of the U.S. government in its treaty-making with Native nations. While certain Native nations, perhaps most prominently the Haudenosaunee, were able to resist the attempts to remove all Indians from their aboriginal territory, most Nations were forcibly removed by the end of the 1840s.

The nullification of the boundaries of Indian nations and the abrogation of treaty rights did not stop at the Mississippi River. When the interests of the U.S. government, miners, farmers and speculators were at stake, the now-Americanized and secular version of Christian dominance, “manifest destiny,” provided a convenient philosophy to abrogate treaties, steal land and militarily invade Indian territory. After the Civil War, the increased military power of the United States, coupled with the needs of an ever-expanding population and an agricultural economy, created an unquenchable thirst for more land. The gradual and systematic erosion of the borders of Indian nations began in earnest. Three hundred and seventy-one treaties were ratified with Indian nations. Three hundred and seventy-one treaties were broken with Indian nations.

Treaties and treaty rights should be seen as inherited legacies passed from each generation to the next. They are an inheritance of obligations that succeeding generations of Americans and Canadians are honor-bound, by international law, to uphold. For the Haudenosaunee and Lakota, these inheritance rights have special protections, including the rights to land, to liberty on that land and to self-government without the jurisdictional interference of the United States, Canada, any state or provincial government. The Haudenosaunee and Lakota view the treaties as sacred agreements, and our people, too, inherit the obligations of the treaties for peaceful co-existence. The treaties are not only agreements between Nations, but a moral obligation on the part of all parties. Violations of the treaties are therefore seen as major violations of our human and collective rights under international law and the Natural Laws of the Creator.

When Indigenous peoples arrived at the United Nations in Geneva in 1977, the same place to which Deskahe had come, we had to force our way into the building. Since then, Indigenous peoples have addressed the General Assembly in New York City on two occasions, have participated in the Working Group on Indigenous Populations since its establishment in 1984 and have had direct input into the Draft Declaration on the Rights of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. We are now an important component of every major U.N. conference, are routinely consulted by U.N. agencies on our world perspective, and have lobbied for and received a study on treaty issues commissioned by the Commission on Human Rights.

Our international efforts represent Indigenous peoples’ vision of a future in which our international sovereignty is recognized and respected. However, the threat to our way of life is not simply limited to the specific historic prejudices facing our peoples in international law. The world’s view of democracy in general, despite the political hypocrisy of the world’s great “democratic” nations, as a tool of globalization is a threat to people and environments globally. For this reason, it is useful to turn briefly to our perspective on democracy.


The Haudenosaunee perspective on deliberative democracy is different from that of Euro-America, and is in fact older in origin. In every deliberation, Haudenosaunee leaders are taught that we must consider the impact on the Seventh Generation. Those are our original instructions. We must always remember those who have not arrived yet.

For us, democracy is direct access to leadership. Over a thousand years ago, the Haudenosaunee were given the rules and processes of democracy. A man called the Peacemaker brought the Great Law of Peace to the warring factions of the Five Nations. Through his efforts, the peoples of the Longhouse, the Haudenosaunee, were brought together under this one supreme law governing the Confederacy of the Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca. The principles of democracy thus established are peace, in mind and community, equity, justice for the people, and the power of the good mind, which embodies good health and reason.

This democracy established power in the people who joined together of their own free will. It established informed consent and balanced the duties of governance between men and women. Women were given the duty to choose leadership that was ratified by consensus of the people, as well as the power to recall of leaders who do not fulfill their responsibilities. In this way, the leadership is always accountable to the people. For us, leadership is privileged only to serve. The needs of the leaders come last after the needs of the people, and the leader should always be the first to go without. The Great Law established respect as a law, access to all leaders and did not discriminate on the basis of gender or age. It promoted freedom as a responsibility, and above all it was based on the spiritual laws of nature, or natural law.

International Efforts

Some may doubt the efficacy of the international efforts of Indigenous peoples when we face such devastating local and continental issues. Taxation, gaming, unemployment, health, alcohol and substance abuse, sacred sites, sterilization, adoption, enrollment . . . The list goes on and on. However, all of these problems have a common source: the dissolution of our cultures as a result of the unyielding encroachment on our land. Chief Oren Lyons always says, “As long as we have land, we will have to fight.” International work is that fight. It helps to preserve the international legal basis of the inherent sovereignty over our lives and our land. The philosophy behind this work is that only though international recognition of our inherent sovereignty will a rightful place be secured amongst the diverse people of the world for our children and grandchildren.

Preservation of sovereignty, as expressed in our way of life, is distinct and separate from United States or Canadian political and social institutions. This struggle cannot succeed within the domestic institutions of a colonizing nation whose stated objective is political assimilation, social domination and economic control. This is sound, common sense logic. Our international efforts, with strong links to the reality of our past, are for the future.

International efforts are an expression of the pervasive political and spiritual sovereignty of Native nations. We are developing a peaceful arsenal of weapons for independent Indigenous foreign policy. The continuance of these efforts is critical. As Chief Jake Swamp stated in 1977, “If these measures are not taken, more and more Indigenous people may be destroyed and their cultures vanished forever.” So, we continue fighting and, in many places, we are still dying for our lands and our survival as sovereign nations. We struggle to remain strong enough to stay where we have always been. We struggle to preserve our nations and our cultures for our children’s children. We struggle to return the balance to an ailing family of human beings. “We are like rocks in the river, changing the course of the flow of modern statehood. This has always been a problem for you and a struggle for us. It still is.”

Kent Lebsock (Lakota) is the Projects Administrator and PRRAC Board member.
Tonya Gonella Frichner (Onondaga) is President and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, based in New York (708 Broadway, NYC, NY 10003, 212/598-0100, x257) and New Mexico (4448 Jupiter St. NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107)

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