IITC 50th Anniversary: A Global Gathering of Indigenous Peoples

by Durin Mundahl, IEN IT Fellow
On June 21-24, 2024, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) celebrated its 50th anniversary and hosted a Treaty Conference in Oceti Sakowin Territory on the Standing Rock Reservation. Fifty years ago, in 1974, IITC held its inaugural Treaty Conference, where over 5,000 delegates from throughout the Americas attended. Over 300 participants attended this year, with representation across North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific.

This past weekend, I was able to attend the conference held in Wakpala, South Dakota. The conference occurred near the water in a big tent surrounded by tipis and Indigenous Peoples from New Zealand and parts of South America. Some of those in attendance were visiting us on Lakota territory. For some, it was their first time in the United States and certainly their first time visiting an Indian reservation. But looking around, there were faces of joy and laughter, of old friends and family members coming together in a familiar place, even if it was a place they had never been to before. I was glad to see so many people from different walks of life visiting us in Lakota territory. Not in opposition to anything threatening our lands but just as a global family and community coming together. Seeing some familiar faces I usually see in person during Zoom meetings was nice.

The first speaker I had the chance to really listen to after arriving was Anaru Fraser from Aotearoa (New Zealand). He moderated a discussion about defining our sacred places, languages, and cultures and bringing our sacred items home. He was a member of the large Māori constituency in attendance because the former Vice President of the Board, Hinewirangi Kohu Morgan, was honored after she entered the spirit world last year. He went on to talk about how he is Māori, but none of their introductions call themselves Māori because it was a term that was given to them by colonizers. And how Māori isn’t even a Māori word. He brought up how the more we as Indigenous Peoples, use these terms that were given to us, the less we remember about ourselves. Thankfully, they are bringing back their language in Aotearoa. But there is a lot of intergenerational trauma around the fact that a lot of their people choose not to speak their language anymore because they find it difficult to exist in a world and environment that doesn’t acknowledge them and their way of being. I chose the term intergenerational trauma because, to me, it sounds like what he was talking about. And it is something that all of us as Indigenous Peoples have dealt with and continue to struggle with in our daily lives.

The next speaker I listened to was a Lakota elder from the area who talked about how he is a Lakota language teacher. He went on to talk about how important it is for a Lakota person to teach themselves and learn their language. “Why do we have to have a wašíču come and tell us how to speak our own language?” he asked. 

Recently, there has been much controversy surrounding the misuse of the Lakota Language by outsiders for profit, such as the Lakota Language Consortium and The Language Conservancy organizations, which misled elders and stole their work for profit. NPR also recently did a segment about this controversy, which you can listen to or read about here.

The elder went on to speak about the importance of knowing your own language because when you talk to the creator, he said he won’t understand you unless you speak your own language. This resonated with me personally because although I am Lakota myself, I don’t know most of my own language, but that is something I hope to fix with time.

IITC Board President Ron Lameman from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation also spoke about how good it was that we all gathered together to talk about something good for our children and grandchildren. He said how important it was not to forget our ancestors and how they paved the way for us.

But he also went on to say our ancestors didn’t want us to be in the situation we are in today with the overwhelming poverty and other challenges we face. “They would want us to live a good life,” he said. He talked about how, over his many years of work, the elders he worked with only ever had one agenda: to tell the truth. And how the land is still ours, and we never gave it up. Cede release and surrender was all a fabrication of the other.” 

He mentioned in his travels that every industrial city had its resources from Mother Earth, which came from our land. The lumber, concrete, etc. Ron also acknowledged the importance of learning your own language, echoing the Lakota elder from earlier. Mentioning that ceremony was an important part of learning your own language and how his nephew taught himself Cree. I agree with the importance of remembering what our ancestors sacrificed for us all to be here as Indigenous Peoples and that we must continue to use ceremony and prayer to connect with our ancestors not just for our own well-being but also for the well-being of our people as a whole. We must not let today’s struggles make us forget who we are.

Pu’uhonua “Bumpy” Kanahele, Head of State, Sovereign Nation of Hawaii, was also in attendance. He went on to speak about how the Kingdom of Hawaii had many treaties with other nations before it was overthrown in 1893 by the United States. He told of the history of Hawaiian elders gathering over 30,000 signatures from all over the Hawaiian Islands in 1898 against turning Hawaii over to the United States. But in the end, it failed, and in 1898, with the Newlands Joint Resolution, the US annexed Hawaii. It wasn’t until over 100 years later, in 1993, that the US apologized for illegally overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawaii and that, with the help of Francis Boyle and an international lawyer, the US conceded that the native Hawaiian people had the right to restore the independent nation-state of Hawaii. 

Bumpy then talked about the treaties signed between the Yurok Tribe, Bear River Tribe, and Shoshone Tribe with the Hawaiian Nation and how they were the first three treaties signed by Hawaii of international peace and friendship. The next step after the peace and friendship treaties would be economic development and economic collaboration between Hawaii and mainland tribes.

“If you cannot be friends, then you are not going to be good business partners, period,” he said.

Members and heads of other tribes were in attendance, and they asked Bumpy if their tribes could also sign a treaty with the Nation of Hawaii afterward. I believe one was from Alaska, and he said, “We’re ready.”

I did not know much of the history of the Nation of Hawaii and its illegal overthrow by the United States, nor that many nations around the world stood by and watched their kingdom be overthrown, many of whom signed treaties with Hawaii when it was an independent nation. Or how they have gone through the same struggles as we have here in the mainland United States with nearly losing their identities to American imperialism. It’s not something that is really talked about as much as it should be, and it was enlightening for me to learn of their history. I hope the Nation of Hawaii chooses to take up the tribes’ offers of new peace and friendship treaties and that the connected tribes can forge new, long-lasting economic opportunities with each other.

Janene Yazzie, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at NDN Collective, spoke about the fight for treaty rights and water in the Southwest United States.

“The Southwest United States is a region disproportionately and heavily impacted by the impacts of climate change,” she stated. Mentioning that there has been severe drought in the region for over 20 years. She told us how her people and other sovereign nations have been forced to work within a legal framework that was crafted when our people weren’t even considered human. And how none of the seven Colorado River Compact States counted or took into consideration the needs, lives, or livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples throughout those states.

It wasn’t until after they were considered citizens that those states realized they were obligated by the Winters Doctrine to amend their mistake of not counting Indigenous Peoples in creating water rights laws.

“They immediately went into damage control,” she said. “They went through a process of manipulation and coercion to get Indigenous Peoples to sign away their water rights.”

Janene mentioned that the Navajo and Hopi peoples have a long history of living on shared territory and working with each other. However, the United States manufactured a conflict to pit them against each other to claim who was there first. Through a very long and complicated history, she left her people without access to clean drinking water, the ability to develop and maintain cornfields, traditional food systems and ways of life, or the ability to be stewards of their sacred springs.

She went on to mention the need to build pathways to respecting and restoring responsibility to the earth and to each other. Through the UN declaration of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, the Navajo Nation was able to create a pathway for themselves, which the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) did NOT like. 

“How dare we claim that we have the right to care for our waters. How dare we claim that we have the right to develop our waters and develop our lands in ways that we see fit for us, not to feed the economy outside our nations, but in a way that we see fit for ourselves because we’re fighting very oppressive structures.”
“Instead of trying to accept those white men’s laws, we’re challenging them, and we’re going to write our own, and we’re going to have our Traditional Knowledge holders take that lead and articulate in our own language.”

She said it is important for the tribes who share the river with them to unite and restore their relationships before colonization and how colonization has affected our relationship with everything sacred. 

“They have brought a way of life that has caused them to lose their sense of their own humanity, to lose their spirits and their hearts in the process of trying to achieve wealth and living greedily,” she said.

One of the most important points of Janene’s talks that resonated with me was the strong connection the Navajo and Hopi people had with each other pre-colonization. It’s something that is seen all across Indian Country, and there is a growing movement of Indigenous Just Transition (IJT) taking hold in our communities. We know that we are lost without our traditional ways of life and that over 80% of the world’s biodiversity lies in the hands of Indigenous Peoples. 

Who better to take care of the land than those who came from it? We need not just morally or physically but spiritually as well to be connected with our land. Not as owners of the land but as stewards and caretakers because it’s part of who we are as Indigenous Peoples. It’s something that the colonizer will never understand. Luckily, we have educated people from our tribes who can navigate these complicated legal frameworks that were never designed for us or with us in mind and continue to fight for our sovereignty.

Ngahula Harawira from the Waitangi Action Committee of Aotearoa (New Zealand) was the last presenter I had the opportunity to listen to. She spoke at length about how the right-wing government of New Zealand has been tearing up Aotearoa, how they have been continually under-resourced, and how the Māori Health Authority was disestablished within six months of their new government being in power. From her description, it sounded like they face a lot of the same issues we face here at home with the Indian Health Service (IHS).

At the moment, Aotearoa has a child protection act that says children should be placed with their own kin, similar to what we have here in the United States with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). But she mentioned that the crown agency tasked with the job of placing Indigenous children with families has been doing a poor job and would often place children in homes that were just as bad as the first. Instead of addressing the failings of the crown agency and fixing them, they are now removing the reference altogether.

The Minister of Children was subpoenaed by the Waitangi Tribunal, but he declined to appear. He not only declined, but he resisted. The Māori were then forced to take the issue to the high courts, but the court sided with the government. They later took the matter to their Supreme Court and actually won, but the same day the decision was released, the government repealed that section into the House of Representatives, pulling it out of the jurisdiction of the tribunal altogether. With these important decisions overturned by their government, the people of Aotearoa are continually threatened and undermined. Even now, every single reference to Waitangi is being removed from their legislation.

Ngahula says, on the one hand, it’s scary, but on the other hand, she acknowledges that they shouldn’t have to rely on their governmental legislation in the first place. The right of self-determination should be up to them and not their oppressive right-wing government, which even now is more concerned about protecting fragile white supremacists and their feelings than their people.

She concluded her presentation by requesting that the IITC hold its next conference in Waitangi Aotearoa (New Zealand). Now, the 2026 conference will be held in Aotearoa, where it will produce resolutions directly from the community that guide the next two years of work and beyond.

It will be an excellent opportunity for those of us from different parts of the globe to come together and support our brothers and sisters in Aotearoa who have faced and continue to face many of the same struggles we do here in the so-called United States.

The day concluded with everybody breaking out into workshops of their choosing. Each workshop had different facilitators. I chose to attend the workshop on ‘Food and Water Sovereignty and our Ways of Life in the Climate Crisis’, which was facilitated in part by our very own Thomas Joseph from the Indigenous Environmental Network. Many people from South America attended this working group, and we were lucky to have Spanish translation throughout the workshop.

Much of this work continued into the third day of the conference, and we reconvened the next day after some more presentations.

Some of the issues that arose were the need for inter-tribal seed exchanges and commerce and how the IITC should promote the exchange of wisdom and knowledge surrounding agriculture and Indigenous food systems. The need to focus on protecting biodiversity and water supplies on Indigenous lands was also something continually brought up in the discussions. How different Indigenous seeds passed down by generations and generations needed to be not only protected but also the potential of establishing an indigenous seed farming network. And how much of a struggle it has been to import seeds from country to country. The exchange of ancient knowledge was important for continuing our ways of life amongst our Peoples. And that we needed to ensure we continued to ensure Indigenous concepts going forward.

Others mentioned that the 85-degree weather felt cold to them, and they had to wear a large jacket because the climate they were used to was so different, and that where they were from getting access to water for their crops was of their utmost concern because rapid climate change and drought has been affecting them. Their rivers nearly completely dried up, and without water, there was no life or way to cultivate their lands. Others mentioned how they were combating a government where they weren’t even sure if they would be allowed to be given the right to plant in the next crop cycle in 2025 and risked losing their ways of life.

One important point that was made was about the language, the rights of nature, and how any language around it needs to include the rights of Indigenous Peoples because we have a reciprocal relationship with the land. How not including Indigenous rights with the rights of nature is harmful and being pushed on the global stage and being used to strip Indigenous people of their rights, and enabling governments worldwide continue to use false solutions such as carbon markets and land grabs. 

Carbon markets and false solutions have continued to be pushed on a global scale and something we continually have to educate ourselves and others about, along with the continual greenwashing of the fossil fuel industry. The need for a moratorium on fossil fuels and fossil fuel development was also brought up in the discussion, along with strategies on how to challenge governmental policies that are clearly not sustainable. Overall, the talks around climate change felt productive, with a lot of input from our brothers and sisters from South America, and it was eye-opening to listen to their experiences firsthand and to see how much their ways of life have been personally affected. It felt good seeing Indigenous Peoples from so many different parts of the world come together to discuss positive change while acknowledging our continued struggles.

From all of us at IEN, we celebrate IITC’s 50th anniversary and extend our gratitude to them for including us in this year’s Treaty Conference. 


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