Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Chairman Gary Besaw at the American Indian Center of Chicago in August 2017.
Published October 1, 2017
CHICAGO – Leadership at the American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC) are currently discussing the potential benefits of formally supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s (UNDRIP). Although the Obama administration announced U.S. support of UNDRIP in 2010 the implementation of the Declaration on a Federal level has yet to be seen.
In 2014, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the country’s largest American Indian and Alaska Native organization, passed a resolution pledging their support for the implementation of UNDRIP in the United States. AIC is considering following in the footsteps of NCAI.
The Center is the heartbeat of Native Chicago. It is a cultural institution that was established in 1953 by young Indigenous leaders that recently moved to Chicago from across Indian Country because of the Indian Relocation Act, which was intended to assimilate reservation American Indians to urban life by providing financial resources for moving expenses, vocational training, and housing subsidies. Upon arrival however, many newcomers were left with very little resources to establish their new life in the city. According to the AIC, the organization “was formed in response to the growing needs of a rapidly-expanding local American Indian population. The selective termination of tribal status, in concert with the Indian Relocation program of the 1950s brought thousands of American Indians from all over the country to metropolitan Chicago.” The Center continues to offer a range of services that include education, traditional and contemporary art as well as vocational training.
AIC has a history of engaging in a wide array of indigenous advocacy efforts including most recently the support of the No DAPL movement and the No Back 40 Mine Project. In response to the need for awareness regarding water protection an event was held at AIC on August 17, 2017 entitled, ‘Water at Risk: A Tribal Leaders’ Perspective’ that focused on tribal sovereignty and water rights. Former Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Dave Archambault II spoke about his experience with the No DAPL movement and the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
Joining Chairman Archambault was Chairman Gary Besaw of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin giving a presentation on a current proposal called the Back 40 Project located 150 feet away from the Menominee River at the Wisconsin/Michigan border. Chairman Besaw shared that the project entails a “540 acre proposed development which includes an 83 acre open pit mine and large processing facility to process the ore onsite. The applicant, Aquila Resources Inc, is a development stage exploration company which intends to mine for gold, copper, zinc and silver”. According to the River Alliance of Wisconsin, “cyanide used to extract gold, produces sulfuric acid a toxic substance that is harmful. It endangers drinking water supply and aquatic life. The project also desecrates sacred Menominee Tribe cultural sites”.
It’s projects like these that AIC strives to educate the community and raise public awareness. For that reason the organization is considering support of UNDRIP recognizing that Article 19 specifically addresses the concept of “free, prior and informed consent”.
According to the West Coast Environmental Law, “One of the key elements of UNDRIP – and perhaps the most controversial – is the requirement to achieve free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous peoples affected by proposed development in their territories. While the controversy over FPIC typically stems from the question of whether it constitutes a “veto,” the report finds that this controversy may be avoided if, rather than approaching consent as an after-the-fact “yes or no” question, Indigenous peoples are involved at the very beginning of a project or process where their rights might be affected, as true partners in a nation-to-nation relationship guiding the decision-making process”. The Indian Law Center was instrumental in advocating for the U.S. to endorse UNDRIP and recommends a strategic joint effort by Tribes be established to outline specific legislative actions that would be used to influence policy change.
The American Indian Center of Chicago will continue to serve as an ally dedicated to shining a light on critical issues facing our Indigenous communities by inspiring leaders and considering new tools such as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Melyssa Navis is the board secretary of the American Indian Center of Chicago.