Against a backdrop pockmarked by cultural disintegration, “suicide clusters” and family displacements from extractive industries, speakers today in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples urged prompt and concerted action to reverse those trends and improve the lives of indigenous children and youth worldwide.
As the Permanent Forum drew down the first of its two-week session, Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a 13-year-old from the Sliammon Nation in Canada, speaking on behalf of Native Children’s Survival, American Indian Law Alliance and Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, urged the Forum to establish an Indigenous Children’s Fund to “ensure the survival and well-being of we, the indigenous children and youth, now and for the generations to come”.
During the half-day discussion on children and youth, Ms. Blaney described poverty-stricken communities, noting that some lacked access to clean water. Suicide was rampant, as “every month there is at least one funeral in my community”, she said, adding that “suicide and death is such a frequent visitor that in the heart of our reservation there is a death-bell that tolls the number of times in accordance to the deceased age, whether they were an elder or child”.
Describing a childhood caught in a bitter land struggle between her nation and the Canadian Government — which had resulted in the loss of 97.7 per cent of Sliammon Nation territory — she said indigenous youth were products of communities that had for centuries faced poverty, cultural extinction, inadequate health care and education, infant mortality, drug abuse, language loss and suicide.
A representative of the Australian Human Rights Commission said the problem of self-harm and suicide that had begun decades ago had now “exploded” into an epidemic, with “suicide clusters” reported in some communities. The speaker called on States to improve data collection to better gauge the epidemic and to work with indigenous groups to build resilience.
Suicide-prevention programmes were sorely needed in many communities, agreed a representative of the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Caucus and Metis National Council. To address the related staggering number of high-school drop-outs in Hawaii, she said the Forum should request its Special Rapporteur to examine the situation. She also called for the creation of a native Hawaiian school board.
“As youth, our future is being threatened in multiple ways,” said a representative of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, expressing concern about the continued marginalization of young people and the identity crisis and sexual, physical and psychological violations, which led to the suicides. “Breaking the silence” was the first step in creating systemic solutions together, she said, adding that “interventions are needed before more indigenous youth are lost”.
She also sought the greater participation of young people in the Forum, to assist in finding a balance between customs and western culture. Also imperative was to halt the use of pesticides on indigenous lands, as those were causing birth defects and child deaths. She agreed collective actions were badly needed before more indigenous youth and children were lost. With that, she urged the Forum and other United Nations bodies to lobby for increased support and for the inclusion of indigenous concerns in the post-2015 agenda.
A representative of the Disability Caucus recommended that issues of children and young people with disabilities also be included both in the Forum’s recommendations and in the next global development agenda. Inclusion in the education system was crucial, as was combating negative stigmas that underestimated the children’s needs and roles in their communities. “We wish for their voices to be heard as rights holders,” she said, emphasizing that decisions taken here on their behalf would affect their lives as adults.
Alvaro Esteban Pop, a Forum member from Guatemala, introduced the report on the living conditions of indigenous children and adolescents in Mesoamerica and compliance with their rights (document E/C.19/2014/5), saying that widening cultural shifts, the illicit drug trade, trafficking and contract killing were threatening new generations of the “young” region — 52 per cent of Guatemala’s population were under age 20 and 37 per cent of Nicaragua’s under age 14.
He also pointed out that indigenous peoples often ranked below average in health and education sectors and, in some cases, young people simply were absent from demographic data. He called on Governments to provide disaggregated data to ensure that children and youth benefited from resources earmarked for them.
Offering Government perspectives, participating delegates, attending as observers, outlined national measures to improve educational access for indigenous youth and, more broadly, to preserve the many and diverse indigenous cultures throughout their countries. Several stressed that education was essential to preserving national identity.
Citing gains, a representative of the Russian Federation said 98 per cent of indigenous youth over age 15 were educated, with 40 per cent in vocational training and only 2 per cent lacking primary education. Of the 277 languages and dialects, 89 languages were used in the education system. Some regions had established nomadic schools, covering primary and secondary education.
Along similar lines, Australia’s representative cited a “remote school attendance strategy”, which had established offices in more than 100 remote communities to improve attendance. School attendance officers — indigenous peoples from within the communities — were working with parents to increase ownership of and participation in the programme.
El Salvador’s delegate described a centre for cultural development that taught indigenous children the Nahuatl language and cosmovision, which reflected a Mesoamerican view of the world. Meanwhile, Chile had spearheaded a Decalogue for indigenous children, said that country’s delegate. It outlined various rights, including the right to learn in indigenous languages; to strengthen beliefs, traditions and cosmovisions; and to appeal when rights were not respected. Intercultural management units also had been established to preserve the rights of the Mapuche, the speaker added.
In another new approach, Guatemala had created a Cabinet of Indigenous and Intercultural Issues, which, said that country’s speaker, would implement development policies and focus on administration related to service provision and environmental protection, among other issues.
Judicial officials in Mexico were learning about indigenous customs and the multi-ethnic judicial systems with a view to exchanging best practices to improve the administration of electoral justice, a representative from that country said. However, Juan Luis Martínez Martínez, an indigenous parliamentarian from Mexico, told the Forum that electoral reform had resulted in a failure to guarantee the representation of indigenous peoples.
In a closing prayer, Chief Looking Horse from the Lakota Nation said participants had come today with a heavy heart about what was happening to “Grandmother Earth”. In recognizing 21 June as Cultural Heritage Day, he prayed for world peace and global healing. “We are at a crossroads,” he said, adding, “we can be faced with a lot of chaos, tears from our relatives eyes, or we can unite spiritually, globally.”
Also speaking today were Forum members from the Russian Federation and Bolivia.
Representatives of the following indigenous organizations also spoke: Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Caucus (also on behalf of Metis National Council), Naleb, COINCABOL, Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indigenas de Las Americas, Asia Pacific Indigenous Youth Network, Escuela Global de Liderazgo de Mujeres Indigenas and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
Additional interventions were made by representatives of El Salvador, Finland, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Cameroon, as observers.
The Forum will reconvene at 10 a.m. Monday, 19 May, to continue its work.