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Indigenous Peoples Participation in Parliament of the World’s Religions Program Held at UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

May 27, 2016

Report on May 12, 2016 Program, “Participation of Indigenous Peoples in the Parliament of the World’s Religions”
The 15th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was held at United Nations headquarters in New York on May 9-20, 2016, attended by hundreds of leaders and activists of diverse Indigenous peoples from around the world. The theme was “Indigenous Peoples: Conflict, Peace and Resolution” and included presentations by representatives of Member States and the specialized agencies of the United Nations as well as those by Indigenous representatives and an array of civil society groups. Conference Room 4, where the main sessions were held, for these two weeks looked quite different from any other UN meeting, with the striking and colorful traditional attire of the participants visible on all sides.

On May 12, the Parliament of the World’s Religions co-sponsored with the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations one of dozens of “side events” held during the Forum. The subject was “Participation of Indigenous Peoples in the Parliament of the World’s Religions” and was the monthly “substantive briefing” of the Committee of Religious NGOs. Parliament Vice Chair Kusumita P. Pedersen, a member of the Bureau of the Committee of Religious NGOs, served as moderator. She opened by noting that the subject of the day’s program reached out to participation by Indigenous peoples in the global interfaith movement as a whole, in which a number of organizations have worked in the last half century to make interfaith more genuinely inclusive.
Lewis Cardinal (Cree) of Edmonton, Canada, who is Chair of the Indigenous Task Force of the Parliament, described the strong Indigenous Participation at the Parliament of the World’s Religion held October 15-19 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The day of the Parliament began with a sunrise ceremony where traditional Elders consecrated a sacred fire at the entrance to the Parliament venue. This fire became a focal point, as did several lodges or “teepees” which were areas for memorable dialogues between people of diverse religions during the next five days. The Parliament itself opened with the procession of Indigenous leaders, many of them from the Utah Valley region, and the Parliament program included many presentations by Indigenous participants. The Indigenous Plenary included Chief Oren Lyons (Onondaga), Chief Arvol Looking Horse (Lakota), Baba Wande Abimbola (Yoruba) among the distinguished speakers (these presentations can be seen on line).
Ojibwe Elder and great-grandmother Mary Lyons, who had been a major speaker at the Women’s Assembly as well as other venues in the Salt Lake City Parliament, shared with us a moving reflection on the spiritual values that are central to Indigenous cultures, including the presence of our ancestors, the meaning of community or a sense of “we,” and connectedness to the land. Margaret Lokawua, a leader of the Karamajong people of northeastern Uganda, spoke on the importance of women in Indigenous traditions and vision of the community of all life in the natural world as inherent in African traditions. She also emphasized the need for action on critical issues, saying that interfaith partnerships can play a role in implementing solutions called for at meetings. Parliament Vice Chair Andras Corban-Arthen recounted the history of oppression of the Indigenous religions of Europe, today often called “Pagan,” and how the Parliament since 1993 has become a forum where these traditions can be recognized. The Parliament hopes to play a role in the future in increasing understanding between these and other Indigenous traditions from different regions. The briefing, which was well attended, concluded with a lively open discussion for its final half hour.