On April 25, 2023, the Normandy Chair of Peace (NCP) hosted a hybrid webinar titled “Holistic Conceptions of Health in Indigenous Wisdom and Law” as a side event of the 22nd Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
The event was organized by Leslie Cloud, scientific director, and Emilie Gillard, co-responsible for the Indigenous Peoples’ Line and General Coordinator of NCP. The webinar focused on indigenous knowledge and legal systems, and it was broadcast live on the Normandy Chair for Peace Facebook account with simultaneous translation in French, English, and Spanish.
The side event aimed to reflect the struggle of indigenous peoples for the respect of their right to self-determination, life, territories, and humanity. It sought to restore harmony and peace with the Earth by discussing the fundamental principles necessary to achieve this goal.
Leslie Cloud, the scientific director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Line of the Normandy Chair of Peace (NCP), expressed her gratitude towards the Lenape Nation territory where the United Nations event was located, and where the side event was taking place. She highlighted the importance of recognizing and respecting Indigenous knowledge and legal systems, which are still insufficiently recognized, and removing the obstacles to their implementation.
The event brought together indigenous representatives from Lenape, Colombia, and Australia who have been working for several decades for the defense of indigenous people’s knowledge, rights, culture and territory and an expert in international environmental law, Professor Nicholas Robinson from ICEL, who dedicated his life for the protection of the environment and is advocating for the abolition of the doctrine of discovery.
As Emilie Gaillard, scientific director of the Chair, focused the side event conveyed an important message and highlighted the holistic approach of health of indigenous peoples stretched linked with their legal systems, which are at the interface of the multiple transformations and metamorphosis of law in process. As a specialist of the rights of future generations, she expects the emergence of convergences for the next UN summit of the future, held in 2024. We need to renew our occidental worldview, knowledge, and way of thinking also our legal systems.
Curtis Zunigha, Co-Director and Co-Founder of The Lenape Center, gave a powerful speech at the event with the Lenape territory (Lenapehoking) acknowledgment in Lenape language. As an enrolled member of the Delaware tribe of Indians, the modern-day descendants of the Indigenous people of Lenapehoking, Curtis spoke passionately about the relationship between indigenous peoples and the land. He emphasized that indigenous peoples have a responsibility to take care of all of creation and to live in a way that honors that creation. He urged the audience to consider this responsibility when engaging in dialogue about the rights of indigenous peoples.
Joe Baker, the executive director, and co-founder of the Lenape Center in Manhattan, and an artist, educator, curator, and activist who has been working in the field of Native Arts for the past 30 years, couldn’t be present in person and asked Hadrien Coumans to share his message. In his message, Joe shared the central Lenape values that stress the interconnectivity of all things, where no single element or being was void of its own place, an embodied spirit. He stressed the importance of protecting, safeguarding, and teaching the indigenous people’s ideas and fundamental principles, and their legal systems.
Hadrien Coumans, the co-director, and co-founder of the Lenape Center, shared Joe’s message, emphasizing the need to recognize and remember the right relationship that humans once had with the earth, and how the toxic individualism created by the colonial capitalist reality has made us forget this relationship. He mentioned that indigenous peoples’ ideas and values represent an appealing alternative and solution to this problem.
Christopher Sudol, a law student and intern at Lenape Center, also shared his thoughts on the topic of human health. Sudol emphasized the importance of understanding and addressing the settler mind, which he believed to be a form of illness that starts with the mind. He shared his personal journey of studying settler colonialism and decolonizing his mind, which led him to work with Hadrien and Joe Coumans, as well as Professor Robinson, on understanding the doctrine of Discovery and its impact on Indigenous people. Sudol’s testimony resonated with Leslie and the audience, highlighting the importance of holistic healing and the need to restore harmony to the territories of the human soul and mind.
Andrea Kelly, the Group Manager of National Indigenous Australians Agency, spoke about the relationship between government and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia and their work in the broader health space. She highlighted two important frameworks developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: the national agreement on closing the gap and the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan. She emphasized the need to listen to the voices of Indigenous people and communities to improve their life outcomes, and spoke about the importance of community-led solutions and approaches for protecting and caring for their people. Andrea also touched on the focus on healing and redressing the impacts of colonization and government policies on Indigenous families and communities. Finally, she emphasized that cultural identity, family and kinship, caring for the land and seas, and access to traditional practices and knowledge are all crucial factors in Indigenous health and wellbeing.
At this point, Hadrien Coumans stated that the world is currently in a time of crisis as we are seeing the beginning of the end of the doctrine of discovery. He noted that the majority of the world economy rests on two foundational principles – individual responsibility for productivity and consumption, and companies existing for profit. He highlighted that these principles have been protected by governments and laws and have led to the destruction of ecosystems and genocides of nations.
Coumans argued that all things in nature have a spirit, and every tree, rock, raindrop, and blade of grass is alive and a manifestation of creation and consciousness. He emphasized the importance of taking responsibility for the spirits of the animals. Coumans believes that if we collectively respect the living Earth and recognize the spirits in all things, we can begin to restore harmony with all of life.
Marina Violet Medina Quiscue, a nasa indigenous leader from Colombia, highlighted the legal framework in Colombia which recognizes the coexistence of various legal systems, including indigenous justice, and stressed the need for mutual recognition and coordination between these systems to combat legal impunity and promote intercultural dialogue.
Marina ended her speech by underscoring the contribution of indigenous communities to the health and well-being of humanity through their own medical systems, and expressed a commitment to continuing the development and strengthening of these systems for the good of all.
In his concluding speech, Professor Nicholas A. Robinson, Chairman Emeritus of the Normandy Chair for Peace and Environmental Law Professor from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, addressed the audience. He expressed his gratitude to the organizers of the meeting and all attendees, especially acknowledging the historical significance of being on Lenape land and hearing the language of the Lenape spoken. He mentioned that the omission of First Nations was a significant mistake made when the United Nations was created, and it is an omission that the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been trying to address since 1992. The second omission was the absence of nature and environment when the United Nations set up the Economic and Social Council, which led to the creation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Professor Robinson stressed that the third omission, Mother Earth, was the most significant one of all, and that the steps that the UN is taking are just the beginning of creating a more holistic and healthy system that reflects all these missing elements.
He praised the work done by the American Indian Law Alliance and Betty Lyons in educating people about the evils of the doctrine of discovery. He also expressed his hopes that the UN would renounce the doctrine of discovery, which would be a major step forward in reversing the war on nature that we are currently waging. He stressed the need to bring back the health of the environment and to restore harmony with nature, in which the autonomy and the rights of Mother Earth are acknowledged, and our responsibilities are at the forefront of understanding our relationship to all that we live with and are part of in the biosphere and the Earth.
Health in Indigenous Law
The Summit of Future, scheduled on September 2024 foresee the adoption of an action-oriented Pact for the Future showcasing global solidarity for current and future generations. In its report of 28th july 2022 on « Harmony with Nature », the secretary-general highlighted the need to create a new narrative for a regenerative world in which human rights go hand in hand with the rights of Nature, and sustainable development is reframed to ensure planetary health and the well-being of future generations. Those calls for the recognition of the rights of the current and future generations resonate with the continuous fights of indigenous peoples through a transgenerational approach, for the defense of their right of self-determination and in particular, their right to individual and collective life, their right to cultural identity and the preservation of their territories, land, natural resources and the spiritual entities. In addition, indigenous peoples warn of the endangerment of planet Earth as a whole and its future habitability. However, the commitment of indigenous peoples for the preservation of the interests of all Humanity, depends on the actions of this same Humanity. Today, more than yesterday, according to a multi-scalar, multidimensional and interconnected dynamic, the reality and effectiveness of the fight of indigenous peoples to preserve the rights of future generations depend on decisions taken within the framework of global, regional, national and local governance, often without their participation. The decisions taken without the indigenous peoples, threaten and alter both the ecosystems where they evolve and their cultural identity.
In this respect, in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the recognition of the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination, there is an urgent need to adopt a transcultural approach of the right(s) of current and future generations, respectful of the rights of the indigenous peoples and of their owns legal systems. Indigenous legal systems, based on a detailed knowledge of the law of the cosmos and the Laws of Nature, unable the exercise, the preservation and the transmission of indigenous ancestral knowledge for a “well living”, in harmony with nature and the different entities that inhabit the Earth.
In this perspective, the event Holistic Conceptions of Health in Indigenous Wisdom and Law proposes to dialogue with indigenous legal systems in order to highlight their foundations, their potentials and the obstacles encountered in their implementation, in order to optimize the human, planetary and territorial health system and the action against climate change..