September/October 2003
Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Esq.                                 
Interviewed July 14-15, 2003 via telephone from New York City.

Q:  Where were you born and raised?

A:  I was born in Syracuse, New York. And that was where I was raised. On the territory of my nation, the Onondaga Nation. The City of Syracuse sits on our traditional territory.

Q: What is the Onondaga Nation?

A: It's one of six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, which is also referred to as the Six Nations. Our traditional name for ourselves is the Haudenosaunee, which means the "People of the Longhouse". The Onondaga Nation is referred to as the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Q:  Were you brought up learning about your traditions?

A:  Yes. Oh, yes.

Q:  Do you prefer to be called American Indian or Native American?

A:  I prefer to be called Onondaga.

Q:  What is your educational background?

A:  I have a bachelor of science degree and I also have a law degree.

Q:  Where did you go to school?

A:  I went to St. John's University of New York. And my law school was the City University of New York Law School at Queens College.

Q:  Why did you pursue a career in law?

A:  It came second nature to me. Our people have always had a legal perspective and a legal relationship with the United States. It was something that I understood very quickly. Our relationship has always been on a nation to nation level with the United States. We have treaties of peace and friendship with the United States and also treaties with other European nations.

Q:  You founded the American Indian Law Alliance (AILA) in 1989. How did that come about?

A:  When I decided to go to law school I knew that I would pursue this area of my work. After talking to our leaders and many of our elders, I felt that legal advocacy in terms of public interest would be a positive way to go. It was what I wanted to do. And, the City University of New York has probably one of the best public interest law programs in the country.

Q:  Was it easy or difficult to start up the AILA?

A:  It was very challenging because our mandate is to serve the people and not to accept government funding. The private founding is always a challenge. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of time to be able to produce enough funding and enough giving so that we can have an office function in a professional way, pay our people, and cover all our expenses.

Q:  You briefly mentioned your mission: to serve . . . 

A:  To serve the people. By that I mean indigenous people.

Q:  How does the AILA accomplish that mission?

A:  Since the beginning in 1989 our view . . .we haven't changed our view in any way or moved away from it . . .has been to look at policy, look at the law, look at legislation in terms of how it affects our nations and our people. That's what we do. When I started the American Indian Law Alliance, we began here in the community in New York City.  We were housed at another nonprofit organization, which was larger than ours with a bigger budget and does direct services. It is called the American Indian Community House.

What our community pushed for and asked for here in New York City was something that would deal with its legal issues on a daily level. In 1990 and 1991 we formed a legal services project, which is still in existence and is still being funded.

The legal sevices project gives direct legal services to our community members. It's pretty general, almost like a general practice. It is whatever a community member has to deal with. It could be a divorce. A lot of times it's a housing issue because housing is very tight in the New York metropolitan area. It's benefits. It's family issues. It also will sometimes be around federal Indian law which only applies to our people. There isn't any other place where our folks can go to get help around something like the Indian Child Welfare Act, for instance. Our people have a whole body of law that just applies to us.

Q:  Do you have courts separate from the U.S. courts?

A:  It depends on the nation itself. Some have in place peacemaker's courts. Or they have something in place that deals with minor offenses.

Q:  Do your people have something like that?

A:  Yes we do. We have our own traditional way of handling internal matters that we have been practicing for over a thousand years. Our traditional government is still the government that is in place with our traditional leaders. Most of the work of the American Indian Law Alliance is responding to the traditional native leadership.

What you have going on at the same time in the United States is traditional governments that were replaced by governments based on a U.S. model in the 1930's. There was an act called the Indian Reorganization Act that put that into effect. So replacing traditional governments with elected governments created a lot of internal damage and a lot of problems on our territories. But the Onondaga Nation still has in place our traditional government.

Q:  You started working with the local community. How did your work expand to the international community?

A:  It was where I wanted to go from the very beginning and it was easy to make that transition because our historical relationship with the United States has been on a nation to nation level. That moves you into an international mode of thinking anyway. It's just a very easy step.

What was going on in about 1983 was something called the Working Group on Indigenous Nations, which was put into place as an answer to some very strong lobbying efforts by traditional indigenous leadership. Why? Because when you look at how our people make out in terms of the justice system in the United States it's not a good history. Where do you turn after you've exhausted what you perceive as all your domestic remedies? You move into the international arena and you start talking about human rights and human rights covenants that apply to all people.

Q:  Can you explain what you mean by the term indigenous nations?

A:  "Indigenous" came from a meeting that happened in 1977 at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. A number of NGO's, nongovernmental organizations, pushed to have a forum and a discussion on native issues within the Western Hemisphere. The Haudenosaunee were a part of that meeting. We sent a delegation of forty-four of our leaders to that meeting. Our people traveled on passports issued by our nation. The statement was very profound. Our people have been traveling on those passports since 1977.

At that meeting the leaders of the Western Hemisphere, North, Central and South America, decided collectively that from that point on we would refer to ourselves as indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Out of that meeting in 1977 grew the need for an independent body within the UN structure to start addressing indigenous issues throughout the world. And, that became the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. It came into being in 1983 under the UN Commission on Human Rights and it has met every year since then except for one year. It is meeting again this year for a week, from July 21st to July 25th.

Q: Historically how have the international community and the United Nations treated the indigenous nations?

A:  With ambivalence. The UN deals with indigenous delegates on an individual level rather than on a national level.  It gives status to organizations which are known as nongovernmental organizations (NGO's).  Our organization, the American Indian Law Alliance, is an NGO.  We have what is called consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Q: How long have the NGO's been around?

A:  Forever.  Examples of NGOs are the Girl Scouts and the United Way.  They are usually nonprofit organizations, but not necessarily. And they're working around specific issues.

Q:  You have explained the Working Group on Indigenous Populations under the UN Human Rights Commission. What, then, is the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues within the structure of the UN?

A:  It actually came about from discussions that were going on at a conference on human rights that was held in Vienna in 1993. Indigenous peoples that were attending that human rights conference said collectively that they would like to see a permanent forum on indigenous peoples.

You've got some language issues there. It's a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, rather than indigenous peoples. There's a Working Group on Indigenous Populations, rather than indigenous peoples.

Q:  Why is that?

A:  Because governments sidestep the issue that indigenous peoples are people who are subject to human rights just like everybody else in the world. When you are not a "people", then you are referred to as a group. It's a legal issue.

Q:  Does the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues attempt to correct that?

A:  Yes. It has its shortcomings. But it is a permanent forum that is a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

When you look at the way things are broken down in the UN in terms of hierarchy, indigenous issues have really moved up the ladder. The Working Group on Indigenous Populations was and still is at the bottom of the UN ladder. It's absolutely separate from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and comes under the Commission for Human Rights.

But the Working Group can do something the Permanent Forum cannot do and that is standard setting. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples came from the standard setting of the Working Group.

The Permanent Forum makes recommendations to ECOSOC and then ECOSOC decides whether to accept those recommendations and take the recommendations to the UN General Assembly. In the General Assembly governments take over and indigenous peoples don't have any way of being a part of the discussion.

Q:  You don't have a voice in the General Assembly?

A:  No. Just governments. People need to be very clear about the United Nations being a place for governments. It is not a democratic place for the peoples of the world, even though Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Secretary-General before him have tried to be very inclusive when it comes to civil society and non-governmental organizations' representation of civil society.

Q:  What specific concerns do the indigenous nations have?

A:  If you start from the human rights perspective, we do not have the right to self-determination. This is what the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples covers. That's the point of conflict with indigenous peoples and governments. And I think we should backtrack a little bit.

We're focusing on indigenous NGO's but what we have are indigenous peoples that belong and identify to tribes, to places where we are from. It's from a collective perspective rather than an individually-oriented human rights perspective. You can see by that perspective we are going to run into conflict with the United States, with Canada, with Australia, with New Zealand . . .governments that take an individual rights oriented approach in their law. Indigenous peoples are very collective in our thinking.

Q:  What are some of the issues you bump into, such as with economic development?

A:  In order to have development . . .and that is what free trade is all about . . .you have to have resources. You can't have development without resources. Indigenous peoples have resources under our land and on top of our land. So development impacts indigenous peoples very strongly . . .pulling out minerals, pulling out timber, diverting water and building dams.

When people sit on a place for generation after generation, for thousands of years, we develop a rhythm and we develop an ownership to that land. It happens all over the world. When development comes in, when colonialism comes in, there's a big change. In order to grow they're going to need land and they're going to need resources.

Indigenous peoples are very much a part of the international discussion from that very reason because we still sit on our traditional land and territories and we still hold onto our resources. What we say to governments is that we have the collective right to control our lands, our resources, and our territories.

Q:  Do you feel that you are heard?

A:  Oh, yeah. We know we're heard. Whether an action will come of our pressure is another thing.  Right now we have a declaration, it's a draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And, as you know, a declaration doesn't have a lot of teeth to it. But, it will hopefully, with time, become very effective and hopefully become a covenant.  In the meantime, we have been trying to reach an agreement with governments to move the Declaration out of the Human Rights Commission and onto ECOSOC and then onto the General Assembly.

The Declaration came out of the Working Group. We agreed in 1993 that this Declaration should move and it was sent to the Subcommission on Human Rights. The Subcommission agreed on it and moved it to the Human Rights Commission. What you have in the Working Group and the Subcommission are experts, mostly independent. When you get to the Human Rights Commission, then you are talking about governments. And that is where the draft Declaration has been sitting since 1996.

The Declaration covers some very important areas. When we agreed on the draft Declaration as indigenous nations and delegates and peoples, we knew that this was about the best we were going to get. Most of us wanted it to be stronger. But we agreed to it and to move it. When the UN General Assembly declared the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples from 1995 to 2004, part of its goals was that within that ten years the draft Declaration would be passed and would become a reality. Well, the decade is up in 2004. The Declaration has forty-five articles and, as of 2003, governments have only passed two articles.

It's not looking too good. It is frustrating because if you look at other declarations, they didn't sit in a commission for almost twenty years and get argued over for almost twenty years. What that tells you is that the issues that indigenous peoples bring to the table are looked at and considered very critically by governments. We go back to the discussion that we still have our land and we still control our resources . . .not all of us . . .but a good chunk of us still do.

In this modern globalized world where instantaneously you can get information about what's going on around the world, no government wants to be looked at as a government that is participating in the violation of the human rights of indigenous peoples. We are a critical part of the discussion.

Q: What is the role of the American Indian Law Alliance in this?

A: Since we began in 1989, we have been working on these issues. We produce documents that review in a substantive legal way our position so that governments can understand our position and we provide access to that information to other indigenous peoples and nations.

Indigenous peoples are known as the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized. The UN has said that in many of its official documents. The US says it. Clinton said it when he was president.

Q: I'm wondering how you can move the passing of the draft Declaration along?

A:  Right now my feeling would be to ask civil society, to ask our friends and the rest of the world to pressure governments to move this Declaration along and not to change the very essence of it, which is our right to self-determination.

Q:  A direct benefit from the Declaration would be self-determination?

A:   Absolutely. When you are marginalized, you have no resources and that was one of the points I was going to make.

We are privileged to have some resources, limited as they are, to be able to analyze some of this information and then to get it out to those small communities that maybe have a phone that the neighborhood is sharing. A fax machine, a computer, email . . .they won't have any of that stuff. We send it out and translate it at the same time. We've translated documents into Spanish, French, Russian, so the communities can take the information and make sense of it.

Q:  Anything else about the international aspect of your work?

A;  I think that people all over the world would probably ask "why this international work?" It's time consuming, it's arduous and it's very slow. But, our people have patience. We have a history and a sense of history that doesn't demand that something has to be done in six months. Western society has trouble dealing with our traditional leaders. Our world view is very cyclical and its very global. It's not lineal and it's not this "has to get done" attitude. If you're going to come to consensus on an issue, it may take several years.

We have that patience. And we know that our relationship with governments has always been on a nation to nation level. We understand it. And those relationships take time. And if in your own states and your own governments you cannot receive the justice that you deserve as a community, then you have to look outside that forum in an international forum where the international community can be a part of that discussion . . .especially if you're sitting on land and especially if you're sitting on resources. The native peoples of the United States are sitting on a great deal of natural resources.

Q:  I'm sure the native peoples are experiencing much pressure.

A:  Yes. Water is the gold of this new millennium. Right now it costs more than gasoline.  Who has the aquifers that hold some of the purest drinking water? The Navaho. The Pueblo. The Great Lakes hold one-third of the world's fresh water and it goes through the territory of the Haudenosaunee.

Q:  If you have the rich natural resources, why is there such poverty in native communities?

A:  If you come from a perspective that all life is equal . . .and I don't mean to trivialize it . . .the natural resources that you have are everyone's. They are collective. It becomes very difficult to sell something that belongs to everyone and is a gift from the Creator. Whether its water, whether its digging into the body of your Mother Earth, it becomes a decision that has to be made by that particular local community.

Sovereignty is an act. When a people take on a sovereign mode and they want to express their sovereignty, they may say they are going to sell their resources. That's their decision. But if they decide not to sell, that's also an act of sovereignty.

There are five hundred and fifty native nations within the borders of the United States. We have different languages, different traditions. Nobody expects the countries within Europe to all be the same. And there's that analogy within the Western Hemisphere. There are hundreds and hundreds of nations within the Western Hemisphere that are not going to agree, especially when they don't speak the same language. We may have a similar world-view . . .but an Iroquois is not a Navaho. That distinctiveness needs to be respected as well.

Today's paper reported that a native nation in Rhode Island put up a trailer and started to sell untaxed cigarettes. The local and state officials and state police came in. There was a scuffle. Dogs were used. It almost looked like something out of the 1950's and 1960's during the civil rights movement.

If you are sovereign, then you have to act on it. When you talk about poverty on indigenous nations, there were governments imposed on our nations via a law called the Indian Reorganization Act.

Look at the string of laws, the case law. Look at a case, Johnson v. MacIntosh (1823), where the Supreme Court used Christian reality and Christian terms that were turned into secular language and into law: When a place is empty, one can take it. There was an agreement among European nations that the first to arrive would take over that place, as if there were no people here.

Look at laws like the Termination Act. It terminated one hundred and nine native nations. Some of the nations, such as the Menomonee in Wisconsin, got back their status, but it took almost fifty years.

We cannot blame those who are silenced for the silence. We have to go back to why there is silence. This information is easily accessible. It always has been. But it's not available in our schools on a common level and why is that? Because the winners write the history?

Sixty per cent of the foods we eat came from the indigenous peoples. Medicines. All of the highways in this country were Indian trails. The idea of commerce, the exchange of money. The list goes on and on. Shouldn't that be something that is celebrated?

We made it possible for those who came over from Europe to survive. We fed them, took care of them. When you go to a place you don't know, you don't know what animal to eat, what food you can eat, what plant is safe. There were people here who shared that information with the Europeans.

It would be nice to celebrate our contribution because our children deserve to have heroes too. When I look at our young people, who have the highest suicide rate of any young people in the country, it's just devastating.

In the Haudenosaunee tradition you don't give up. You have to keep going.  You have to hope it won't fall apart. And, yes, the environment is in pretty bad shape.

My responsibility is toward the Seventh Generation that hasn't arrived. That's the responsibility of leadership. How will my decisions and my actions today affect that Seventh Generation down the road? This isn't something that interests me. It's my life.

Q:  Do you have any future projects?

A:  We have a human rights and democracy project and part of that commitment is to see that the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples gets passed so that we can have the right to self-determination . . .the right to determine our lives, the right to control our lands and resources. Our commitment is toward the passage of that Declaration, and we will all be stronger for it. In this world when one person wins, everybody wins. When principles of democracy win, we all win.

The project is called the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights and Democracy Project. We are working with one of the most amazing people that I have met in a long time. He's an international human rights expert out of Canada. He asked if he could work with us. I was stunned. We have been working together the last few months and we have been able to get out the information on a professional level, concentrating on the international legal aspect. I think we're doing good work.

Other communities that have been marginalized need to be looking at these human rights covenants that the United States has adopted and agreed to abide by. Human rights are not something "over there". Civil rights are human rights. Human rights are civil rights. The US signed . . .it hasn't ratified . . .the Women's Convention. The US signed the Convention on Political and Civil Rights. How does that interpret itself on the local level?

Once you sign those covenants, you have to submit a report about what is going on domestically in your community every two years. NGO's like myself write shadow reports on whether, from our perspective, those covenants have been abided by or not. Anybody can write a shadow report. It keeps local governments in check. I've seen it happen over and over again. No city government or local government or state government wants to be subjected to that kind of scrutiny. And the federal government is not going to tolerate it. It gives marginalized people the feeling of, "Damn it, I can do something."

There's a whole bunch of children's books that outline for little children from three years of age and up the Declaration on Human Rights. Those are the kind of basics we all need to hear. "Yeah, I have a right to shelter and food and education and not to be incarcerated without a reason." The books make wonderful gifts.

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