As Water Inures Its Strokes on the Stone (Part 2)

The standoff at Kennedy International Airport in July 2010 was not unexpected, but it did make a point.  The twenty-three members of the Iroquois Lacrosse team presented themselves, planning to take a flight from New York to London so they could participate in the World Lacrosse Championship.  It sounds routine.  But there was one problem. 

The documents the team members presented were traditional, partially hand-written, Haudenosaunee passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy.  U.S. officials refused to recognize the passports and even after intervention by the U.S. Department of State to make a one-time exception, British officials refused to issue visas.  Compromises were rejected, with the team members refusing to travel on both U.S. and Iroquois documents because they viewed the suggestion as an affront to their claim of sovereignty. 

While the incident highlighted the issue that exists with Haudenosaunee passports, the reality is that they have been used for decades.  Indeed, in 1923, the Cayuga Chief Levi General, more commonly known at the time as Deskaheh, traveled to Geneva on such a passport to address the League of Nations about perceived violations of Iroquois rights by the Canadian government.  The League refused to hear him and a year later when the U.S passed a law to make the Iroquois within its borders citizens and when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police invaded the Iroquois to overthrow its traditional government, those two countries were notified that the Iroquois refused citizenship in any nation other than the Haudenosaunee.  But that has not stopped those countries from claiming those indigenous people as their citizens. 

The refusal by the League of Nations to hear Deskaheh remains iconically at the heart of what many indigenous peoples around the world protest:  the refusal to involve them in decisions that set forth their rights.  There has been some improvement, and the 2007 adoption by the United Nations of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is illustrative.  Drafting of the Declaration took more than 20 years, but involved representatives from indigenous people from different parts of the world.  When it passed, there were only four votes against:  by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, all of which have substantial indigenous populations.  Since then, each of those four countries has made moves to endorse the Declaration.  A copy of it can be read here.  

In Part 1 of this post earlier this week, I commented briefly on another standoff between indigenous people and a government:  the Rapa Nui of Easter Island and the country of Chile.  The conflict began in August 2010 when members of the Hito clan occupied the Hanga Roa Hotel, which has for years been a de facto symbol of Chilean encroachment on the Rapa Nui’s perception of their rights.  It was not until 1966 that Chile stopped leasing the island as a sheep farm and granted Chilean citizenship to the Rapa Nui, precipitating a series of land-rights disputes in the 1970’s.  In 1979, Chile passed the Ley de Pasqua (“Law of Easter”), one effect of which was to prohibit the sale of land owned by a Rapa Nui to a non-Rapa Nui.  But in a move whose origins remain unclear, the land where the Hanga Roa hotel sits was conveyed to the German Schiess family.  The Rapa Nui claim the transaction was illegal and in violation of the Ley de Pasqua. 

In the several months since the Hito clan has occupied the hotel, there have been a number of confrontations, culminating in the removal of the Hito clan from the site by the Chilean Carabineros on February 7.  Later in that same month saw an agreement between Chile and the Schiess family for the land to continue to be used by the Schiess family for the next thirty years and then to be conveyed to a private Rapa Nui Foundation.  The problem is the age-old one:  the indigenous Rapa Nui were not involved in the decision and they remain suspicious. 

During the dispute, The Rapa Nui have pointed frequently to Chile’s acceptance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly those sections dealing with land.  For example, Art. 8(1)(b) requires that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for … redress for … [a]ny action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”  Art. 26 goes further, stating that “[i]ndigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use” and that “States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands … with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.”  The reality is that the Declaration lacks legal force.  It is relevant only to the extent that indigenous groups are able to embarrass governments by pointing out perceived inconsistencies between their endorsement of it and their actions. 

Today is “Free Rapa Nui Day of Action,” marked by a march and protest at the Chilean Consulate in San Francisco.  It is clearly timed to precede President Obama’s two-day trip to Chile next week, although the issue of the Easter Island dispute is not currently on the agenda. 

It is difficult to know what the outcome will ultimately be of the Rapa Nui efforts.  Some assert that they opportunistically squatted on private land and are abusing the generous intent of efforts like those embodied by the U.N. Declaration.  Others are more sympathetic, seeing the actions as a peaceful attempt to regain control of land that was swindled from them in the course of Easter Island’s turbulent history.  It is certain that those countries that already viewed the U.N. Declaration with suspicion and reluctance are watching, keen to understand the impact its full acceptance could have on their own treatment of indigenous peoples. 


Easter Island is a wonderfully unique part of the world that presents mysteries that still fascinate social scientists.  So much of its history has already been irrevocably lost.  Whatever the outcome, I hope its scientific wonder remains preserved so that future generations can enjoy the privilege of experiencing its mystique as fully as I have.