Switzerland’s tradition of supporting indigenous resistance
Resistance movements of indigenous organisations and societies have traditionally found a route through Switzerland. This is connected with the presence of the UN headquarters in Geneva. But there’s more to it than that.
Rachel Huber is a historian and works at the University of Lucerne.
They must have presented an extraordinary spectacle for the residents of Geneva: on 20 September 1977, to the beating of drums, a number of indigenous men from the USA appeared in front of the UN’s Palais des Nations building dressed in traditional clothing.
Quite outlandishly dressed to Swiss eyes, the men certainly attracted the attention of both passers-by and the press. At the end of September 1977, the group of indigenous Americans travelled around Switzerland, taking in Bern, Zurich and Biel, and among other things went on an excursion to the Jungfraujoch. The trip to what is probably Switzerland’s most famous mountain was a gift from the railways in the Jungfrau region.Although the group included delegates from other indigenous tribes, and by the 1970s these men no longer wore traditional dress in their everyday lives, for PR reasons they decided to dress in what was the most widely recognised traditional indigenous costume: that of the Lakota (Sioux) – the indigenous societies that lived in the American Midwest before their continent was invaded by the Europeans.
In doing so they were deliberately playing up to European expectations of “Indians” who, at least since the film adaptations of Karl May’s books in the 1960s, in this garb represented a population that inhabited the cultural memory of Europeans rather than the Great Plains of the USA. They got the response they had anticipated. The visitors from Canada, the USA and many South American countries looked as if they had dropped in from another age entirely, and press photographers clamoured for shots of the group. When the indigenous delegation visited the Federal Palace in Bern as the guests of Mayor Reynold Tschäppät, a child was heard to shout “Are they real?”.Before the delegation embarked on a tour of the Swiss capital, they met with City Councillor Emilie Lieberherr and Ezio Canonica, National Councillor and President of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions, over aperitifs in the Musiksaal of Zurich’s Stadthaus on 26 September 1977. The entire trip around Switzerland was arranged by the Swiss organisation Incomindios (International Committee for the Indians of the Americas). It was no coincidence that Incomindios was founded in Switzerland, in late 1973. An indigenous activist who travelled to Switzerland on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), the indigenous treaty council founded in 1973-74, was aware from activist Janet McCloud that various people in Switzerland had been trying since the late 1960s to set up a solidarity group for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and his interest in creating a pro-indigenous alliance fell on receptive ears. An additional objective was to bring the concerns of the indigenous peoples in the USA to the supranational UN in Geneva.Indigenous peoples from North America turning for help to intergovernmental organisations in Switzerland was nothing new. After World War I, the Six Nations indigenous confederacy (Iroquois), under Canadian oppression, decided in 1922 to send their spokesman, Chief Hoyaneh Deskaheh (Haudenosaunee), to Geneva to address the League of Nations. Despite considerable efforts this attempt failed, as Great Britain and Canada made sure his demand for sovereignty and independence from Canada didn’t go straight to the League of Nations. Nevertheless, in the pan-indigenous self-perception of subsequent generations of resistance activists the journey across the Atlantic to Switzerland developed as a significant avenue for directing the attention of the international community and the global public to their acute social grievances.In 1977, an indigenous delegation from the IITC tried once again to get their concerns heard in Geneva. The delegation attended the International NGO Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, which took place in Geneva from 20 to 23 September. The conference was held at the invitation of the Sub-Committee on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Apartheid and Decolonization of the Special Committee on Human Rights, which is part of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Incomindios was instrumental in facilitating the participation of the IITC delegation in the conference and organising their stay in Switzerland.
Representatives of the 1977 delegation established a tradition, and historical consistency, by explicitly referring to Deskaheh: “The Six Nations were here 53 years ago to say the very same thing, the unity of spirit and brotherhood. United Nations is nothing new to us.”The Geneva UN Conference of 1977 was one of many key moments within the Red Power movement, as the political resistance movement of the Indigenous Peoples of the USA in the 1960s and 1970s is called. In addition, some indigenous scholars see the conference as the start of the process that culminated in the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. As the headquarters of the UN, Switzerland has thus played a key role for 100 years both in pan-indigenous diplomatic efforts and demanding human rights, and in the history of resistance by the indigenous peoples of North America.
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