Saturday, August 17, 2013

Drawing a connection between tribal sovereignty, the Paul Frank party flub and international sustainable development

I highly recommend Pilar Thomas' article Governance and Jurisdictional Considerations for Renewable Energy Development in Indian Country in the August 2013 ABA Native American Resource Committee Newsletter (pp. 13-17).  In this interesting and succinct piece, Ms. Thomas clearly and compellingly lays out the complexities of tribal jurisdiction over energy development on native lands in the U.S.  Basing her narrative on the principle of tribal sovereignty, Ms. Thomas provides a legal road map for U.S. tribes to exercise jurisdiction and control over the manner in which they pursue renewable and traditional energy generation and to encourage development of energy resources while ensuring that taxes and other revenues accrue to the tribe itself.  Exercise of sovereignty, authority and control over use of their lands and energy resources empowers U.S. tribes to impact the development of the U.S. energy grid now and in the future.

Empowerment is also the theme of a recent development in fashion circles whereby 4 Native American fashion designers partnered with Paul Frank to come up with a new collection of clothing and fashion accessories in the wake of Paul Frank's "Powwow Party Flub" back in September 2012.  The collaboration resulted after blogger Dr. Jessica Metcalfe criticized Paul Frank in her blog Beyond Buckskin for misappropriating and misrepresenting native culture in a company theme party.

What connects these two seemingly unrelated items to one another and to the themes of this blog are the concepts of empowerment, agency and transformation inherent in both. Pilar Thomas' article about tribal sovereignty and energy development shows native peoples asserting sovereignty over their land and resources while the fashion line resulting from Jessica Metcalfe's outraged blog post shows native people asserting sovereignty over their ideas, images and culture.  Both represent assertion of ownership over how peoples and cultures depict and define themselves rather than allowing outsiders to be the depicters and definers.

Empowerment, agency and transformation should play a more prominent role in approaches to eradication of global poverty and inclusion of the world's indigenous and racial minorities in sustainable environmental and economic development.  These two examples of empowerment and re-appropriation of cultural identity and resources contrast sharply with the "vulnerable populations" discourse in the European Union, where all peoples who differ from a certain view of the norm - racial minorities, the Roma, young people, old people - are referred to as "vulnerable" and deserving of special treatment.  The "vulnerable populations" discourse implies pity from the majority rather than respect and a well-deserved hand or leg up.

The dialogue and outcome at Paul Frank is something that could happen at other clothing manufacturers and retailers with global operations.  One example that comes to mind is the garment and textile manufacturing sector in Southern Mexico (Puebla, Oaxaca, Guerrero).  Despite thousands of years of history and tradition in textiles and clothing, indigenous workers are involved at the lowest ends of clothing and textile production but not at the design or conceptualization levels.  There is really unused space for creative and positive Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and community engagement that can transform fashion and garment manufacturing the world over, modeled on expanded versions of the Paul Frank initiative.

Pilar Thomas' article raises the question of legal structures around the world that would allow indigenous and minority peoples to assert the kind of control over energy production the way tribal sovereignty empowers native peoples in the U.S. to assert themselves over energy production on tribal lands.  While indigenous peoples have used international human rights and minority protection regimes as a form of empowerment to challenge energy-related decisions in their lands - for example, the building of hydro-electric dams - indigenous people involved in such actions are often framed in international discourse as victims seeking redress rather than powerful actors seizing control of their destiny.  These issues are complex and strategies, cultural viewpoints and goals pursued by native peoples in the United States may not be the same as those pursued by native peoples elsewhere, but Thomas' article provides a good place to start in developing a new way of thinking about these issues not only in the U.S. but elsewhere around the world.