NIJMEH: “NAFTA renewal talks must include Indian Country”


When President Donald J. Trump insisted that the ‘New NAFTA’ require renewal talks every six-years, he may not have realized how profoundly he changed the governing structure of North American trade.  The renewal talks were created to allow the three parties to modernize the Treaty over time, allowing for its necessary evolution to account for rapidly changing trade relationships here on Turtle Island.

But he also did much more than that.  He created a forum through which North American governments can converge to discuss the future.  Unfortunately, during the crafting of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA as it is now called, Tribes and First Nations were not allowed a seat at the table – to say nothing of the even more marginalized and maligned Indigenas of Mexico.

It’s not a small slight.  Indeed, the western colonial project’s driving motivation has always been the destruction of our nations, the subjugation of our economies, and the prevention of our nation-building aspirations.

In some ways, the first Treaty governing North American trade was the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and The United States of America, more commonly known as the Jay Treaty.   That document included more explicit protections on Indian Commerce than the USMCA does today.

While the Jay Treaty acknowledged, protected, and affirmed the right of Indians living on either side of the border to trade with each other, the USMCA has no protections, acknowledgements, or affirmations of Indian trade at all.  It includes only 57 words regarding indigenous people – and those words do nothing to enable indigenous nation building or even acknowledge the basic human rights of Indigenous people that have been codified in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

The language included in the USMCA is meaningless in its substance:

Provided that such measures are not used as a means of arbitrary or unjustified discrimination against persons of the other Parties or as a disguised restriction on trade in goods, services, and investment, this Agreement does not preclude a Party from adopting or maintaining a measure it deems necessary to fulfill its legal obligations to indigenous peoples.

This language amounts to political erasure – an erasure of our civil regulatory jurisdiction that allows us to govern our own economies, and an erasure of our inherent sovereignty.  It’s less than helpful.  It’s a continuation of the colonial mindset and racism that presumes that they should govern us – merely because they are of European ancestry and we are not.

Canada must have a federal election prior to September of 2025, but many political observers expect an election to be called early.  The United States Mexico Canada Agreement must be renewed prior to November 31, 2024. 

But now, with renewal talks required every six years, the indigenous people of Turtle Island have an extraordinary new opportunity to negotiate our freedom back.  It’s to that end that I’ve been traveling to Tribal and First Nations communities in the United States and Canada to rally our governments.  It’s time for Indian Country to demand a seat at the table.

There is so much that we can achieve by asserting our involvement in the renewal negotiations.  First, we must insert clear language that protects our right to trade with each other – including in cross-border contexts.  Second, language must be included that affirms our right to economic development and nation building within the context of our sovereign scope of jurisdiction.

And third, we must make the Treaty congruent with United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) – which might be the most important of all.  It might also be our most challenging point of negotiation.  Although the UNDRIP was adopted overwhelmingly by nearly 130 member states, the four votes against it came from the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Mexico is scheduled to have a presidential election on June 2, 2024.

UNDRIP establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples and elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.

UNDRIP itself would require that indigenous people have a seat at the table when it comes USMCA renewal talks.  Article 18 specifically states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures…”

UNDRIP also demands that member-states “…shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

It’s not asking too much to be seen and recognized, to be affirmed or protected.  It’s time that we work together to secure our collective economic and political liberation here on our own lands.

The United States will have federal elections on November 5, 2024.

When I met with National Chief Roseanne Archibald of the Assembly of First Nations last month to discuss Indigenizing NAFTA, she offered her full support.  It’s never easy for indigenous women to take the reins of male-dominated organizations – especially those with entrenched a colonial culture and paternal posture as the AFN.

I applaud her strength in the face of unsubstantiated allegations of workplace bullying, and I have confidence that she will be reinstated as National Chief very soon.  I look forward to collaborating with her in the months ahead.  She will play a key role in liberating indigenous people across Turtle Island.

Charlene Nijmeh is the Chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.  She has served as Chairwoman for the past five years, following the 40-year tenure of her mother, Rosemary Canberra.

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