This week, Staff Writer Monisha Gunasekera attended a talk with Peruvian Anthropologist and Ph.D. Candidate Urpi Saco.

There is no way we can fit Indigenous in a box,” said Urpi Saco, Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia, to her audience gathered around a table on the second floor of Faculty House. “There are many ways of being Indigenous.”

This week Thursday, February 23rd, the CLACS Working Group on Racisms in Comparative Perspective at NYU and the University Seminars at Columbia University co-sponsored a talk led by Urpi Saco, Anthropologist and Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. 

In her talk titled Ways Of Knowing, Feeling, And Being Indigenous Within The United Nations System: Indigenous Peruvian Participation, Saco shared some of her reflections from her doctoral research “on the Indigenous peoples’ participation within specific United Nations mechanisms.” Saco’s research aims to explore how Indigenous participation becomes concrete and how their participation can advance Indigenous peoples’ rights in the UN as well as their own territories.  Saco specifically focuses on “Peruvian Indigenous participation within a specific United Nations (UN) mechanism, the Indigenous Fellowship Programme.”

While a Peruvian herself, Saco began her talk with a few disclaimers. During this time, she identified herself as a Peruvian Mestiza. She let it be known that she does not identify as Indigenous, but would like to think of herself as an intellectual and engaged ally. She also highlighted that she was raised in Cusco where she was very close to the Indigenous movement during her upbringing.

Moving forward with her talk, Saco said that she wanted to understand how Indigenous people participate in the UN. “I wanted to know which mechanisms where Indigenous people participate the most. It was a quest for understanding how the international realm helped to advance Indigenous rights, how they create documents, how they work together with Indigenous. I have to say the UN is only one of those mechanisms that work at the international level. There are so many others and the UN is not the only one.” 

Saco went on to acknowledge the complexity and vastness of the UN system and how she had to learn about the UN by entering the system herself. “I had to learn how to navigate this setting and understand how complicated things were,” said Saco.  Saco calls this her first curiosity. Her second curiosity regarded the Indigenous Fellowship Programme—a programme hosted by the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva where they invite Indigenous leaders to be exposed to UN mechanisms. 

“My dissertation in general,” said Saco, “is about how spaces like these are still colonial spaces. There’s a long history about Indigenous movements accessing these spaces,  fighting to have a place in these spaces. I concentrate in my dissertation more on the Indigenous fellowship. It helped me understand how Indigenous identities shape in these spaces.”

Saco went on to acknowledge that there are many Indigenous identities and that there is no one way to be Indigenous. In the UN, the word “Indigenous” has a working definition that is still open. Saco believes that “it is an important milestone that we’re talking about this in the UN and not closing the definition.”

Saco then decided to backtrack and further elaborate on how she came to research Indigenous Peruvian participation in the UN. While working in Peru, she was doing research on Indigenous justice systems. Here she was meeting with ronderos which Saco describes as the police of communities in Peru. During these meetings, she tried to find out what Indigenous justice was in the Andes region and communities in the Cusco region. Saco said the ronderos would mention different mechanisms to her such as ILO Convention 169 and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the time, she was not very familiar with these and this unfamiliarity led her to question how these documents came about.  When she asked the ronderos if they knew where these documents came from, they wouldn’t answer, but they did say that these documents protected Indigenous people.  Due to these unanswered questions, Saco decided to go to Geneva to get her PhD. It was only there that she started to get more familiar with these mechanisms.

The Indigenous Fellowship Programme in particular allowed for Indigenous exposure to UN mechanisms as well as how to navigate the UN. At first, this fellowship was only in English. However, their languages extended to Spanish and French and later Russian. Saco describes the whole organization of the fellowship as a “kind of a contradiction to me that I wanted to know more about” seeing as Indigenous people came there to be “trained on Indigenous issues.”

In her work, Saco concentrated on Peruvian fellows that were part of the Spanish component. Out of the fourteen Peruvian fellows, Saco met with twelve. One she could not get in touch with and the other was very difficult to travel to. “I wanted to know what happened to them, what happened to their lives.” Saco wanted to know how being abroad and spending time in Geneva impacted the fellows, how they liked their time in the program, and what stories they wanted to tell. 

Saco shared that many of those she interviewed did not self-identify as Indigenous but rather they self-identified as their own people. Saco said that one of the fellows told her “that the concept of Indigenous comes from the mestizos. We’ve been told by our grandparents that we are one piece.”

She also asked the fellows if it was different for them to travel to New York and Geneva to which they replied no because they remained Indigenous. Saco then took the time to explain that “in some communities, if Indigenous were to travel, they would say that you are not Indigenous anymore. In the Peruvian mainstream media, people who are exposed to more technology or exposed to non-Indigenous things, they would be considered not as Indigenous.”

For Saco, the conversations she had with Indigenous Peruvian fellows showed that these Indigenous leaders can co-constitute their identities. They do not have to be what Saco describes as “either/or.” They have so many identities.

Saco spent the last part of her talk discussing how Indigenous people participate in the UN. Saco found that Indigenous people navigate this space in different ways and that some leaders are more acquainted with this mechanism than others. She highlighted the resources and power the UN  has, specifically pointing out how “you have to fly twenty-four hours to come to New York to give a three-minute speech.”  

Despite these resources, Saco stated that there is remove for improvement. She acknowledged that the UN had a “language problem” that severely restricted some Indigenous members when it came to getting their message across due to the UN’s limited official language list. 

“In some ways, the UN is not as flexible as we wish,” Saco said. “There has been so many years, so much work to get into these spaces that we have to acknowledge. There is more way to go.”

United Nations via Wikimedia Commons