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Sister Mary Rae Waller, OP, left, and Rose Johnson, a member of the People of the Four Winds, a local group of Indigenous people and those who work with them, in front of the symbol of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

June 4, 2024, New York, New York – Indigenous People need to be accepted for who they are and for the gifts they bring to the world and need to be offered a place at the table, especially when decisions are being made in the area of sustainability and restoring Earth. 

Those were the takeaways of Sister Mary Rae Waller, OP, and Rose Johnson after they attended the first week of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP, Dominican UN representative, and the Dominican Leadership Conference (DLC) sponsored the women’s attendance at the Forum. (Read more about Sister Durstyne’s experience of the Forum.) 

Rose, of Comanche and Aztec descent, is a member of the People of the Four Winds, an evolving group based in Adrian and composed of people with Native ancestry, people who serve in Native communities, and other interested people. Sister Mary Rae is of Cherokee heritage. 

The 23rd session of the forum, held April 15-26, 2024, drew 2,000 participants from around the world in addition to UN delegates. The theme was “Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Self-Determination in the Context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” 

The United Nations first issued its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. The formal UN proceedings focused on ways for Indigenous Peoples to enhance their rights to self-determination through such means equal access to funding.

Rose and Sister Mary Rae attended side events – workshops and forums offered by civil society, UN governments, and their NGO partners. They came away from the Forum with new perspectives – and a new understanding of their identity. In the opening session, David Choquehuanca, Vice President of Bolivia, encouraged participants to embrace awareness of themselves as “Ancestral Peoples” rather than Indigenous Peoples. 

“Indigenous relates to something that’s boxed, put away,” Sister Mary Rae explained. “Ancestral embodies memories of healing, memories as guardians of life relationships on Earth.”

We speak for ourselves, Rose said. “We talk about our own ideas as ours. It comes from generational ancestors. We all have a gift of some sort that we can speak out about.” 

Rose and Sister Mary Rae focused on the need for the governments and the mainstream culture to listen to Indigenous Peoples in the area of the environment. “We ask that you see we carry in our genes the memory of how to keep in balance,” Sister Mary Rae said. “We ask of you, let us bring our insight, our experience, and our knowledge to help save Earth. We’re not asking that you don’t have all your advancements but invite us to the table.”

Much of the conference focused on climate change and on mining companies that have been moving into native lands without their permission. Rose and Sister Mary Rae attended a reflection session by Indigenous Peoples of South America, focusing on mining practices and on mining companies that came into the Amazon 10 years ago, cutting down trees and bulldozing. The UN began to monitor the mining companies, beginning a process in which the miners would first have to engage with the Indigenous Peoples.  

“What they’re doing is killing the bloodline of Earth with their mining and stripping,” Rose said. “Mother Earth gives us everything we need when we need it … Mother Earth can heal herself if you give her time.”

Sister Mary Rae gave an example of the healing power of Earth. Part of the Amazon rainforest was destroyed and went barren, she said. “The ancestral people came in, began working with and nurturing her, and she came back to life. Earth has her own life force and if it’s nurtured and brought back into balance, it can be restored,” she said.

Rose and Sister Mary Rae also reflected on efforts in the past to kill the culture of Indigenous Peoples. Rose pointed to the boarding schools in the United States that tried to force children to adapt to the white European culture. Some children lost the use of their native language in the boarding schools, she added.

The boarding schools followed the notion of “kill the Indian and save the person,” Rose said. But “you can’t kill the Indian. You can’t kill what God made in our hearts. You can’t kill our soul, even though they tried.”

Rose added that she felt safe at the UN. “I was amazed,” she said. “The first thing I thought of was that could have been shot not long ago for all of us being together.” In the opening session that began with a procession that included an Ecuadorian drum and a pan flute, “I knew I was in the right place,” Rose said. “It was really an interesting time, and I definitely would do it again.” 

Sister Mary Rae sees hope in the healing of relationships between Indigenous Peoples and people of the dominant culture. “The advances in society have given us the opportunity, and the mindset of the United Nations has really helped so much with advancing the rights of all the people,” she said. “We still have a long way to go, and I felt the commitment to stay the course.”

Sunset with a tower of rocks reflected in some water.

This workshop has been cancelled as of 6/13/24. May 24, 2024, Adrian, Michigan – Meditation is a discipline that strengthens the ability to rest, concentrate, and listen to the quiet, still essence. An Introduction and/or Refresher to Meditation allows participants to try this life skill that applies to daily life and spiritual pursuits. This in-person session is held from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Weber Retreat and Conference Center.

Carol Blotter has offered more than 70 retreats and taught more than 80 classes on meditation since 1999. She draws her meditation practice from dual roots in the Quaker and Buddhist traditions. 

The cost is only $25 for the workshop and $35 for those who plan to stay for lunch. Registration is required. Visit www.webercenter.org and click on “programs,” call 517-266-4000, or email webercenter@adriandominicans.org. Limited scholarships are available.

Weber Center is on the campus of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse, Adrian, Michigan. Traveling east on Siena Heights Drive, pass the Adrian Rea Literacy Center and turn left just before the solar panel-covered carport. Follow the signs to Weber Center. For information, call the Weber Center at 517-266-4000.



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