Student praying during a prayer at Bossey, Indigenous communities

Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

The theme was “Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination in the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: emphasizing the voices of Indigenous youth.”

The WCC representatives at the forum noted that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, upholds the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination in all matters—including spiritual matters.

The Ecumenical Indigenous Peoples Network has placed priority on advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights to spiritual self-determination. To demonstrate to the international Indigenous community that Indigenous ways of being are accepted within Christian practices, the WCC delegation led a morning prayer service at the UN Church Centre, facilitated by the WCC Ecumenical Office to the United Nations. 

The service featured a number of Indigenous languages in readings and hymns, and followed a liturgy relevant to Indigenous peoples. Forty people arose very early in Hawaii to follow a live-stream of the service, which featured a sermon by Papa Makua Wendell Davis, associate minister for the Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches (United Church of Christ, USA), and a worship hula” dance by his daughter Puakailima Wendell.

The World Council of Churches delegation to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 15 April 2024, United Nations, New York, Photo: Rebekka Read/WCC

The World Council of Churches delegation to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues lead a morning prayer prior to the start of the Forum’s 23rd session, 15 April 2024, United Nations, New York, Photo: Rebekka Read/WCC

Expressing concerns

Delegates spent four days attending the forum sessions for purposes of orienting themselves to the work of the forum. It had been five years since the WCC sent a delegate to the forum so this marked a first step for the newly-constituted reference group to re-engage with the forum. 

As youth voices were a featured theme of the session, many young Indigenous peoples addressed the forum to speak to work that is still needed.

A repeated concern was that the issues being brought forward were the same ones brought forward year after year as there has been little concrete action on them.

The most prominent theme of all speakers, young and old, was the need to support Indigenous peoples’ land rights, and the need to protect Indigenous land defenders, many of whom continue to experience significant violence as they seek to defend their territories and peoples.

The WCC delegation  attended a commemoration the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the outcome document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

Delegates also took part in several side events on topics such as Indigenous spirituality; Indigenous identity fraud; and efforts to enhance Indigenous participation at the UN, including in the General Assembly. 

An Indigenous spirituality side event featured Indigenous art, music, dance, and food and engaged the audience in meaningful ways. 

Showing solidarity

The delegation also participated in a side event about Indigenous languages, as well as two days participating in a consultation with Indigenous peoples from North and South America organized by the World Communion of Reformed Churches. 

This included attending a World Communion of Reformed Churches-led worship service at the UN Church Centre, again facilitated by WCC Ecumenical Office to the United Nations. 

Rev. Mari Valjakka, moderator of the WCC Ecumenical Indigenous Peoples Network Reference Group, commented, Christian churches and other faith communities have many Indigenous members around the globe. I think that the world's largest gathering for Indigenous Peoples is a good place for us to network; share experiences; show solidarity to other Indigenous peoples, who are often silenced by those in power; and strengthen the voice of Indigenous peoples by gathering together.”

Juan Chavez, from Bolivia, an anthropology PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, is a member of the WCC reference group. He reflected that the forum provides a valuable opportunity to gain insights into the work other institutions are doing.

“Obtaining a US visa and ensuring safety for land defenders who face potential retaliation for speaking out against injustice at home remain ongoing challenges,” he said. The forum provides a platform to share and discuss ongoing challenges, even for issues that haven't seen recent drastic changes.”

The forum also offers a unique platform to connect with fellow Indigenous peoples worldwide, learn their stories, and understand the struggles they face, added Chavez. While colonialism and nation-building projects present similar challenges for most indigenous people, the ways these challenges manifest can vary greatly.”

Chavez also reflected that the forum brings together participants with diverse backgrounds, lived experiences, and institutional affiliations. This richness can make grasping the nuances of complex issues challenging,” he said. A lack of understanding, in turn, can hinder efforts to support causes and reconcile differing perspectives.”

He added that the forum recognizes the importance of both multilateral and bilateral dialogue. While it provides a platform for sharing stories and perspectives globally, complex issues often require more targeted discussion,” he said. Supporting Indigenous communities on a case-by-case basis can pave the way for fostering essential dialogue between state officials and Indigenous leaders, ultimately aiming to find solutions to specific challenges.”


"WCC brings insights to UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples" (WCC news release, 16 April 2024)

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