Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In 2007, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  The Declaration provides a framework for justice and reconciliation, applying existing human rights standards to the specific historical, cultural and social circumstances of Indigenous peoples.

Quakers have a long history of arguing for the rights of indigenous people.

The Treaty of Shackamaxon in 1684 between William Penn and the Lenape (Deleware) tribe of Native Americans was said by Voltaire to be the only treaty “never sworn to and never broken” and has been the basis of long-standing trust between the Quakers and the First Nations.

In the 1760s, John Woolman travelled among Native Americans.  With characteristic humility, he wrote that he was concerned: “that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them.”

James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, travelling in Australia in 1834, wrote that:

We cannot but deprecate the short-sighted policy by which the lands of the aboriginal inhabitants have been wrested from them, with little or no regard for their natural and indefeasible rights.

In 1837 Meeting for Sufferings of London Yearly Meeting established The Aborigines Committee. As their report from 1842 shows, Quakers in North America, Australia and New Zealand were troubled by the “aggravated sufferings and oppressions inflicted on the uncivilised portions of the great human family, by the cupidity and avarice of merely nominal Christians.”

However, as the American Friends Service Committee wrote in 1997: “the Quaker record is not without its failures to understand and embrace the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. Quaker practices were often blind to the effects of colonialism and assimilation on the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Prompted by a desire to improve the conditions found on Reservations in the 1860s and 70s, Quakers took part in US President Grant's pacification programme. Different First Nations were’ handed out' to various religious groups, who would act as Indian agents to ‘Christianize and pacify' them.  Quakers were also key supporters of Richard H. Pratt’s programme of taking native children away from reservations and educating them at boarding schools – a pattern that was repeated in Canada and Australia.   Sadly, the long term consequence of these programmes was to strip many indigenous people of their cultural heritage.

Today it is understood that recognising the equality of indigenous people means giving equal respect to their culture.  In this spirit, Quaker groups in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Bolivia and elsewhere work with indigenous groups in support of their human rights.

The Quaker Bolivia Link is an international development organisation that, since 1995, has worked to reduce poverty among the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.  Sixty-five percent of Bolivian people are indigenous Andean, many of whom are poor and marginalised.  QBL works alongside indigenous groups on community-based projects to secure food sources, promote better health, and generate income.

In Canada, the Quaker Aboriginal Affairs Committee has worked with indigenous groups since 1974 on many issues including land rights, and child welfare issues.  Today they are campaigning against discriminatory funding of children’s services that leads to a disproportionate number of indigenous children being taken into foster care.

In the US, the Friends Committee on National Legislation has a longstanding commitment to representing Native American issues.  In their statement on legislative policy, they wrote: “Treaties and trust agreements reflect solemn promises and must be honored.”

In Australia, the Friends’ Indigenous Concerns Committee supports sovereignty and self-determination for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.   In a submission to a Senate enquiry in 2010, wrote that:  “How Aboriginal people and communities choose to interact with broader Australian ‘values’ should be left to them and negotiated between respected equals, not between coloniser and the colonised.”

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, Friends support the Maori people’s right to have the Treaty of Waitangi honoured. In a statement issued in 1989, they acknowledged that: “honouring the Treaty will have implications for our personal and collective lives… it will certainly involve equitable sharing of resources and giving up by Pakeha [non-Maoris] of exclusive decision-making in the institutions of society.”

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