Episcopal delegates to UN Indigenous forum focus on missing, murdered people

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted May 3, 2024

Idaho Episcopalian Ronald Braman, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, spoke during the 23rd annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, April 15-26, 2024, to address the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the United States. Photo: Lynnaia Main

[Episcopal News Service] A two-member Episcopal delegation attended the 23rd annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues April 15-26 in New York City to address global Indigenous issues as they pertain to human rights, social and economic development, culture, the environment, health and education.

Speakers on the main floor of the U.N. gathering discussed topics relating to this year’s theme, “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.”

Idaho Episcopalian Ronald Braman, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, spoke during the “Regional Interactive Dialogue between Indigenous Peoples and Member States – North America” session to address the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the United States.

“There’s always more work that can be done. … How are we supposed to address these points?” Braman told Episcopal News Service. “Addressing this issue is challenging because there is a lot of discrimination that’s allowing for this to happen, and getting the media and public to pay attention [is a challenge].”

In the United States, more than 1.5 million Indigenous American women – 84.3% of the population – have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to data from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. They are more than twice as likely to experience violence than women from any other demographic. More than half of the total Indigenous American population, most of whom are young women, have experienced sexual violence.

Episcopal delegates draft a three-minute statement to present on the main floor each year. South Dakota Episcopalian Melissa “Misse” Chapman Skinner, a member of the Standing Rock and Santee Nations, said she and Braman decided to address missing and murdered Indigenous people this year because it’s a topic they’re both passionate about. Last year’s Episcopal delegation to the forum submitted a statement on Indigenous boarding schools.

“Every year, we take the information we gather at the permanent forum and say we’re going to work on some [other] issue for the next year, but it still seems like we’re coming back year after year and we’re addressing the same issues,” she said. “Why are we not finding solutions? We keep seeing this situation is getting worse, but there must be a way to fix it.”

In 2022, General Convention passed a resolution calling on congregations and dioceses to engage in state and local advocacy efforts addressing missing and murdered Indigenous women and all women and girls of color.

The permanent forum presents Indigenous people an opportunity to share their stories, experiences and expertise with global leaders. Since its establishment in 2000, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has coordinated and commissioned more than 64 studies and reports, as well as 60 publications.

Skinner said she looks forward to participating in the forum every year. She said this year was special because her daughter, Charleigh Bass, who is also a member of the Winnebago Nation, attended the forum with her.

During the 23rd annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, April 15-26, 2024, Idaho Episcopalian Ronald Braman, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, led a Native American round dance, which features heavily percussive music. Photo: Misse Chapman Skinner

“My daughter has seen me do this work, but not quite at this level,” Skinner said. “And it was great just having the youth there and seeing young people stand behind the speaker [together] as one on the floor. They were not afraid to share or say certain things within their statement. You don’t always see that even from permanent member states.”

Skinner and Braman both said they were surprised by the low turnout of young participants despite this year’s theme surrounding youth. Skinner said Bass was “bummed” because she was looking forward to interacting with fellow Indigenous people in her age group.

Skinner and Braman attributed the low youth turnout to not knowing how to safely navigate around New York City, which could especially be difficult for people who don’t speak English. Inadequate funding and high travel costs are also factors. Skinner and Braman also said young Indigenous people might be turned off by the U.N. having a business-like structure that’s “very colonial in its setup.”

Still, they said, the forum was a “great opportunity” for networking and for Episcopal delegates to share The Episcopal Church’s ongoing work to address the intergenerational trauma many Native Americans live with today, and how to best engage in advocacy and reconciliation. Despite the ongoing nature of these issues, Skinner and Braman said the church has been successful in confronting its complicity in Indigenous boarding schools, which were designed to assimilate Native Americans into the dominant white culture and erase Indigenous languages and traditions.

The church has been a leader in holding itself accountable in other ways, as well. In 2009, The Episcopal Church became the first Christian body to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a centuries-old theological and political doctrine used to justify colonization and the oppression of Indigenous people. The church’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery has lent the Episcopal delegation some credibility, Skinner and Braman said.

“Misse and I are very fortunate, and I think we do a great job with being very personable and getting to know the room. We’re now getting recognition from people,” Braman said. “It used to be that as soon as we said, ‘Episcopal Church,’ people would just shut down and be like, ‘Oh, gross.’ But we’ve worked around that and have made a lot of good friends here. People are listening to us and we’re getting called on a lot more to speak on the floor.”

Skinner and Braman said they plan to share the information they collected from this year’s permanent forum with them at the 81st General Convention, June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.

During the forum, participants celebrated their Indigenous heritage by wearing tribal regalia and sharing cultural traditions, including music. Braman, who serves as music director of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fort Hall, Idaho, led a Native American round dance, which features heavily percussive music.

“This goes back to our Native American community and our way of life. It’s a celebration,” Skinner said. “We come from around the world and meet in New York City to advocate and discuss important issues, but this is also a time to take a moment and just be together.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.


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