Thursday, December 3, 2009

The 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions opens with Indigenous networking

Today - December 3rd - was opening day. The Opening Plenary wasn’t until 7:30pm, but that didn’t keep the day from starting early.

My wife* Anna and I met fellow CoG National Interfaith Reps. Rowan Fairgrove and Rachael Watcher around 10:30am at a local coffee shop. They were accompanied by Raul Mamani, a member of the Kolla tribe of Argentina.

Raul is the Director of the Initiativa Indigena Global. The IIG is a network of indigenous practitioners from across Latin America, working together to preserve indigenous spiritual practices. They formed several years ago under the auspices of the United Religions Initiative. While there have been organizing efforts among indigenous people before, they 1) have usually formed in opposition to existing “mainstream” inter-religious networks, and 2) have focused on indigenous people and their rights and culture. In contrast, the IIG wants to work within the framework of the existing global interfaith networks (both for convenience and so that each group can learn from the other). Also, the IIG focuses on preserving indigenous spirituality. To them, “the indigenous” are “those who live a life of ceremony in honor of Mother Earth”. To them, this DOES include Wiccans and DOESN”T include those members of their own tribes who have converted away from the traditional spiritualities.

This last is an important distinction. Those tribal people who convert to Christianity usually end up better educated, wealthier, and more integrated with modern, Western society. As a result, when interfaith organizations go looking for indigenous representation, they are most likely to meet (and most likely to feel comfortable with) Christian indigenous people. Such a person’s indigenous culture may end up being represented, but their traditional spirituality is often left behind. IIG is trying to redress this.

CoG-members have been working with the IIG since 2002, including attending meetings in Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Ayacucho (Peru), Foz do Iguacu (Brazil), and – just last September – Cusco (Peru). At the meeting in Cusco, the IIG became partners with the Lost & Endangered Religions Project (

The Lost & Endangered Religions Project, assisted by CoG-members, raised money to help get Raul to this Parliament. The IIG currently includes representatives from 8 tribes in 14 countries, yet if Raul wasn’t here there would be only two Latin American tribes (represented by two gentlemen from Brazil and Peru). The language barrier is a huge one. All over the world, English is the language people from different countries use when they get together in regional interfaith meetings… except in Latin America. There, there is no incentive to learn anything other than Spanish. This has resulted in Latin America being “walled off” in a way from the rest of the interfaith world. This problem is worse for indigenous people, for whom Spanish may be a second language.

Anyway, after many years of networking within Latin America, the IIG is trying to reach beyond Latin America to connect with other indigenous practitioners around the world. Attending a Parliament of the World’s Religions is a great way to make such connections.

We all went over to the Convention Center at 11:00am to check in and to get Raul registered. The Convention Center was a zoo, with colorful robes substituting for bright plumage. While the many Parliament Volunteers did their very best to be very helpful, many were just as confused as the rest of us as to where to go to get various tasks done. Add to this the fact that the Convention Center is HUGE, and many tasks involved walking from one end to the other.

In fact, Anna says that the city slogan should be: “Melbourne. It’s bigger than you think!” Everyone we have spoken with has commented on how large things are, how far apart they are, how long the city blocks are, etc. Hotels that seemed to be conveniently located are turning out to be more than 20-30 minutes walk away.

The other factor complicating the first day of EVERY Parliament is that it is impossible to walk more than a few feet without bumping into someone you know with whom you haven’t spoken in a year or more. I personally know over 200 people attending this Parliament. That’s one of the frustrations, maybe, but definitely a big part of the fun! The only thing better than traveling to new and unusual parts of the world is having hundreds of friends there sharing it with you.

After we got our registrations sorted out and walked away carrying Parliament bags with the 390-page program guide, we got a quick bite at a food court near the Center, and then we split up. Rowan and Anna went to reception hosted by local Neopagans (called just “Pagans” here). Rachael, Raul, and I went to the reception hosted by Parliament’s Indigenous Task Force for visiting indigenous people at 2:00pm.

We ran into several Parliament organizers who were also attending. Rachel (who can translate for Raul) and I made the rounds of the room, making a point of connecting Raul with indigenous representatives who might be interested in the IIG. We spoke with Task Force Director Omie Baldwin (Dine / USA), Dr. Joseph Henry Suina (Hopi / USA), Mandaza Augustine Kandemwa (Shona / Zimbabwe), and several others before the reception officially started with Parliament Chair Bill Lesher talking about how appropriate it was to have the first official meeting of this Parliament be one with the First Nations people. Several Aboriginal speakers welcomed us to their land. One very good speaker told us how he had a real problem with the term “reconciliation”, since there was never a positive relationship between Europeans and Aboriginals to start with and they were just now starting from scratch.

After reception, we bumped into Sarah Talcott, the youth organizer for the United Religions Initiative. With her was Aynte Abdihakam, a graduate student in Mogadishu who is creating the first interfaith organization in Somalia. I have been Mentoring him through the URI, but we had never met. Unfortunately, we only had time to exchange local phone numbers and plan to meet later. (More on this later.)

Racahel, Raul, and I reconnected with Anna and raced to a nearby (Hah!) hotel to meet with about a dozen folks from the Interfaith Center at the Presidio at 4:00pm. I serve on the ICP Board and Rachael is part of the ICP’s webcasting team. We are webcasting the Parliament – live as much as possible – through our website: The team was meeting to work out assignments for taping and interviewing. There is so much happening ands so much to do that the meeting felt like a huge wave and I was clinging to a surfboard trying not to wipe out. And I’m not even part of the webcasting team proper.

With not enough time left to get dinner, we raced to the Center to get seats for the Opening Plenary at 7:30pm. Rachael’s scooter helped us get seats towards the front. As usual, the opening was an extravaganza in which everyone ran too long. What was supposed to end at 9:00pm didn’t finish until 10:00pm.

The program had four basic components:

-- WELCOMES from local Aboriginal elders, The Chair and Vice-Chair of the Parliament, the Governor of Victoria, the MP Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, and a Melbourne city Councilor.

-- MUSIC by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra with Aboriginal performance groups included as well in interesting blends of classical and Aboriginal music and dance.

-- BLESSINGS: Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Aboriginal, and Shinto.

-- KEYNOTE SPEAKERS: Rabbi David Saperstein, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi (on her work creating and support grass-roots schools for girls in Afghanistan), and His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

It was good, but loonnngggg, and many folks were fading by the end or cutting out early.

We stuck it out. Rachael was not feeling well and returned to her hotel, but Anna, Raul, and I went in search of late-night food at the food court at the Casino next door (the largest in the Southern Hemisphere!). Here, we serendipitously ran into Yoland Trevino (Mayan / USA), the Chair of the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative, along with two other women with whom Inhad served on the URI’s Global Council, Marites Africa and Shakuntala Vaswami-Moorjani (both from the Phillippines). We were able to chat over dinner about upcoming programs and some meetings we need to have on URI business while we are together here.

We finally made it back to the hotel around midnight, leaving me a couple of hours to get this report together.

I’m sorry, Thorn, but I don’t think I’ll make your opening meditation tomorrow.

BTW, if you want to see what’s being offered, the Parliament program book – all 390 pages – is online as a .pdf at

More to come…

Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative

* For you CoG-members reading this… Remember, our new blog is public and the public doesn’t yet know who all of us are and how we are connected.


  1. OK, since I was snooty and kind of a jerk in my comment on the previous post, let me say that I found the discussion in this post concerning the difficulties facing indigenous people who resist conversion to be extremely valuable and informative. I realize that there are no easy answers, and one does have to, somehow, navigate in "this world".

  2. Hi-Just a minor correction-- the meet and greet party for visiting (Neo)Pagans and Australian Pagans was actually hosted by Angie Buchanan, the first Pagan on CPWR's Board of Trustees, who was a keynote speaker at COG's Merrymeet Annual Meeting in Western Massachusetts in 2007. It was held in a hotel suite with an arresting view over the Yarra river, with Melbourne's skyline spread out before us. There were about 40-45 people jammed into the space,and conversation was lively and loud! It was good to schmooze with Pagans from Oz, and to hear about their ongoing battles for recognition. --Anna Korn