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Edward Peterson

2003 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship Site: Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance, Quezon City, Philippines

By Pat McGroarty


“I’ve been interested in the Philippines since I was a little kid reading about World War II,” said Edward Peterson in a recent interview. “I finally started looking into traveling there a couple years ago by researching different NGO’s and host organizations. I found Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) and hoped to travel there to learn how their work related to my own work at the Anishinaabe Center.”

The Anishinaabe Center in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota is a non-profit, off-reservation organization serving the legal and representative needs of Minnesota’s Chippewa community, especially on the White Earth Reservation. Peterson, originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota has been working to protect Native American rights since receiving his law degree from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks in 1979.

After years working with land claim rights and in general practice areas related to Federal Indian Law, Peterson came to the Anishinaabe Center in 1999. In 2003, he received an Upper Midwest Fellowship to be completed at the FIND program in Quezon City, Philippines.

The FIND program is a non-governmental organization dedicated to searching for persons who have disappeared involuntarily, often at the hands of the corrupt Philippine government. During his month with the FIND program in the summer of 2003, Peterson toured a number of FIND facilities and attended rallies advocating for an increased awareness in the involuntary disappearance crisis. After returning to Minnesota, Peterson continued to work with the FIND program. He spent a month reviewing a proposed bill that would make the United Nations’ condemnation of involuntary disappearance at the hands of a state or government into a national law. The bill allowed criminal and civil penalties to be attached to a conviction of instigating an involuntary disappearance. That bill is still being considered by the government of the Philippines.

Although Peterson’s work at the Anishinaabe Center is not directly related to the prevention of involuntary disappearances that he observed in the FIND program, he found many parallels between the two organizations: “I was able to compare their procedure to what we do at the Anishinaabe Center, and learned a great deal. I saw how much networking the FIND program does with other NGO’s, saw how much solidarity there is between those groups, and got some great insights into how they have expanded their program. We would like to incorporate all of these ideas into our work here.”

Peterson was particularly impressed by FIND’s ability to integrate the principles of international law and the International Declaration of Human Rights into their organization’s practices: “We would like to increase the use of international law in our work here at the Anishinaabe Center. Specifically, we’d like to be involved in an international forum on Indigenous issues and to work with the Indigenous group of the United Nations.”

The Anishinaabe Center, directed by Marvin Manypenny, is where Peterson has worked as a human rights lawyer since 1999. The Center helps residents of the nearby White Earth Reservation and other Minnesotan reservations file discrimination claims with the state and federal government. Peterson also works to improve relations between reservation residents and law enforcement officials, groups who have clashed in the past.

In addition to these considerable commitments, he hopes to expand the mission of the Center: “My bigger ambition is to prepare legal strategies against falsehoods in Indian law. There are a lot of sovereignty issues in the organization of tribal government, because these people were obviously here before federal law and colonial governments. Many things in Federal Indian Law need to be fixed some day.”

As Peterson enthusiastically outlined his hopes for the future of the Anishinaabe Center, he made a point of emphasizing the role his work with the FIND program in the Phillipines has played in directing his future projects: “The Philippines is a region plagued by chronic poverty and corruption, problems that each administration has to try and make a dent in. Essentially, FIND is working for the same things we are. We are working for respect and the dignity of the human person, especially as those concepts relate to Indian law and the people living on these reservations.”

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