By Mike McAndrew
January 30, 2008
For the next three years, an Onondaga Nation woman will represent millions of Native Americans in the United Nations, trying to persuade diplomats to recognize the rights of indigenous people.
Tonya Gonnella Frichner will spend most of her time in Manhattan as North America’s regional representative to the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Frichner, an attorney who has been active in U.N. issues for more than 20 years, is at ease with the highly stylized language and customs of the U.N. She has met with foreign presidents and ambassadors
But she feels at home in the Onondaga Nation Longhouse and in Syracuse, where she grew up.
Last weekend, she traveled to the Onondaga Longhouse to brief the nation’s chiefs and clan mothers on some issues she has been working on for them.
Frichner is not the nation’s lawyer or its land claim counsel. For years, the American Indian Law Alliance, a not-for-profit organization she runs, has done research for the Onondaga and five other Indian nations in the Haudenosaunee.
She advised the Onondaga Nation on flag protocol when it asked the LaFayette School District to raise the Haudenosaunee flag outside its high school. She has helped the Onondaga and the Iroquois National lacrosse team resolve visa issues with foreign governments.
Frichner, 60, has devoted her life to promoting the welfare of Native Americans – although she has no Onondaga children, she cannot live on the Onondaga territory because she is married to a non-native, and none of her seven siblings live at Onondaga.
“It isn’t about me,” said Frichner, who said she works for the collective good of indigenous people. “The satisfaction of doing something I believe in . . . that’s a great gift.”
Kimberly Tobian, of Chaffee Avenue, said that helping native people has always been her older sister’s love.
It’s her calling. It always has been. Even when we were younger, she would say I want to help our people. She wanted to make a difference,” said Tobian, a homemaker with four children.
Frichner was raised on Burnet Avenue by her late mother, Maxine Gonnella, an Onondaga, and her late Italian-American father, Hank Gonnella Sr. One of Frichner’s late uncles, Leo Nolan, was an Onondaga chief. Her mother was involved in the Native American Service Club and in establishing a Native American curriculum in Syracuse’s public schools.
Frichner is married to Herb Frichner, a businessman and professor. They live in northern New Jersey.
The UN established its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000. In addition to Frichner, there are 15 other representatives who lead the forum.
Frichner is the first Onondaga named to the unpaid U.N. post.
“This is a big coup for us,” she said. “It is cause for celebration.”
Frichner was appointed by Dalius Cekuolis, the Lithuanian ambassador to the U.N., who was president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. Her term began Jan. 1.
Frichner has worked on issues before the U.N. for years.
Last September, she and Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons and others helped win U.N. approval of a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The non-binding declaration affirms the rights of indigenous populations to self-government in matters relating to their internal affairs and prohibits discrimination against them.
The United States was one of only four U.N. countries to vote against the declaration.
Frichner said she looks forward to meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in the coming year to discuss the United States’ opposition.
She is also looking forward to April, when up to 2,000 indigenous people from around the world will visit the U.N. for the Permanent Forum’s 10-day conference on climate change.
Sometimes the slow pace of the United Nations can be maddening, Frichner said. But she said the U.N. remains the best international forum for promoting peace and human rights.
Mike McAndrew can be reached at 470-3016 or firstname.lastname@example.org