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Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 05:14 GMT 06:14 UK

World: Americas

Native Indians put heads together

Aztec representatives arrive at the Assembly of First Nations

By Ian Gunn in Vancouver

Up to 5,000 aboriginal leaders from America and Canada are gathering on Tuesday in the Canadian city of Vancouver.

It is the first time Indian chiefs from the two countries have met on such a scale and they say the conference will allow them to discuss issues common to native peoples in the two countries.

[ image: Chief Phil Fontaine: Calling on American Indians to join together for collective benefit]
Chief Phil Fontaine: Calling on American Indians to join together for collective benefit
Native Indians in both Canada and the US struggle with a standard of living well below their national averages.

In both countries, aboriginal leaders are constantly lobbying for land rights, economic developments and a cure for the chronic poverty in which many of their people live.

Canada's Indian leadership, the Assembly of First Nations, is holding its annual conference this week and, for the first time, they have invited members of the National Congress of American Indians.

Canada's native leader, national chief Phil Fontaine, says there is strength in numbers and both groups will gain political clout by working more closely.

In fact, he hopes the two groups will conclude the conference with a formal co-operation agreement.

Global reach

Chief Fontaine says the deal could see the Canadian assembly send its own aboriginal ambassador to Washington.

There is also talk of expanding that co-operation to eventually include indigenous people from New Zealand, South America and Asia.

But that vision is drawing criticism from some Canadian aboriginals, who say the chiefs gathering around the tables here are drifting away from their pressing issues facing natives at home.

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