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The US “Rethinks” the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, Maybe

On Tuesday, 16 December 2010, the US reversed the Bush administration’s strong opposition to the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by 143 countries in 2007 after nearly 30 years of hard-fought negotiations and activism. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States were the only four countries that voted against the Declaration in 2007.

On Tuesday, 16 December 2010, the US reversed the Bush administration’s strong opposition to the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by 143 countries in 2007 after nearly 30 years of hard-fought negotiations and activism. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States were the only four countries that voted against the Declaration in 2007. They worried that its language would contradict current law and treaty interpretations, especially those still supported legally via the Christian Doctrine of Discovery that stemmed from a 1452 Papal Bull. Activism in support of these countries changing course continued, however, and in 2009 Australia changed its position, followed by New Zealand in April 2010 and Canada in November 2010. On December 16, 2010, President Obama announced the decision at the second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, which was held not at the White House, but at the Department of the Interior nearby. In his speech he stated:

And as you know, in April, we announced that we were reviewing our position on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And today I can announce that the United States is lending its support to this declaration. The aspirations it affirms – including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples – are ones we must always seek to fulfill. And we’re releasing a more detailed statement about US support for the declaration and our ongoing work in Indian Country. But I want to be clear: What matters far more than words – what matters far more than any resolution or declaration – are actions to match those words. And that’s what this conference is about. That’s what this conference is about. That’s the standard I expect my administration to be held to.

In spite of the president’s assertion that action matters more than words, the reference to “releasing a more detailed statement” is the telling phrase, revealing the US position is going to be yet another broken promise to “Indians.” State Department spokesman, PJ Crowley, made a similar comment after the president’s speech: “Obviously, as with any international declaration, we have certain reservations that we will voice reflecting our own domestic and constitutional interests.” The other three countries voiced similar disclaimers and passed legislation after their endorsements to assure there would be no problems with the declaration all countries are careful to call, “non-binding.”

Another indication that the US reversal is politics as usual relates to the timing for this decision. The United States underwent its first UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR), an important event for Obama in light of his campaign on human rights, and received the first draft of the report on November 5, 2010. In it, the UN observers referred to the importance of the US improving its approach to Indigenous rights, especially addressing the American Indians’ subjection to poverty, unemployment, health care problems, violent crime and discrimination. A number of countries were specifically critical of the US not having signed on to UNDRIP. Notably, in July 2010, the pope appointed a permanent observer to participate in the Universal Periodic Review. In its statement on the US record, the Holy See recommended that Operation Streamline* be suspended and it asked about “the government’s decision to review its position on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” As a result of such questions and other input from observers, the official report from Geneva recommended that the United States of America “ratify [UNDRIP] without reservation.” (See section 92.1). Joshua Cooper, executive director of the Hawaii Institute for Human Rights, who is on the steering committee for the UPR, said, “When countries are under review, they like to bring something new to the table.” This seems a fairly clear mandate to the US about no longer being the last holdout to sign the declaration.

It is, of course, possible that the Obama administration is sincere about rethinking its position. His administration settled some old messes relating to allegations of discrimination against American Indian farmers and ranchers by the Department of Agriculture. He settled lawsuits over water rights for tribes in Montana and Arizona and created a scholarship fund for American Indians to go to college. During his tenure, he has appointed American Indians to some positions and has assigned significant funding to health, education and policing. He signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law, which is intended to help tribes combat drug and alcohol abuse, improve their access to criminal databases and gain greater authority to prosecute and punish criminals in Indian country. He is working with a number of First Nations educators and has inserted language into his blueprint for educational reform that encourages culturally relevant curriculum opportunities, at least for schools that win grants. Apparently, he has ordered every Cabinet agency to promote more consultation with tribal nations and, of course, his “White House summit” meetings with tribal leaders have continued.

On the other hand, next to nothing has actually happened to change the dismal health, violence, poverty and education problems on American Indian reservations. Schools are still obligated to meet state standards that are generally far from being culturally relevant. Obama announced with some pride his Indian settlement agreements for the decades-long resolution to the governments mismanagement of Indian trust funds, yet the tribes received only a fraction of what was owed and litigation will continue for years, and tens of thousands of beneficiaries will have died without seeing a penny. Furthermore, there were no apologies, no public statements of significance to reckon how this issue represented a continuation of the legacy of federal control of American Indian lands, education and financial possibilities. Private industry still trumps tribal sovereignty in more cases than I have time to describe. For example, a new federal law passed this year, restricting mail-order tobacco in the Seneca Nation, damages that tribe’s economic power and costs 2,000 jobs. Then, there is the new requirement for members of the Iroquois lacrosse team to carry US passports when traveling or they will not be let back into the country. This recent state department policy violates the sovereignty of the six Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy nations – the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Tuscarora and Cayuga. Haudenosaunee citizens have been traveling internationally on their own passports for more than 30 years. Such a policy under the Obama administration did not even exist under Bush! This is yet another example of a contradiction with UNDRIP and the president’s words. There are many reasons the Iroquois honor their own passports. One has to do with national pride and identity. Another is that the team is competing as a sovereign nation and the competition requires evidence of their own national identity. The Iroquois have been allowed to use their own passports for decades after an agreement among the US, British, Canadian, and other governments. Why didn’t the president – or one of the cabinet members who has supposedly been instructed to consider Indigenous perspectives and anticipating the decision to support UNDRIP – intercede?

There are more current policies and practices by which the US government under President Obama’s administration violates the letter and the spirit of UNDRIP at home and around the world. For another example, the Indigenous Environmental Network was barred from the Cancun summit for protesting the REDD agreements that will injure forest-dependent indigenous peoples around the world. The Cancun Agreements were influenced by US backroom politics on behalf of corporate profits that fully ignored the UNDRIP intentions. UNDRIP’s success largely depends on what the world does with regard to environmental degradation and climate change. Ecological injustice is the major problem for indigenous peoples and the Cancun Agreements effectively amount to a continuation of indigenous genocide.

In spite of Obama’s commitment to Indian education, on 31 December 2010, the “Ban on ethnic studies” law went into effect in Arizona without meaningful reaction from the federal government. Occurring on the heels of noted Arizona border issues: the Tohono O’odham Reservation is being overrun by both drug smugglers and Border Patrol agents, who target the Indians as criminals – this law essentially prohibits K-12 students from learning about the reasons for and the goals of UNDRIP, continuing the anti-Indianism phenomenon that continues to oppress indigenous children subjected to a large array of insults and violence stemming from the whitewashing of American history described in my own University of Texas Press text, “Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America.”

The instances of terrorism facing indigenous peoples in the world today are legion and the examples cited above are illustrative. The US signing of the declaration is ultimately a nonevent. Coincidentally, an American Indian listener called in to the Thom Hartmann radio program’s regular time with Sen. Bernie Sanders on December 30, 2010, to ask about this historic event. Senator Sanders apologized and replied that he knew nothing about it. (Louise Hartmann did, however, mention it on her blog.)

A popular T-shirt image probably best indicates the state of affairs between the US and indigenous peoples. It depicts Geronimo and three other Chiricahua Apaches armed with rifles under the heading, “Homeland Security” followed by the phrase, “fighting terrorism since 1492.” The growing popularity of the shirt since it was marketed in 2001 and the fact that a number of non-Indian celebrities have been photographed wearing it in public, including Aerosmith, KISS, Bill Cosby and Johnny Depp, may reveal that a growing number of radical thinkers are getting the point as well. Colleen-Lloyd, aka West Wind, of Tsalagi/Chocta-Tuscarora ancestry, is the owner of the online store, West Wind World, that sells the shirt and other American Indian made clothing. Her words about it are worth sharing:

I feel like we are wearing our flag that says who we are when we wear the message after the leaders of the American people began to destroy themselves and the world by flying airplanes into their own buildings as Act 1 of The Greatest Show on Earth, and offering human rights sacrifices to Bush, the God of War and Oil.

The image of the small group of Apaches in defense mode, however clearly it reveals the absurdity of the US fighting terror rather than serving it out, does not reflect the whole of indigenous wisdom. Nearly 75 percent of pre-contact indigenous peoples were peaceful societies. The social values generally saw generosity as the highest expression of courage and, even when battles against other tribes did ensue, displays of bravery often avoided killing another. This contrasts sharply with the inclinations of the dominance forces that have shaped European cultures. If the horrifying events in Arizona have sickened people, consider how the Abbo aboriginal children of Australia were buried in the hot, baking earth and invading British held a competition to see who could kick their heads off. This vile example is difficult to imagine, but imagine we must, for this is the history of anti-Indianism. If UNDRIP becomes mere rhetoric, falling under the shadow of materialism and fear, the indigenous cultures may not survive to help us remember who we really are.

Only time will reveal whether or not the four countries will honor UNDRIP’s non-binding clauses and goals, but it seems unlikely. In any case, Obama’s rhetorical support for the declaration is not just about protecting indigenous rights and dignity. It is ultimately about regaining balance for all of us. Indigenous wisdom, especially as relates to traditional ecological knowledge and conflict resolution, may well offer our only way to mitigate the numerous catastrophes facing our collective lives on earth. Authentic dialogues and learning cannot happen, however, until we do something to release corporate and hegemonic strangleholds on indigenous nations. One cannot teach when one is struggling to survive. If President Obama is sincere and courageous enough to truly turn his words into action, this may be his greatest legacy!


* Operation Streamline is the name given to the federal court operation in Tucson, Arizona, that processes around 70 illegal immigrants a day into prison. Most of the young men and women who enter the courtroom with leg irons and arms chained are indigenous farmworkers whose ability to make a living in Mexico has been compromised by the results of NAFTA.

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