U.S. May Back Indigenous Rights, But Not Accountability for Them

The administration has given itself plenty of wiggle room on the global stage.

By Michelle Chen Oct 27, 2010

Well before America was known as the land of plenty, it was a land of plunder. About four centuries after the first colonial encounter set off a wave of destruction, the continent’s displaced indigenous communities are still looking for home. They remain largely alienated from international frameworks protecting the rights of native peoples. 

Lately, the White House has inched toward reconciliation by boosting funding and social services in Indian Country. And in an unprecedented pivot in the international arena, the Obama administration even suggested it may endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which the U.S. rejected in 2007 despite overwhelming international approval).

Yet a close reading of the administration’s words and deeds reveals plenty of room to wriggle out of diplomatic promises.

In anticipation of the U.S. government’s Nov. 5 appearance before a U.N. working group charged with evaluating member states’ human rights records, the U.S. Human Rights Network has published a massive compilation of reports documenting an array of alleged abuses, many of them perpetrated against migrants and native groups. The violations documented include racial profiling and environmental devastation of tribal lands by industries like uranium mining.

In recent years, many indigenous rights groups have appealed to international bodies like the United Nations But beyond the public-shame effect, such moves exert little direct leverage over government, especially since the U.S. can easily wriggle out of international standards and oversight.

In Indian Country Today, Suzanne Jasper of First Peoples Human Rights Coalition found some interesting verbal sleights in Washington’s response to a recent U.N. resolution on the "Right to Development." The U.S. rejected a paragraph stating that signatories were committed to "recognizing the critical need to address the negative impact of poverty and inequity on indigenous peoples by ensuring their full and effective inclusion in development and poverty eradication programmes." 

Apparently, that language made Washington uneasy, as Jasper explains:

In explaining the negative U.S. vote, the U.S. representative claimed concern "by the appearance of extraneous topics in the draft. … such as indigenous peoples, among others." Given that indigenous peoples globally and nationally have often been described as the "poorest of the poor" and that violations of their right to development are at the heart of the poverty which has been imposed on them, it is shocking to hear a representative of the State Department claim that indigenous concerns are "extraneous" and a valid reason for the United States to vote against the Right to Development….

On a key issue, the U.S. is maintaining its same decades-old problematic position. This denial is particularly important to indigenous peoples, since the fundamental right of self-determination is a "right of peoples," articulated in essential human rights Covenants, and is therefore a collective human right.

The White House tends to invoke indigenous people’s rights when trying to soften America’s image as a global hegemon. Washington’s own recent human rights review–a 29-page outline of race and gender inequalities in voting rights, education, and health care issues, among others–spends a few paragraphs on President Obama’s efforts to "consult" with tribes on entrenched problems like poverty, disease and violent crime in native communities.

But the government’s definition of "consultation" doesn’t quite fly with many tribal advocates. After presenting a litany of corporate environmental harms, a coalition of native advocacy organizations concludes:

The United States as a matter of practice, does not consult in good faith with Indigenous Tribes, Peoples and Nations affected by these and other devastating projects on lands outside of reservation boundaries, even though many of these Sacred Areas are of great cultural and spiritual significance to Native Peoples and are subject to Aboriginal Title as well as legally binding Treaties between Indigenous Peoples and the State.

This isn’t news to anyone in Washington. Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court called out the government for violating the 1979 Ft. Laramie Treaty with the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota of the Great Sioux Nation. On the issue of the seizure of tribal lands, the court stated that "a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in the history of our nation."

The USHRN report argues, "A just, fair process in the US to address, adjudicate and correct these and other Treaty violations with the full participation and agreement of all Treaty Parties has never been established."

The Obama administration has boasted of pushing through measures to address chronic problems in Indian Country. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice announced at a Geneva conference various policies targeting native communities, including better funding for Indian Health Services, $3 billion for economic recovery and more support for tribal law enforcement to combat sexual violence.

In the courts, community groups recently celebrated a legal settlement between the USDA and Native American farmers, which offered them hefty financial restitution after decades of alleged discrimination in farm-lending programs. That follows another landmark settlement to compensate Native American households bilked by the government’s land trust system.

Despite these incremental gains, native peoples’ sovereignty is still compromised by a lack of direct recourse in the international arena. Even if the administration endorsed the indigenous people’s rights declaration, they wouldn’t be obligated to enshrine those principles in domestic policy or jurisprudence.

At minimum, the declaration stands as an aspirational framework for holding Washington accountable. So what matters most is not what the government has grudgingly pledged to do, but how activists choose to embrace and defend the declaration as a global contract. Native people’s sovereignty doesn’t derive from a document but from a fundamental sense of justice. So when communities go to court to challenge environmental pollution or occupy ancestral grounds to resist industrial land grabs, they move in pursuit of inalienable rights. And the government can follow or get out of the way.