Indian Law Resource Center fights for indigenous rights

3/24/08

BILLINGS, Mont. - ''Why didn't they vote for the basic rights of Indian people? What's up with that?'' Valerie Taliman asked, referring to the only four countries with sizable indigenous populations - Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States - that voted against the U.N.'s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Taliman, director of communications for the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and former editor of Indian Country Today, spoke at Montana State University - Billings about the rights of indigenous people March 11.

''I love speaking to young audiences,'' Taliman said, ''because we can make a difference.''

She said that while the United States, and its current presidential administration in particular, postures itself as the defender of democracy and human rights, it has ignored the very rights of America's longest inhabitants.

''So while they're out saving human rights around the world, they really should brush up on a lot of our rights as indigenous people,'' Taliman said.

She gave examples of people still fighting for their own land rights from the tribes fighting against the encroachment of developers around Bear Butte in South Dakota, an area deemed sacred by many tribes; as well as Mayans in Guatemala who were removed because a nickel mining company took over their land earlier this year; and Inuits being forcefully resettled from their Hebron and Nutak lands in Canada in the 1950s to Labrador, their current housing projects, where they ended up with the dubious statistic of having the highest documented suicide rate in the world according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Suicidology.

The Australian government has recently apologized to the country's Aborigine population for taking away their children for cultural assimilation among other abuses, a policy that mirrors that of the United States, where children were sent to boarding schools far from home to learn to assimilate fully into another culture by erasing all that was known to them and what their elders taught them.

Such policies have lead to the lingering pretentious attitudes that still exist today toward Natives. Taliman said that in turn has lead to racist policies that have made presumptions about who Natives are as a people.

''It's the 'ward of the government' mentality,'' Taliman said, ''a mentality that says that 'Indians aren't smart enough to handle their own resources.'

''I get tired of the rhetoric that Indians are just living off of the government,'' she said. ''I think the government is living off of us.''

A portion of the film, ''Our Land, Our Life,'' was presented to the people in attendance at MSU - B. The film was primarily about Western Shoshone grandmother Carrie Dann's struggle against the Bureau of Land Management, and her fight to maintain her cattle- and horse-grazing land and way of life as her ancestors had known. She and her livestock were eventually removed from the ancestral land, which was then strip-mined heavily for gold. The irony of those Shoshone's horses being taken away, when 200 years ago the famous Shoshone Sacajawea - whose face appears on the gold-colored dollar coin - had helped Lewis and Clark obtain horses on their famous trek, was not overlooked.

And in spite of the overwhelming political support from the world as proven by the U.N. vote, ''Very few tribes use the U.N. resolution laws to put pressure on the U.S. to honor these rights,'' Taliman said. ''So when they say they want their land back when it was taken without their consent, the United States government basically says, 'You know, you waited too long to file your land claim,' even though it has been in court for years. And that's playing double on the law. It happens to Indians all the time.

''We're not trying to play the 'tragic victims,' but we should be able to determine our own future.''

The ILRC has a plan in order to push back and prepare for the current and foreseeable future battles that will be hard-fought through legal litigation.

''The Indian Law Resource Center is trying to recruit at least seven young people to begin learning how to advocate for indigenous rights at the international level - at the United Nations and Organization of American States,'' Taliman noted. ''We conduct training sessions and we have internships at our law firm.

''Silence is your consent. We need to speak out.''

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