‘Honor the Treaties’: UN Human Rights Chief’s Message

Gale Courey Toensing


States need to keep their promises and honor the treaties made with Indigenous Peoples no matter when they were signed, according to the United Nations human rights chief.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement August 7 to mark  International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9.

“Even when signed or otherwise agreed more than a century ago, many treaties remain the cornerstone for the protection of the identity, land and customs of Indigenous Peoples, determining the relationship they have with the state. They are thus of major significance to human rights today,” she said.

The High Commissioner said that exploitation of Indigenous Peoples and expropriation of their lands and resources continue today and “underscore the need to do more to protect the rights of the estimated 370 million indigenous people worldwide.”

Treaties are important partly because they often marked the end of a period of conflict, exploitation and expropriation, Pillay noted. “The honoring of treaties has in many cases been described as a sacred undertaking requiring good faith by each party for their proper enforcement. Yet too often indigenous communities are obliged to go to the courts to force States to live up to their promises,” she said. “The nature of the agreements themselves, with their spirit and contents passed on through elders to future generations, reminds us of their fundamental importance,” Pillay said.

The spiritual aspect of treaty-making escaped the United States government, history tells us. The U.S. federal government entered into more than 500 treaties with Indian nations from 1778 to 1871; every one of them was “broken, changed or nullified when it served the government’s interests,” Helen Oliff wrote in “Treaties Made, Treaties Broken.”

Until the early 1800s, Indian nations were in a posiiton of strength to negotiate treaties, according to writer and scholar Robert Miller. “The newly formed United States faced internal problems and external conflicts with European countries and could not afford war with Indian tribes. Hence, early treaty-making between the United States and tribes was often favorable to the tribes,” Miller said on his blog. “After the War of 1812, though, and the relaxing of the European threat against the United States, the weakening position of tribes led to more one-sided treaty negotiations in favor of the United States.” The “weakening posiiton” was brought about by white expansion south and west, federal government policies such as Andrew Jackson’s policy of ethnic cleaning known as the Indian Removal Act and and the government’s  genocidal efforts as against the Lakota people later in the 19th century that continue today.

RELATED: The Battle for Hickory Ground

RELATED: Memorializing the Indian Removal Act of 1830

The AmerIcan Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis had a plan to repair some of  the damage done by broken treaties. In 1972, AIM issued the “Trail of Broken Treaties” 20-point Point Position Paper seeking redress from the U.S. government for the broken treaties. The recommendations included having the federal government: to establish a Treaty Commission with the power to make new treaties and guarantee that existing treaties aren’t violated; to create a committee of both Indians and non-Indians to examine treaty commitments and violations; to ratify treaties that haven’t been ratified; to ensure that there is judicial enforcement and protection of the treaty rights of American Indians; to have Congress relinquish its control over Indian affairs and instead create a joint committee called the “Committee on Reconstruction of Indian Relations and Programs;” the restoration of 110 million acres of Indian land, and more. Only a few of the recommendations have been acted on, including restoration of tribal status to the Menominee and Klamath tribes, which had been terminated in the 1905s, and passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

RELATED: American Indian Religious Freedom in Theory and Practice

The High Commissioner said the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will play and important role in promoting the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties and other arrangements concluded with states. The U.N. Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007. The U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand voted against its adoption, but all four countries later endorsed the indigenous human rights statement.

“There is a growing commitment by States to fully implement Indigenous Peoples’ rights, as shown by constitutional, legislative or administrative measures that recognize indigenous identity, rights to lands and resources, culturally appropriate forms of development, as well as programmes to tackle poverty and disadvantage,” Pillay said. “The message of this International Day of Indigenous Peoples is about building alliances and honouring treaties. This reminds us that efforts need to be redoubled to build a partnership between states and Indigenous Peoples based on trust, mutual respect, rule of law and the affirmation of Indigenous Peoples’ culture and customs,” Pillay said.

Looking ahead to the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in September 2014, Pillay encouraged states “to take concrete steps to honour and strengthen the treaties they have concluded with Indigenous Peoples and to cooperate with them in implementing new agreements or other constructive arrangements through transparent, inclusive and participatory negotiations.”

RELATED: Preparing for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



raysigala's picture
Submitted by raysigala on
So true they the government is making us buy back land that was stolen through broken treaties and lies to elders who didn't understand English all those treaties need to be Honored like they expect us to honor their laws and quit calling us native Americans were Natives not Americans ( Americans are people who decendents from other COUNTRIES THATS WHAT AMERICANS ARE SO PLZ UNDERSTAND WE ARE NOT LIKE THE AMERICANS WE HOLDING OUR END OF THE TREATIES UNITED NATIONS MAKE THEM THE UNITED STATES HOLD THIER END OF THE DEAL ! WE LET THEM LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND US THEY STILL DONT UNDERSTAND AND ITS BEEN HOW MANY YEARS THEY TRESSPASSED AND I SPEAK AND UNDERSTAND THIER LANGUAGE OURS MUST BE TO HARD FOR THEM TO UNDERSTAND ! So come on AMERICA QUIT LIEING TO US !

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
"Our land is everything to us... I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember that our grandfathers paid for it - with their lives." - John Wooden Leg, Cheyenne What are we without the land?

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
"Our land is everything to us... I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember that our grandfathers paid for it - with their lives." - John Wooden Leg, Cheyenne What are we without the land?

WinterWindTeacher's picture
Submitted by WinterWindTeacher on
The American Indian Movement certainly had a very positive approach to abridge the gap between the physical reality and the stated one on paper. I have no doubt that the treaties signed by the separate tribes are meaningful and truthful agreements. It is no surprise that the U.S. has violated each and every one of those agreements. It is difficult to corner the U.S. into truth, they generally and historically have an aversion to truth, therein is the crux of the problem. The treaty option with tribes by the U.S. standpoint, I feel confident it was a tool to manipulate each tribe into a false truce, which it usually did. The laws of 'doctrine of discovery' were essentially legalized theft, a currency bereft of any truthful value. There was and continues to be no inherent right to Native lands by any such foreign people or 'discoverers'. If there were factual truth than there was much land in Europe in which to discover and take, the impossibility was due to the fact the land had been taken by the state. The United Nations is positive in this regards but does not seem to take much supportive action in favor. Firstly, seats in the general assembly should be added and full membership granted to each separate Indigenous nation. The positive effect would be that Indigenous people have a direct vote and voice with the collective body of nations. A representative from an Indigenous nation could bring concerns to the general assembly and make proposed changes protecting the rights of Indigenous people by offering rules, amendments or drafting of agreements to be voted on by the overall general assembly for greater understanding, respect and cooperation. I think the United Nations should do more to make sure that Indigenous nations are not excluded and locked outside the diplomatic doors of international concerns of peace, justice, human rights, environmental health and human dignity. The room seems large enough and the act just enough to add the needed seats to the assembly and to the direct negotiating table in all important areas that affect their lives as it does any other nation. It isn't just what Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand should do, it is what the United Nations can do to make sure the voices of Indigenous people are heard not second-hand.