Indigenous Rights Advocates Question Keith Harper Nomination
The conventional wisdom of many Native American-focused policy officials is that Keith Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen and a lawyer with Kilpatrick Stockton who helped settle the long-running Cobell lawsuit, should be confirmed by the Senate as a human rights ambassador to the United Nations as quickly as possible.
“Keith Harper—we really need to have [him] at the State Department as we plan for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” said Jackie Johnson-Pata, director of the National Congress of American Indians, to a gathering of the United South and Eastern Tribes on February 5 in Arlington, Virginia. Her view is common among Harper’s lobbyist and lawyer friends in Washington, D.C., as well as among tribal leaders who have had positive interactions with him and his firm. Several of these tribal leaders sent letters of support for Harper to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in recent months as the committee twice considered his nomination – first last September, then in February – and approved it both times narrowly along party lines.
There is a counter narrative, too—one that senatorial supporters and detractors of the Indian lawyer may have missed thus far, and one that has implications as to whether Harper should be confirmed by the full Senate: With his nomination now awaiting consideration by the upper chamber, some Native Americans say he should be held accountable for his lack of positions on a number of Indian human rights issues over his long legal career.
“I’ve personally never heard Keith saying anything substantial about Indian civil rights,” says Richard Monette, a law professor with the University of Wisconsin and former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. “Besides the Cobell case, which made him and his firm very rich, he has been absent on most Indian issues—frankly, I’ve never even heard him even be a proponent of tribal sovereignty. Where has he been on Native voting rights and racism in the states toward Indians?”
While John Page, director of communications with Kilpatrick Stockton, has said Harper is not allowed to comment publicly on any matters during his nomination process, Harper’s continuing silence does not sit well with indigenous advocates who have questions about his views on meaty Indian-focused human rights topics, including tribal disenrollment and due process issues, limited tribal immunity from U.S. constitutional restrictions on political power, the Cherokee Freedmen citizenship controversy, and tribal-federal complexities surrounding the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
For Cathy Cory, a disenrolled citizen of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians who has become an activist in the difficult tribal disenrollment arena, Harper’s reserve on certain Indian human rights issues during his nomination process is representative of a pattern she has witnessed from him over a number of years. It may not have been a pattern that mattered to anyone but her when he was just a lawyer, but she feels it is relevant to the position for which he is now being considered.
Cory says that she and many Indians in her situation have tried unsuccessfully multiple times to get Harper to offer his assistance on tribal disenrollment and due process issues. She notes that several Indians who have been disenrolled from their tribes in California have posted letters online that they have sent and e-mailed to Harper in an effort to get him to take action on or interest in the issue.
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