I suffer what may be a delusive hope that Indians want changes in how they are treated by the US government, state governments, and tribal governments. Like the African-Americans who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The title of this column is taken from a letter sent by Christopher Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella, explaining how he had found “many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with royal standard unfurled and
“I think of this Western Hemisphere, all of it, as the domain of…Western Christendom” — U.S. Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa), in his speech in the House of Representatives, February 25, 2014.
I write this in response to Steven Newcomb, who took issue with the column I recently wrote titled, “Moving From Sovereignty to Autonomy.” He is passionate about his opinions and intellectual projects and I respect that. I respond in the spirit of public debate that this issue requires.
Not surprisingly, Newcomb is concerned about language and the meanings behind words and concepts such as “autonomy” and “indigenous” and the ways they are deployed in international law to imply and reinforce relationships of domination. Of course his concerns are justified, and in principle I agree with him 100 percent. Where we part company, perhaps, is in our approaches to addressing those structures of domination he so aptly names. For me the question is: how do we as “indigenous” peoples negotiate our way within those very deeply entrenched and troubling structures to find workable solutions? To borrow a bureaucratic colloquialism, how do we find “work-arounds” to what sometimes appear to be insurmountable obstacles?
In a perfect world, states’ governments would wake up one day and having seen the error of their ways they would renounce those oppressive structures in the interest of following an altruistic, moral imperative to do right by indigenous peoples. We can all hope and even work for that. What he is saying needs to be said. But it seems to me that in reality we could be waiting a very long time, if it were to happen at all.
Would I like to see the doctrine of discovery repudiated and the entire regime of international and federal Indian law restructured to assume new, more just meanings and models relative to indigenous peoples? Yes. Is it possible that Indian nations can be restored to their pre-colonial levels of independence? In my opinion, that’s highly questionable and at this point maybe even undesirable for some nations, but it’s for each nation to decide for themselves.
We live in a different world now compared to our pre-contact ancestors. It is a world far more dependent on the quality of our political relationships. Like it or not we are swimming in the river of international relations as it exists, not as we wish it to be. From my perspective we must find ways to advance self-determination through the channels that are available—as imperfect as they may be—even while we imagine better paths. We can do both.
The fact is that the world of human relations is always evolving; it has never been static. Contrary to Steve’s Alice-in-Wonderland metaphor of “the illusion of moving from one state of being to another” the one thing we can count on is change. This is the core of the idea of political development.
Right now an available channel for indigenous political advancement is UNDRIP, written with the language of self-determination and autonomy. It stresses the ability of “indigenous peoples” (and I would argue indigenous governments as political bodies accountable to their respective peoples) to “freely choose their political status.” Are the choices circumscribed by relationships of domination? Probably, yes. Is it possible for indigenous and state governments to come to new political arrangements with each other based on mutually agreed upon understandings of the meanings of autonomy and self-determination (and whatever else they deem necessary)? I think so.
President Obama recently renewed his commitment to protecting our “air, our water, and our communities.” This is an important message for American Indians, as the health of our environment and communities are linked.
Everyone, as they say, has an agenda.
Everyone—the president, the Congress, and politicos of all stripes—tries to look good, regardless of party.
No, not those Black Robes. I’m sure priests have secrets in addition to those involving child abuse, but I am not privy to them. I mean legal profession priests, The Judges. I was at a judicial conference recently in Texas, a state that practices partisan election of judges.
For nations and peoples typically called “Indigenous,” 2014 will be an important year in the international arena. This coming September, the United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to convene a High Level Plenary Meeting (HLPM) regarding the U.N.
On December 16, 2010, President Barack Obama endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with great fanfare. The U.S. State Department then proclaimed that the declaration expresses “aspirations that this country seeks to achieve within the structure of the U.S. Constitution, laws, and international obligations, while also seeking, where appropriate, to improve our laws and policies.”
Five days later, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved a settlement of Cobell v. Norton, which resulted in a $3.4 billion payout to a class of tribal members – $1.9 billion of which would eventually fund what is today the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Land Buy Back Program. Unfortunately, the Buy Back Program does not mark any improvement in federal Indian law or policy. To the contrary, that program runs counter to UNDRIP and other international human rights laws.
The most troublesome part of the program is that it will facilitate the forced sale of tribal members’ allotted or restricted fee lands, and, in turn, forcibly and permanently remove individual Indians from their ancestral lands. This was not the result of Interior oversight — Interior has spoken in code about this reality from day one. In 2012, the department articulated a strategy to “identify tracts with relatively low fractionation and a few ‘large’ interest owners, the acquisition of whose interests could bring a tribe to a controlling level of interest in that tract with a minimal number of acquisitions.” As is now clear, “controlling level of interest” referred to a mechanism in the federal Indian Land Consolidation Act (ILCA) that permits tribes that acquire a simple 51 percent majority interest in allotted or restricted fee lands to obtain the minority owners’ land interests by forced sale. 25 U.S.C. § 2204(a).
A year later, after folks began to crack Interior’s code, the agency proclaimed: “There will be NO forced sales.” But when pressed for a more honest answer during consultations with tribal governments in early 2013 — roughly an entire year after the Buy Back strategy was pronounced (hardly “meaningful collaboration with tribal officials” promised by the Obama administration — agency top brass were forced to admit that once Interior brings a tribe into a controlling 51 percent interest, the controlling tribe is empowered by federal law to force the sale of the remaining minority interest(s). In other words, the Buy Back Program equates to forced sales of individual Indian landholdings.
Still, even in late 2013, Interior continued to pretend that “the Buy Back Program is strictly voluntary.” Most recently, Interior buried the following statement in an appendix to its Updated Buy Back Implementation Plan: “Under the March 2011 terms of the Settlement and the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, all sales are voluntary.” But, “The Department has no control over the prerogatives of sovereign tribal nations to exercise whatever rights they may have regarding the purchase of land outside of the confines of the Buy Back Program.” Again, Interior is misleading when discussing the forced sale provision of 25 U.S.C. § 2204(a).
Interior’s continued sleight of hand is appalling. But more importantly, the fundamental underpinning of the federal Buy Back strategy — catalyzing forced sales of individual Indian owned lands — violates international human rights.
Article I of UNDRIP makes clear that indigenous individuals “have the right to full enjoyment . . . of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in . . . international human rights law.” Article 17 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guarantees that “[p]roperty being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it, unless demanded by public necessity, legally constituted, explicitly demands it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.” Article 17, of course, reads very similar to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents takings of private property for public use without just compensation (and incidentally, served as the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court’s smack down of the ILCA’s escheat provision in Irving v. Hodel, 481 U.S. 704 (1987)).
One year ago today, March 11, 2013, Governor Scott Walker signed into law Act 1, the ferrous mining bill that was written by Gogebic Taconite (GTac) and financed by over $1 million in political contributions to Republican legislators.
Few would argue that the 21st century has proven to be a major turning point in the global indigenous rights movement with the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Even its original opponents have officially signed on to the declaration (if conditionally) and terms and concepts that were once considered radical or unacceptable (such as “peoples” and “self-determination”) are at least tacitly endorsed by nation states. Intellectual space has been created to talk about multinational states, in political terms that expand beyond the assimilationist multicultural state.
The multinational state recognizes pre-existing nations and peoples within its borders. It acknowledges their rights to exist and flourish without the interference of unilaterally imposed state structures and legal systems. It does this by allowing a process of mutual engagement where governments are perceived as equals without one being subordinate to another. It does so because it ensures an inherently more politically stable, cohesive state.
Decolonization for indigenous peoples in settler states means a lot of different things but politically it manifests as a realigning of relationships between governments, indigenous and settler. For states it signals movement toward a more self-conscious multinational state and for indigenous nations it means a greater recognition of their right to self-determination.
Article 3 of UNDRIP recognizes that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Article 4 guarantees that “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal or local affairs as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
The concept of self-determination contained in UNDRIP has of course been highly contested with the United States among the most opposed to it. Some argue that it is limited to the exercise of “internal” self-determination, i.e. within the constraints of a domestic federal system (this is how the United States views it) while a more expansive exercise of “external” self-determination would allow for the possibility of secession from the state. Experts have pointed out repeatedly that indigenous nations virtually never speak in terms of independence in the form of statehood (i.e. secession) and that they instead stress the interdependent nature of their relationships with states.
Does anyone remember an incident in Spokane, Washington, when the Salvation Army turned away a Turtle Mountain Chippewa family for emergency shelter because they did not accept Tribal Identifications? It was in January 2007 and the family slept in their car in below-zero temperatures. After media attention and many, many complaints the Salvation Army apologized and looked at their policy. Their business administrator, Richard Silva, told the local paper, “That was not just wrong, it’s illegal,” and they began the process of educating themselves, including meeting with tribal agencies and individuals.
I e-mailed them at the time and Mr. Silva replied to me personally, including the following: “On behalf of the Spokane Salvation Army, this letter is to apologize to those Native American families—and particularly Darrell and Beverly Azure—for the error and oversight in our shelter policy regarding acceptable forms of ID, which has resulted in the denial of services to them. And personally, I deeply regret that I did not become aware of this policy much sooner. After a significant (and much overdue) scrutiny of the specific ID and related intake policies, I have initiated an immediate change in our shelter intake requirements that took effect midday on January 19, 2007, and which will be in accordance with the federal government’s DHS Form I-9 regarding acceptance of Tribal IDs.”
I very much appreciated the sincerity and work they began quickly. It cannot be denied that the Salvation Army also helps many, many people looking for support.
At the time I thought: “This is 2007. I can’t believe this!” Naturally, my feelings were not simply anger. I was hurt, too, at the ongoing, never-ending, education—always the result of trauma put upon a Native individual or group—that must occur over and over again to reach non-Natives about the laws, sovereignty, traditions and basic respect our people deserve.
Now here we are in 2014, and a member of a federally recognized Washington tribe living in Oregon is told by their Department of Motor Vehicles that they do not recognize Washington tribal IDs. This was in response to her attempts to renew her driver’s license in a state where she has lived for many years.
Oregon generally has a reputation for being progressive, inclusive and perhaps even on the forefront of embracing diversity in all forms. But unlike the immediate response I received from Mr. Silva, and despite being inundated with calls and e-mails, I have yet to hear from anyone within Oregon agencies and tribal liaisons about the reason behind what I consider an illegal policy. I began e-mailing different people, including the Oregon governor’s office and members of Congress in a respectful manner.
We are writing this letter to convey our support of the nomination of Keith Harper as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council. We think the Senate should swiftly confirm him. We have all worked with Keith over many years as he has steadfastly advocated on behalf of tribes throughout this nation. He has been in the forefront of advocacy on behalf of Native peoples across the United States and for indigenous peoples internationally. Repeatedly, Keith has stood strong in the face of difficult odds to stand for what is right. We have come to know Keith well and have confidence in his professionalism, his high ethical standards and his keen capabilities and skills. For these reasons, we think President Obama’s choice is an excellent one.
We are aware that more than 100 Indian nations and more than 25 tribal, human rights and civil rights organizations from across the spectrum have endorsed and are excited about Keith’s nomination. What we have to add is a distinct voice—that of Native women who are tribal leaders, community leaders, educators and advocates. We know that Keith will bring both an understanding of issues that impact Native women and the capability to effectively seek redress for these issues.
Native American women in the United States are more likely to be victims of violent crime that any other racial-gender category. This same dynamic occurs for many indigenous women throughout the world. The lack of safety and security undermines virtually every other aspect of these women’s lives. Moreover, too often, indigenous women do not have the same opportunities to live free, productive lives and participate fully in the political, social and economic opportunities of the wider society. In short, Native women here and everywhere face grave challenges and Keith’s engagement of the Human Rights Council as Ambassador is a critical factor in addressing these challenges.
He has the right experience and the right perspective. He has advocated in support of changes to address violence against Native women and expanding opportunities for them. He also represented the National Congress of American Indians in negotiations regarding the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the U.N.
For the first time, when Keith is confirmed, we will have a United States Ambassador who has a complete understanding of these challenges and the skills and wherewithal to effectively address them. Moreover, his sensitivity to these issues will not just impact matters related to the human rights of indigenous women but all women. So for Native women like us, who care deeply about securing human rights generally and seeing that
progress should be made on the human rights of indigenous women particularly, Keith’s nomination offers a unique opportunity.
Moreover, we are in a good position to evaluate Keith’s attitudes and demeanor towards Native women as we have worked with and observed him. He is always professional, respectful and gracious. Claims otherwise can only come from those who don’t know him.