Indigenous Rights Advocates Question Keith Harper Nomination

Rob Capriccioso

“[Y]ou couldn’t answer for a letter that mentioned people’s names, addresses, phone numbers—encouraging people to call and harass them?” McCain asked Harper at the September hearing. Harper responded that the letter was wrong, but he said he had no role in drafting it, laying blame on his co-counsel Dennis Gingold who has since said Harper’s characterization was “puzzling.” McCain has countered that he does not believe Harper, citing inconsistencies in his communications with Congress.

RELATED: McCain Opposes Harper Nomination to UN Council, Citing Indian Concerns

Russel Barsh, who previously worked for the U.N. Center for Human Rights focusing specifically on issues involving indigenous and tribal peoples, says it would be worthwhile for Harper to share much more about his indigenous human rights views, so that Indian country can be better served and suited to know whether it can and should support him. “If Mr. Harper were faced with a complaint before the Human Rights Council against an indigenous authority (such as the Navajo Nation faced in the Hopi land dispute), I wonder whether he would argue that indigenous leaders are subject to, or exempt from international human rights law,” he says. “I would be interested in his thinking on this. It is not an easy question.”

Barsh adds that he has no personal experience with Harper or the Cobell litigation, but he does believe that if the Obama administration is serious about advancing human rights through the U.N. system, it should choose representatives who have experience inside that system, and who know how to work within it.

“Being an effective U.S. lawyer is a good start but does not make someone an effective U.N. diplomat: it's a different administrative and legal system, and it's more about relationships and confidence building than rules,” Barsh says, adding that he previously worked alongside and trained young Native North Americans at the U.N., and he believes many of them would make excellent diplomats.

The Foreign Relations Committee to date has not focused on indigenous rights issues beyond the ones McCain raised during Harper’s two confirmation hearings, yet Harper’s top legislative supporters, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), have repeatedly pointed to his Cherokee ancestry as an important reason for him to be confirmed.

“It’s a history-making nomination, and I hope the Senate moves soon on his nomination,” Boxer said last December, noting that Harper would be the first Native American citizen of a federally recognized tribe to become a U.S. ambassador if he is confirmed. (Chris Stevens, the former ambassador to Libya who was killed in the Benghazi attack at the U.S. consulate in September 2012, was a citizen of the non-federally recognized Chinook Tribe.)

Barsh says that if Congress is going to cite Harper’s Cherokee citizenship as a reason for supporting him, legislators should definitely examine his positions on Indian human rights issues. “If I were on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I would ask, ‘How does your Cherokee citizenship and experience as a Native American lawyer influence your perspective on the pursuit of human rights elsewhere in the world?’” he says. “Do indigenous nations have a role to play in the international sphere?" And, if the Obama administration hopes to gain credibility in Indian country and on the world stage by appointing a high-profile Native American as an ambassador, Barsh says it is fair to ask whether Harper’s Cherokee citizenship makes a difference in his outlook or the way he will do his job. “If yes, things could get interesting if he has gumption and a loose leash,” he says. “If not, then his Native identity is immaterial, regardless of what kind of human being he is.”

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hickoryground's picture
Submitted by hickoryground on
Keith Harper and Kilpatrick Stockton are still profiting from the desecration of the Muscogee Creek burials at Hickory Ground. How did that human rights violation get overlooked in this story?

leeanntallbear's picture
Submitted by leeanntallbear on
When I think of the word "advocate" I don't think about Keith Harper. Names that come to mind among the still living, are Clyde Bellecourt, Suzanne Harjo, Sonny Skyhawk, Winona LaDuke, Eddie Benton Banai - people who actually "changed the nature of the debate" as one of my old friends would say. I am sure all of you have other names that come quickly to mind: people who worked for change in their communities and have a record of not perpetuating or exploiting the status quo.

curtj's picture
Submitted by curtj on
Same old Same old. The non Indigenous will groom whoever they want to get ready for a important position, in order to bribe them. You saw in in the lower 48 in the last 3 or so centuries when the illegal alien immigrants wanted resources and lands for free or real cheap, like cheap jewelry. Look to the Indigenous Peoples Forum of the United Nations, that guy in charge was selected by the colonial governments who continue to rob other countries of their resources and lands with the end result of terrorist attacks against them or their chief supporter, America. It is sick and sad that Indigenous people are so easily bribed like the Washington politicians. They work against their own peoples interests for a few pieces of silver, like the white mans judas and jesus. You saw it when the US government used to recruit Apache trackers to help herd Apaches onto reservations and to exile them to other states in order to rip them from their lands. What kind of respect do you give these Quislings who are bribed to value their momentary riches in order to remove the Indigenous people from their resources and lands, resulting in the obscene drug and alcohol addictions with its violence and resulting suicides.

100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Submitted by 100IndigenousAm... on
To advocate Keith Harper as as a human rights ambassador to the United Nations is asinine and twisted thinking that lacks critical thought. Being slightly brown and having some DNA blood content is not qualifications for real defense of the HUMAN RIGHTS of Indigenous Americans throughout the Americas. Especially someone coming out of the ruins of the Cobell settlement where the rightful receiverships received a paltry amount of what was due to them and the Lawyers drove away with truckloads of cash. Lobbyist, lawyers and politicians dealing with "real" Indians from superiority vantage point are of the same material. They will never look at the "keepers of the Mother Earth" as equals. Keith Harper is a bad choice for the indigenous people, and he is a good choice only for the "business model" and not the "creating restructuring politics for the salvation of original Americans" using the patterns of our traditions using global thinking. I speak my mind as Vietnam Vet and as a proud 100% Dine' from Dine' (navaho) bekayah.