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USA: Indigenous Rights Declaration under Reexamination

Almost three years after rejecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007, the United States government is now asking for input from Native American leaders, renewing their hopes that the election of President Barack Obama may help open a path to ratification. The declaration calls for “reasonable reparations” for stolen indigenous lands, but not at the expense of violating a nation-state's territorial integrity.

Only three other countries initially opposed the declaration, which is legally non-binding yet provides solid framework for respecting and advancing collective indigenous rights. Two of these, New Zealand and Australia, have since changed their mind, leaving the U.S. and Canada as the only “no” voters. (Eleven others – Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Samoa and Ukraine – have abstained from voting.)

An ongoing mountain carving of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a few miles away from Mount Rushmore. The Lakota say this is sacred land that was stolen from them. © Simon Maghakyan 2010

On June 4, 2010, the U.S. State Department announced that public input should be be sent to the email address declaration@state.gov by July 15. Earlier, an official State Department blog post promised a review process:

On Tuesday, April 21, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice announced the U.S. decision to review our position regarding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. President Obama has promised greater engagement with federally recognized tribal governments, and improved communication with Native American tribes is a prominent theme in the Administration.

It was also in April that New Zealand became the second country, after Australia, to endorse the Declaration after an initial vote of “no.” But not everyone thinks New Zealand made the right decision.

Indigenous Maori opposition politician Nanaia Mahuta, whose Labour party voted against the document in 2008, claims the government is stressing the “symbolic” nature of the Declaration. She writes on her blog:

Under the veil of secrecy the Minister of Maori Affairs signed the Government up to the UNDRIP. National Ministers were quick to downplay the move as “aspirational” and “non-binding”! The PM must have stressed that point at least three times during question time. The test for National is whether they intend to leave this document as a symbol of aspiration that has no currency in New Zealand or whether they intend to deliver any of the expected outcomes which the MParty allude to?? […] A whole heap of window dressing of empty promises and hollow gains – meanwhile Maori unemployment continues to rise…

If like New Zealand and Australia, the U.S. ratifies the declaration, which seems to be the likely scenario, Canada will remain the only “no” signatory. On the blog of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, Fourth World Eye, Rudolph Ryser describes Canada’s reasoning for being against the declaration, and concludes that change will come from indigenous peoples themselves, not from governments.

The symbolism of indigenous peoples sitting in the UN General Assembly Hall is powerful, but there is no substitute for the exercise of political authority. States like Canada and the United States will continue to offer platitudes and tired expressions of confidence for the future development of native peoples, but only vigorous political action by indigenous peoples will force the respect and lawful acceptance of indigenous peoples sitting at the table of decision-making they so richly deserve.

On progressive activism blog Docudharma a writer by the name “winter rabbit” offers several arguments for why President Obama (alternately known as Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish – his adopted Crow tribe name) should ratify the declaration. One of several links in his post goes to a news story from 2009 that quotes the South Dakota attorney general for saying he has never read the original Ft. Laramie Treaty from 1868 that guaranteed ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota, before it was eventually seized when gold was discovered there.

It is unclear whether the adoption of UNDRIP would compel South Dakotans, among other Americans, to rethink indigenous rights in their country. But the fact that the U.S. is asking input from Native Americans in the reexamination process is encouraging.

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