Washington, D.C. – LEADERS LEDGER – In my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I am concluding my official visit to the United States of America, which I have been carrying out over the past twelve days. During my mission, I have held consultations with indigenous peoples, tribes, and nations in Washington, D.C.; Arizona; Alaska; Oregon; Washington State; South Dakota; and Oklahoma, both in Indian Country and in urban areas. I also had a series of meetings with representatives of the executive branch of the federal government and with state government officials. I regret that my efforts to meet with members of the U.S. Congress were unsuccessful, especially given the prominent role of Congress in defining the status and rights of indigenous peoples within the United States.
I would like to thank the U.S. Department of State and other parts of the government administration for the cooperation they have provided for the mission. I would also like to express my deep gratitude to representatives of indigenous nations and peoples whose assistance in planning and carrying out of this visit has been indispensible. I am honored to have been welcomed into their communities and am humbled by the hospitality I received. I am grateful that they shared their still vibrant cultures and stories, and also their concerns with me.
My mission has been carried out against the backdrop of the United States’ endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in December 2010. Over the past twelve days, I have collected a significant amount of information from indigenous peoples and Government representatives across the country, with a view to assessing how the standards of the Declaration are reflected in United States law, policy and programs at both the state and federal levels, and to identify needed reforms as well as good practices.
In the following weeks, I will be reviewing the extensive information I have received during the visit in order to develop a report to evaluate the situation of indigenous peoples in the United States and to make a series of recommendations. This report will be made public, and will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council, most likely at its plenary session in September. I hope that that this report will be of use to Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples, as well as to the Government of the United States, to help find solutions to ongoing challenges that indigenous peoples in the country face, and to advance their rights in accordance with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Over the past twelve days, I have heard stories that make evident the profound hurt that indigenous peoples continue to feel because of the history of oppression they have faced. This history—as is widely known but often forgotten—includes the dispossession of the vast majority of their lands and resources, the removal of children from their families and communities, the breakdown of their traditional structures, the loss of their languages, the breaking of treaties, and numerous instances of outrights brutality, all grounded on racial discrimination.
It is clear that this history does not just blemish the past, but translates into present day disadvantage for indigenous peoples in the country. The intergenerational trauma suffered by indigenous societies is deeply felt and manifested in deep social ills that afflict indigenous Americans in ways not experienced by others.
I have heard countless accounts of the ongoing problems that indigenous peoples face as a result of historical injustices, problems of deeply troubling economic, health, education, and development disparities. In all my consultations with indigenous peoples in the places I visited it was impressed upon me that the sense of loss, alienation and indignity is pervasive throughout Indian country. It is evident that there have still not been adequate measures of reconciliation to overcome the persistent legacies of the history of oppression, and that there is still much healing that needs to be done.
I believe that an important step in the still needed process of reconciliation is the statement of support of the Government of the United States for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the United States should be commended for joining the rest of the countries of the world in its support for this instrument. The Declaration affirms fundamental human rights in relation to the particular historical and contemporary circumstances of indigenous peoples. It echoes fundamental values, embraced by the American constitutional tradition, of self-determination, equality, local decision-making and secure property, and respect for cultural identity. The United States must also ensure that international relations and laws governing corporate activities affecting indigenous peoples in other countries are consistent with, and promote, the application of the Declaration.
I have also heard about initiatives the Federal Government has taken in recent years to improve the conditions of indigenous peoples, which can be seen as advances towards the implementation of some provisions of the Declaration. These include initiatives to develop consultation policies and open spaces of dialogue with tribes; to settle outstanding claims; to increase funding for federal programs; and to improve education, economic development, and law and order in Indian Country. These initiatives build on some already important recognition of, and in some cases exemplary laws, policies, and programs that promote the rights of indigenous peoples in the country. I will continue to study these and other initiatives and will be reflecting positive developments in further detail in my report.
However, from the information that I have gathered, it is evident that more robust measures are needed to address the serious issues affecting Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples in the United States, issues that are rooted in a dark and complex history whose legacies are not easy to overcome. Continued and concerted measures are needed to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones, in consultation and in real partnership with indigenous peoples, to conform to the Declaration, with a goal towards strengthening indigenous peoples’ own self-determination and decision-making over their affairs at all levels. The Declaration provides a new grounding for understanding the status and rights of indigenous peoples, upon which the legal doctrines of conquest and discovery must be discarded as a basis for decision-making by judicial and other authorities.
I have seen that many tribes across the country have capable institutions of self-governance and tribal courts, self-administered social and economic development programs, which have demonstrated significant successes and, with an understanding and knowledge of tribal realities, function at the same time to promote and consolidate indigenous cultures and values. During my visit, I heard almost universal calls from indigenous nations and tribes across the country that the Government respect tribal sovereignty, that indigenous peoples’ ability to control their own affairs be strengthened, and that the many existing barriers to the effective exercise of self-determination be removed. It should be noted that the Violence Against Women Act, which is currently pending reauthorization before Congress, contains important provisions recognizing the jurisdiction of tribes to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Indian women and to hold them accountable for their crimes, which is a good step towards addressing this distressing problem. Also, adequate funding should be provided to ensure the welfare of indigenous Americans in accordance with historical obligations, especially in areas of health, housing, and education.
I cannot conclude without providing some brief comments on issues I have heard related to the lands and resources of indigenous peoples across America. The widespread loss of indigenous peoples’ lands and resources is well-documented. The negative effects of this loss are compounded by past and ongoing activities that diminish or threaten the remaining lands and resources upon which indigenous peoples depend. Across America, past uncontrolled and irresponsible extractive activities, including uranium mining in the Southwest, have resulted in the contamination of indigenous peoples’ water sources and other resources, and in numerous documented negative health effects among Native Americans.
In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest especially, I heard about how Native peoples continue to depend upon hunting and gathering wildlife, and fishing marine resources, and how the maintenance of these subsistence activities is essential for both their physical and their cultural survival, especially in isolated areas. However, indigenous peoples informed me that they face ever-greater threats to their subsistence activities due to a growing surge of competing interests, and in some cases incompatible extractive activities, over these lands and resources. In Alaska, indigenous peoples complain about a complex and overly restrictive state regulatory apparatus that impedes their access to subsistence resources.
I also heard many stories about the significance of places that are sacred to indigenous peoples, places like the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and the Black Hills in South Dakota, which hold profound religious and cultural significance to tribes. During my visit, indigenous peoples reported to me that they have too little control over what happens in these places, and that activities carried out around them at times affront their values and beliefs.
It is important to note, in this regard, that securing the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands is of central importance to indigenous peoples’ socio-economic development, self-determination, and cultural integrity. Continued efforts to resolve, clarify, and strengthen the protection of indigenous lands, resources, and sacred sites should be made.
I look forward to developing more detailed observations and recommendations beyond these initial comments in my report to the Human Rights Council. As I noted, my observations and recommendations will be aimed at identifying good practices and needed reforms in line with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I hope that this process will contribute to ensuring that the first Americans can continue to thrive and maintain their distinct ways of life as they have done for generations despite significant challenges, preserving this fundamental part of American history and enriching American society for the benefit of all.