When James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples was finishing up his tour of the United States last spring, he received a packet of letters from high school students in South Dakota. Among them was a letter from a 15-year-old girl.
“Life here is very hand to mouth. Out here, we don’t have the finer things. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. And I’m going to be honest with you, sometimes I don’t eat,” she wrote. “I’ve never told anyone this before, not even my mom, but I don’t eat sometimes because I feel bad about making my mom buy food that I know is expensive. And you know what? Life is hard enough for my mom, so I will probably never tell her. My parents have enough to worry about. I do not know what you can do, but try your very best to help us. Please help us. We can do this. Yes we can!”
The letter made such an impact on Anaya that he included it in a report calling on the United States government “to advance toward reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and address persistent deep-seeded problems related to historical wrongs, failed policies of the past and continuing systemic barriers to the full realization of Indigenous Peoples’ rights.”
Anaya will officially present his report on the situation of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, September 18, according to a press release on the website of the Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights.
The report examines the status of human rights among Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. and is based on research and information gathered during Anaya’s visit to the U.S. April 23-May 4 when he consulted with U.S. officials, Indigenous Peoples, tribes and nations in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, Washington state, and Indian country and urban areas in South Dakota and Oklahoma.
The special rapporteur found that federal legislation and programs developed over the past few decades constitute “good practices” in response to Indigenous Peoples’ concerns and he commended the executive branch for its new initiatives to advance Indigenous Peoples’ rights over the last few years. But, ultimately, not enough has been done to heal the traumatic harm done to Indigenous Peoples; existing federal programs need to be improved and implemented more effectively, he says in the report released September 11.
“The Special Rapporteur concludes that Indigenous Peoples in the United States – including American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian peoples – constitute vibrant communities that have contributed greatly to the life of the country; yet they face significant challenges that are related to widespread historical wrongs, including broken treaties and acts of oppression, and misguided government policies, that today manifest themselves in various indicators of disadvantage and impediments to exercise their individual and collective rights,” the report says.
The report emphasizes the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as an impetus and roadmap for improving the lives of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. and for developing new measures to advance toward reconciliation. The Declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on September 13, 2007. The U.S. was one of only four nation states that voted against the measure. In 2010, however, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would “lend its support” to the Declaration. “The Declaration, which is grounded in widespread consensus and fundamental human rights values, has been accepted by the United States at the urging of Indigenous Peoples from throughout the country, and it is an extension of the United States’ international human rights obligations,” Anaya says. “As part of United States domestic and foreign policy, an extension of its international human right commitments and reflecting a commitment to Indigenous Peoples in the United States, the Declaration should now serve as a beacon for executive, legislative and judicial decision-makers in relation to issues concerning the Indigenous Peoples of the country. All such decision-making should incorporate awareness and close consideration of the Declaration’s terms. Moreover, the Declaration is an instrument that should motivate and guide steps toward still-needed reconciliation with the country’s Indigenous Peoples, on just terms.”
In a video interview posted on September 12, Anaya notes that “there’s still a lack of reckoning, really, for the wrongs that Indigenous Peoples have suffered ... and these are not just historical phenomena. What happened to Indigenous Peoples – the colonization of their territories, the taking of their lands, the undermining of their cultures, and in many cases the massacres of their peoples – has ongoing consequences that are manifested in the social and economic disadvantages Indigenous Peoples across the United States face. They face severe challenges in terms of their own human development.”
The report includes more than two dozen recommendations, including initiatives to address outstanding claims of treaty violations or non-consensual takings of traditional lands to which Indigenous Peoples retain cultural or economic attachment; restoring or securing Indigenous Peoples’ capacities to maintain connections with places and sites of cultural or religious significance, in accordance with the United States international human rights commitments, such as “the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, the restoration of land to the Timbisha Shoshone, the establishment of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Park, and current initiatives of the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service to protect sacred sites, constitute important precedents or moves in this direction.” Other recommendations include efforts “to identify and heal particular sources of open wounds. And hence, for example, promised reparations should be provided to the descendants of the Sands Creek massacre, and new or renewed consideration should be given to clemency for Leonard Peltier.”
Other recommendations include addressing the issues of indigenous self-governance, environmental degradation, language restoration, federal recognition and the concerns of Indigenous Peoples in urban and border areas.
Anaya also recommends that federal courts should discard “colonial era doctrine in favor of an alternative jurisprudence infused with the contemporary human rights values that have been embraced by the United States, including those values reflected in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”