ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - More tribes should seek help from international human rights groups when the federal government steps on their sovereignty.
That is the opinion of Robert T. Coulter, director of the Indian Law Resource Center, who told the Indian Land Consolidation Symposium that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has weighed in on the side of the two Western Shoshone sisters fighting a land grab in Nevada.
The commission has just found "the United States government is violating international human rights in regard to its treatment of Mary and Carrie Dann," said Coulter, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi tribe of Oklahoma.
Coulter admitted that the commission's ruling is not binding on the United States and also that there is no enforcement authority. But he noted international rights groups have helped focus attention on the problems of indigenous people. He pointed to the Yanomami tribe of Brazil as an example where international activism brought tangible results.
Coulter's group, based in Helena, Mont., brought the Western Shoshone case to the attention of the commission on behalf of the Dann sisters. According to the group, "the human rights commission found the claims process, which the U.S. says extinguished the Western Shoshone rights to most of their land in Nevada, was a flawed process that denied the Danns and other Western Shoshones their human rights."
The commission concluded that the U.S. violated "the right of equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and the right to property. The commission recommended that the government take steps to provide a fair legal process to determine the Danns' and other Western Shoshone land rights."
It also said the commission report "calls into question the U.S. government's handling of millions of acres of land, mainly in the West, that have been subject to Indian claims in the federal Indian Claims Commission. The report affirms the Danns' argument that the U.S. used illegitimate means to gain control of the Indians' ancestral lands."
The Inter-American Commission is a unit of the Organization of American States, based in Washington. The United States is a member of the OAS.
Coulter told the symposium, sponsored by the Indian Land Working Group, based here, that Indians' hold on their own land will remain "uncertain and vulnerable" unless a framework of protective law can be devised.
He called the power of the United States and Congress to take Indian land and property discriminatory and an abuse of U.S. trusteeship of tribes.
U.S. courts are packed with conservatives, and the Supreme Court is "almost unbelievably hostile and negative in Indian cases," he said.
Coulter called the commission's ruling "very exciting," and he derided a government attempt to compensate the Shoshones for land alienated by what the government called "gradual encroachment." The land was never ceded, and the money amounts to 15 cents an acre, with no interest, he said.
Coulter said he will next go before the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights to discuss the U.S.'s actions in the Western Shoshone case.
He pointed out that both this group and the OAS are developing statements on the rights of indigenous people, and he urged more tribes to participate in the process.