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Jasper: ‘Same old’ language from the administration of change

Recently the human rights record of the United States was the subject of a global review at the United Nations. The Universal Periodic Review takes place for all member states every four years. First, the country “under review” makes an oral statement to go with their written report, then other countries present comments and recommendations, then the country “under review” speaks to the recommendations. There were more than a dozen questions and recommendations to the U.S. regarding indigenous peoples and indigenous issues.

It is deeply disturbing that Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk responded by referring to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (leaving off the “s”). He also used language suggesting that U.S. federal law and policy “gives” Indian governments authority “over a broad range of internal and local issues” and that the Tribal Law and Order Act “gives” Indian tribes greater authority to prosecute crimes.

In a document titled “The Powers of Indian Tribes,” written as an Opinion of the Solicitor dated Oct. 25, 1934, there is recognition of “inherent” powers as “perhaps the most basic principle of all Indian law.” How is it that the highest United States government official for Indian Affairs in 2010 could think that federal law and policy “give” indigenous peoples rights they already have? Based on international human rights law, no government has the authority to deny inherent rights of indigenous peoples or to claim such rights are “given” to them.

We really do hope for a significant change from the present administration. Yet this language is the same old, same old.

To his credit, Echo Hawk acknowledged that “few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans.” He continued, “The consequences of that history are evident today in the many challenges faced by Native Americans: Poverty, unemployment, health care gaps, violent crime and discrimination.” Egregious human rights violations occurring over a long period of time and continuing unto this day have caused today’s challenges. It would marginalize indigenous peoples further to claim otherwise.

Echo Hawk completely avoided use of the word “peoples,” which would indicate federal recognition of our legal status as peoples. He instead carefully substituted the words: “communities” and “groups,” as if that were a true picture.

He also frequently used the words, “tribes” and “members.” Although he professed good will and understanding, Echo Hawk only used the word “nation” once – in reference to his own Pawnee Nation. “Tribes” may or may not have a government. Indian “nations” do. Clubs have “members.” Nations have “citizens.” Especially when addressing human rights issues, we would hope for more accurate language choices from the top U.S. government official for Indian Affairs.

Echo Hawk was speaking in front of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Yet he did not once refer to any human right, much less the inherent right of self-determination, which affirms the right of indigenous peoples to make their own decisions. This would include “a broad range of internal and local issues” as well as external ones.

In regard to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the United States in 2008 “that the Declaration be used as a guide to interpret the state party’s obligations under the convention [on racial discrimination] relating to indigenous peoples.” At a separate side-meeting with various indigenous representatives, Echo Hawk seemed unaware of this conclusion of the committee.

Echo Hawk completely avoided use of the word ‘peoples,’ which would indicate federal recognition of our legal status as peoples.

Perhaps he was badly advised, for his language was so focused on federal “policy” and “law” that it could have been taken from a previous administration. Now that the human rights of indigenous peoples are affirmed more broadly in international law, we should not have to fight for the U.S. government to use legally correct language. Unwittingly or otherwise, Echo Hawk’s failure to use legally precise language continues the very “marginalization” he decries.

This is not to say that the language in itself is the main goal. A full recognition of the human rights of indigenous peoples as articulated in the Declaration without qualifications or limitations is a primary goal. But the language forges a path to achieving the goal. The U.S. endorsed the Declaration Dec. 16 using some of the same uninformed language and worse, claiming that it is not “a statement of current international law” as they endorsed it.

Many indigenous representatives who traveled to the U.N. have discovered that a measure of a government’s good will could be found in the language they used – that there was a direct correlation between respect for human rights and respect for indigenous peoples and the language used when speaking about those rights and peoples.

Presently it seems we could have a more sympathetic administration. Echo Hawk’s substitute words all worked in the context of his presentation. However, none of them describe us as we are: Indigenous peoples in the United States who are recognized rights-holders under international human rights law, both individually and collectively as part of our Indian nation.

We really do hope for a significant change from the present administration. Yet this language is the same old, same old. It comes across like a petty withholding of good will and respect. But there is still time for much needed improvement and perhaps this is just a case of not knowing any better.

Suzanne Jasper is the director of First Peoples Human Rights Coalition, a nonprofit educational organization specifically focusing on the human rights of indigenous peoples.