President Obama has an opportunity to send the world a message about American justice.
He can add America’s name to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples before the Organization of American States. This is a historic effort by all countries in the Americas to recognize and declare that human rights belong to indigenous peoples, both as individuals and as communities, nations, or tribes. Negotiations over the draft American Declaration in the Organization of American States have reached a critical point. All the countries of the Americas must now exert the political will to finalize and adopt the American Declaration. Last year, the United States refused to actively negotiate. This must change, and each of us can help make that happen.
We live in an era of self-determination, yet Congress still claims the power to do what it wants – confiscate our native lands in violation of the Constitution, strip our jurisdiction, exploit our natural resources and refuse to honor its treaty obligations. Many of our nations and communities face a daunting set of social and economic challenges, as well as violation of treaty and human rights on a daily basis. Our northern tribes and Native Alaska villages see their very existence threatened as climate change undermines their subsistence lifestyles.
All the countries of the Americas must now exert the political will to finalize and adopt the American Declaration.
The adoption of a strong American Declaration would be a tremendous step toward ending the appalling treaty and human rights violations that are so often inflicted on our Indian and Alaska Native tribes and communities. The declaration states the commitment by these countries to the rights of Indian peoples – our right to exist as distinct cultures, our right to govern our own affairs, our right to own and use our lands, and our right to be free from discrimination.
Indian and Alaska Native nations have always had to fight to make sure the United States government respects and protects our rights as tribal governments and as Indian peoples. This declaration is an important step in protecting those rights. The United States did not vote for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples even though it publicly agreed with most of its provisions. We have a new opportunity to make sure the United States commits to protecting our rights by joining in adopting of a strong American Declaration.
United States leadership is key to gaining the respect for treaty and human rights that is lacking in the Americas. Strong leadership from the United States would signal a change in its foreign policy on human rights, reinvigorate the OAS negotiations, and lead to the adoption of a strong American Declaration. The new administration provides an excellent opportunity for us to encourage such leadership from the U.S.
As Indian nations and as communities and individuals, this is the time to vigorously encourage the United States to support a strong American Declaration that respects and declares our rights. And while we are at it, let’s also see to it that the U.S. declares its support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Wilma Mankiller is the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.