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Melendez: Commission on Civil Rights must strengthen support for Indian country

How can the federal government begin to reclaim its credibility as a protector of civil rights in Indian country? In September, the House of Representatives finally passed the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, but Congress has yet to pass the Indian Health Care Reauthorization Act and other legislation. The politicization of the Department of Justice, with its changing priorities for the Civil Rights Division and pressure to fire U.S. attorneys who took Indian country issues seriously, remains a long-term problem. While there is reason to hope the new environment in Washington, D.C., will continue to produce positive change on these issues, one government body that should be pushing for protection of Native peoples bears special scrutiny - the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The commission was created by President Eisenhower 50 years ago this fall as part of the 1957 Civil Rights Act to serve as the ''conscience'' of the nation as it confronted discrimination. The commission was empowered to hold formal investigatory hearings and gather evidence of discrimination - particularly with respect to race, ethnicity and the exercise of the right to vote. The agency is supposed to tell the harsh truths of discrimination to the media, public and national leaders. In addition to the commission, the 1957 act also established new laws to protect voting rights and created the Civil Rights Division within the department. The key idea behind the 1957 legislation was that only a mix of national publicity, stricter laws and heightened federal prosecution of cases would actually change the nation.

In the past, the Commission on Civil Rights' dealings with Indian country were mixed. There were some helpful early publications, like its 1972 American Indian Civil Rights Handbook. The commission called the FBI to answer for its lax law enforcement in Indian country in a hearing in 1979. Some of the commission's state advisory committees that act as the ''eyes and ears'' of the agency at the local level also examined discrimination against Native Americans.

But the commission historically did not focus much on Indian issues, and at times its approach was scandalous. Some may recall then-chairman William Barclay Allen, who resigned in 1989 after his arrest in an alleged kidnapping of a child from the White Mountain Apache Reservation while conducting an ''investigation'' of how tribal custody cases were handled. Charges were dropped and apologies given for having given the child a ride from school without asking her mother's permission. But it seems hard to separate the chairman's bizarre actions from the apparent disregard for tribal sovereignty during the commission's hearings on the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1988.

More recently, the commission took much greater interest in Indian country when Elsie Meeks became the first American Indian appointed to the commission. During her term, the commission issued two key reports. The 2003 report, ''Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country,'' gives an overview of the government's failure to meet its trust responsibilities; and the 2004 report, ''Broken Promises: Evaluating the Native American Health Care System,'' has detailed findings and recommendations for changes to the IHS. In 2001, the agency also called for an end to the use of American Indian images and team names by non-Native schools.

However, my appointment to the commission (after Meeks) followed a takeover of the agency by conservative commissioners who have shown a disturbing turn away from support of Native people. The majority of commissioners issued a report in 2006 recommending against passage of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (commonly known as the ''Akaka bill''), which would recognize the rights of Native Hawaiian people to their own government and self-determination. There has been broad support in Hawaii and among tribes for the Akaka bill, but the commission's current majority isn't listening. They wrongly frame the issue as being about creating a ''race-based'' government rather than recognizing the inherent sovereignty and cultural identity of indigenous people who the U.S. military helped overthrow and strip of their lands.

In reaching their position on Native Hawaiian recognition, the majority of commissioners ignored my dissenting comments, the dissent of the only other Democratic commissioner (who is part-Hawaiian), those who spoke in support of the bill at a public meeting in January 2006, and the previous advice of the agency's own Hawaii state advisory committee. In fact, the agency's Bush-appointed staff director in August hastily set meetings on the Akaka bill by a new Hawaii state advisory committee full of different appointees. The manner and timing of the new Hawaii state advisory committee's discussions of the Akaka bill are suspicious. The majority on the commission already rejected this Native rights bill and now appears to be trying to overturn past state support.

Will the Commission on Civil Rights turn around? Today's commission is a shadow of its former self. It is largely inactive and often dismissed for its extreme positions. Like the DOJ and so many other federal agencies, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights needs to be reformed so that it can regain its independence, quality of work, and bipartisan support. I remain hopeful about reform, but it will require courage and support from everyone who sees the need for a strong federal agency to act as the ''conscience'' of the nation in stopping discrimination. So many of the civil rights problems in Indian country continue because the rest of our nation hasn't heard or understood what's happening.

In November, the commission will briefly examine discrimination against American Indians in reservation border towns. I hope that the agency will seize the opportunity to resume its vocal support of Native communities. There must be a renewal of the whole Commission on Civil Rights in this 50th anniversary year that will make the agency an enduring voice for the civil rights of all Native peoples in this country.

Arlan D. Melendez is chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The views he expresses are his own and may not be shared by other commissioners.