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Plume: Live up to your obligations An open letter to President George W. Bush

Dear President Bush, The Oglala Sioux Tribe is writing this letter to demand that the United States fulfill its obligation to respect and protect the human rights of Indian peoples in this country. Indian peoples’ ability to survive into the future depends largely on our ability to maintain, protect and promote our traditional and cultural beliefs, which includes our ability to practice our spiritual beliefs in privacy and without disruption. This is not merely a cultural and spiritual concern; it is a matter of human rights that exist in international law.

These human rights have been recognized in two international covenants and conventions – the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO Convention No. 169). The United States signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1977. Article 27 of the covenant provides that “ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities ... shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” The U.N. Human Rights Committee, charged with monitoring countries’ compliance with the covenant, has determined that with respect to indigenous peoples, the right to enjoy their own culture includes particular ways of life associated with the use of certain territories.

Further, the committee determined that the enjoyment of these rights may require positive legal measures of protection to ensure the effective participation in decisions which affect them. Clearly, under the covenant, the United States has a legal and moral obligation to take necessary measures to protect Indian peoples’ right to practice their spiritual beliefs and enjoy their culture, including the use of sacred sites.

Article 7 of the convention provides that indigenous peoples “have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use.” Article 13 of the convention provides that “governments shall respect the special importance for the cultures and spiritual values of the peoples concerned of their relationship with the lands or territories, or both as applicable, which they occupy or otherwise use, and in particular the collective aspects of this relationship.” Although these rights have been recognized in international law, sadly, the United States has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169.

The rights identified in the covenant and the convention go to the heart of the ongoing struggle at Bear Butte, near Sturgis, S.D., a site that is held sacred by numerous tribes. Indian spiritual practices at Bear Butte are facing certain disruption by the granting of hard liquor licenses and the development of huge outdoor amphitheaters nearby. With these developments will come noise, crowds and interruption of the quiet and respect needed for traditional ceremonies – all of this within two miles of the base of Bear Butte. Bear Butte is but one example of the numerous attacks across the country on our traditional ways of life and on our human rights to continue practicing our spiritual beliefs with dignity and in peace and to decide our own priorities for development that affect the lands we use and our spiritual well-being.

In addition to the previous recognition of these human rights in the covenant and convention, these rights have been recognized in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recently adopted by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Article 7 of the declaration provides that “indigenous peoples have the right ... to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites.” Article 25 also provides that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally ... occupied and used lands ... and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”

Clearly, the declaration recognizes our human right to “maintain, protect, and have access in privacy” to Bear Butte and our right to uphold our spiritual responsibility to this sacred site for our children. But the exercise of these fundamental human rights is sure to be grossly disturbed by the newest alcohol and concert hall developments taking place at Bear Butte.

We are calling on the United States to fulfill its legal obligation to Indian peoples throughout this country under international human rights law, as outlined in the covenant and the recently adopted declaration, to take all possible measures to preserve and protect the sanctity of Bear Butte.

We are also calling on the United States to fulfill its legal and moral obligations to Indian peoples by voting to approve the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the upcoming September session of the U.N. General Assembly. The United States cannot meet its existing legal and moral obligations under international law, nor its fiduciary obligations under federal Indian law, by voting against (or abstaining from voting on) the declaration. To take any action other than voting to approve the declaration would do immeasurable damage to the “government-to-government” working relationship that we have all worked so hard to achieve. A vote against the declaration would be a vote against the first peoples of this country.

It is time the United States lived up to its obligation to respect and promote our human rights as Indian peoples – particularly our right to continue practicing our spiritual beliefs at Bear Butte in privacy and undisturbed. The United States holds itself up to the world as a champion of human rights. It is time that the United States be a champion of human rights to the Indian peoples of this country by voting for the declaration.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to your response.

<i>Alex White Plume is president of the Oglala Lakota Nation.