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Still Lying After All These Years

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Much fanfare has been made of Barack Obama’s December 16, 2010, announcement at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C. Obama stated that the United States was finally “lending its support” to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—the U.S. being the last major country on the planet to do so.

I wish that there were a more diplomatic way to say this, but the plain fact is that Obama, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, lied to the Tribal Nations Summit Conference, and to the world, on December 16. I do not relish raining on the parade of those who took Obama at his word, or to dash Indian country’s optimism that finally someone in the White House is going to change the fundamentals of U.S. indigenous policy. It is necessary, however, to face a tough reality. The United States has not, does not now, and likely will never honestly support the Declaration in its current form.

This bold assertion reasonably requires some evidentiary support, which, unfortunately, is not difficult to produce. Significant, irrefutable evidence can be found in the thirty-year historical record of U.S. opposition to the international rights of indigenous peoples at the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations, at the Human Rights Commission/Council, at the International Labor Organization, and at the Organization of American States, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Although US officials suggest that Obama reversed previous history with his announcement, in fact, just the opposite is true. The most damning and conclusive evidence of US rejection of the Declaration is found in the State Department’s own December 16 document, which was released simultaneously with Obama’s statement. The long, shameful history of US denial of the rights of indigenous peoples has now been formally reinforced by Obama and his State Department.

Most people who applauded Obama’s announcement are unaware of, and probably have not read, the fifteen-page State Department elaboration of the United States government’s position on the Declaration. Instead of “lending support,” what the State Department document reveals is the US plan to gut the Declaration, and to “domesticate” it into an instrument to serve the national security interests of the US. In the process, indigenous peoples, especially those within the territories claimed by the US, will continue to be denied the basic international rights and protections that the Declaration promises.

There are six major areas in which the United States explicitly rejects the fundamental elements of the Declaration: 1. the international character and personality of indigenous peoples; 2. the international right to self-determination for indigenous peoples; 3. the international nature and enforcement of treaties between indigenous nations and the United States; 4. indigenous nations’ authority over territory and natural resources; 5. indigenous peoples’ control of traditional knowledge and intellectual property; and 6. the requirement for the U.S. to obtain the free, prior and informed consent (not solely consultation) of indigenous peoples before implementing any law or policy that fundamentally affects indigenous peoples.

Space prevents a detailed elaboration of the U.S. position in these six areas, but I will be glad to provide a copy of my expanded analysis on these points. At bottom, US representatives at the United Nations for the past thirty years have regularly stated that the US will endorse the Declaration only to the degree that the document is consistent with existing US federal Indian law. That position is merely reinforced with the Obama announcement; there is nothing new or revolutionary in that stance.

My intention here is not to minimize the difficult work of some indigenous individuals in the Obama administration who are working to make positive change in a thankless environment. People such as Kim Teehee, Jodi Gillette, and Wizi Garriot are good, principled individuals, but they are engaged in what the poet Audre Lord called the impossible task of “dismantling the master’s house, using the master’s tools.” In the final analysis, Obama’s ultimate loyalty, as with his forty-three predecessors, is to the national interests of the United States, which are rarely (and then only accidentally) the same as the interests of indigenous peoples.

Neither is my intention to sow seeds of pessimism. There are reasons for indigenous peoples to take heart. The fact that the US is on record supporting the Declaration, regardless of its duplicity in doing so, is a positive development. Now, indigenous peoples must keep pressure on the US (as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand), and not allow the US to pervert the Declaration to its own purpose, otherwise, a major opportunity will have been lost.

In particular, one sentence in the State Department’s document should be seared into every indigenous person’s consciousness, and the US should be forever held to it. The statement reads: “[t]he United States is committed to serving as a model in the international community in promoting and protecting the collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as the human rights of all individuals.”

Almost immediately in the document, the US then tries to qualify and limit its statement by suggesting that indigenous peoples possess only “certain” collective rights – presumably those defined by the US. As much as the US might want to pick and choose which aspects of the Declaration should apply to it, indigenous peoples must remind the US that there is no “American exceptionalism” provision in the Declaration. All provisions in the Declaration should apply to the US, as much as to any other country.

Indigenous peoples, however, should not view the Declaration as a panacea; it is not a cure-all. It is simply one tool that may be used to ensure the freedom of indigenous peoples, globally. Ultimately, the survival of indigenous peoples rests in our recollection of the spiritual principles, cultural examples and political strategies of our ancestors that have allowed us to be here today. It also rests in the collective action of a cohesive global indigenous peoples movement that will continue to resist the destructive, invader paradigm of unbridled individual sloth, political unaccountability, corporate criminality and environmental destruction. If we fail to provide an alternative to the death culture around us, then there is no conceivable Declaration, Convention or Charter that will help us, or our future generations.

Glenn Morris (Shawnee) is a professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver, and director of the Fourth World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics. He has participated in a variety of UN forums since 1982. He is also a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado. He can be contacted at