On December 16, 2010, President Barack Obama announced United States support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. With that pronouncement, there is now no country in the world that opposes the rights of indigenous peoples to exist as distinct peoples and to secure their own future.
Today, Native nations remain steadfast in pushing for full implementation of the UN Declaration by seeking changes in federal laws and regulations to restore tribal jurisdiction to address violence against Native women locally, to regain control over Native lands and resources, and to promote economic development.
A major opportunity for reform occurred with the creation of the Indian Trust Reform Commission. Members of the Commission convened for the first time in March and have since been busy meeting with tribal leaders and others to develop and propose recommendations for the reform of the trust relationship with the federal government. Recommendations are expected to be forthcoming in 2013.
Much progress is also taking place in the area of economic development consistent with Article 32(1) of the UN Declaration’s affirmation of the right of indigenous peoples to develop their lands, territories, and resources. Earlier this year, President Obama signed the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act (HEARTH Act) into law, thus restoring the authority of Native nations to control and govern the leasing of their lands with limited federal oversight. Others are bypassing cumbersome federal processes and buying back their ancestral homelands, as in the case of Pe’ Sla, an area sacred to the Great Sioux Nation. On November 30, 2012, after months of campaigning, the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota nations secured the reacquisition of traditional land in the Black Hills.
This year, we have seen the development of more tribal consultation policies than perhaps at any other time in recent history. After a year of tribal consultation, the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department recently released a proposed revenue procedure that would leave Native nations with more freedom to distribute much-needed assistance to citizens and members, free of federal taxation. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service held over 50 listening sessions with Native governments to inform their draft report and recommendations on improving federal approaches to sacred places. The report, released just a few days ago, includes references to the UN Declaration, including the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to sacred sites (Article 12) and to maintain their spiritual relationship with traditionally owned lands (Article 25).
But, alarmingly, there remain other critical standards within the Declaration applicable to the United States that have yet to be realized, like the call in Article 22 for ensuring that “indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.” Violence against Native women has reached horrific levels—rates of violence 2½ times greater than any other population in this country and now on a par with and even exceeding estimates of violence against women globally. Because of the legal barriers in United States law that discriminate against Native women, they are protected less, just because they are Native and are assaulted on Native lands.
Despite this, Congress has been unable and, in the case of certain lawmakers, blatantly unwilling to protect Native women by including key tribal provisions in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. These provisions, included in the Senate-passed version of the bill but not in the House-passed version, would restore limited tribal jurisdiction to address certain types of violence against Native women by any person—Indian or non-Indian—in Indian country. After months of political gridlock, little time is left in this congressional session. Last minute discussions by House and Senate leaders keep hope alive that, this year, Congress can still stand and pass strong bipartisan legislation, with tribal provisions, to provide justice for Native and all women. Using the Declaration, Native women advocates and Native nations have turned to the international community for help. In response, independent international experts and human rights bodies have repeatedly called on the United States to take action to combat the epidemic levels of violence against Native women right here at home.
Native nations are becoming more active internationally than ever before. In fact, included among the top priorities at the White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 5th was a focus on the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, with a specific call by the National Congress of American Indians to President Obama to open the World Conference by supporting full representation of Native nations at the UN and by fully implementing the UN Declaration.
Over the past several years, we have worked closely with Native leaders, lawyers, academics, and advocates throughout the country to develop a set of recommendations for reforming federal law and implementing the UN Declaration. These recommendations are the focus of a new book recently published by Thomson Reuters, Native Land Law: General Principles of Law Relating to Native Lands and Natural Resources. The book is available for purchase on the Thomson Reuters WestLaw website.
Robert T. Coulter is Executive Director of the Indian Law Resource Center. He is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.