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United States Cannot be the Only Country Opposing Indigenous Rights

When Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recently, it created a groundswell of hope in Indian country, and put more pressure on the United States to step up soon.

The Declaration is an international human rights mechanism that recognizes the individual and collective rights of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples, including the right to self-determination, and the right to give or withhold our free, prior and informed consent when it comes to the exploitation of our lands, territories and resources.

After 30 years of negotiations, the Declaration was finally adopted in 2007 by a vote of 143 nations in favor, and four opposing. Australia, New Zealand and now Canada, have reversed their positions in the last three years and voted to endorse it.

That means the United States is now the only country left opposing the rights of indigenous peoples.

Native leaders who did the early work on the U.N. Declaration widely praised Canada’s action, and predict that the United States will soon follow.

“I welcome Canada’s endorsement as a positive step moving forward in real partnership with indigenous peoples,” said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, North American regional representative to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “The Declaration is the result of 30 years of concentrated effort and sacrifice by indigenous peoples to lift us from racism, discrimination and domination from colonial powers.

“Although Canada’s endorsement includes the caveat that the Declaration will not be allowed to override Canada’s own legal framework, it’s incumbent upon Canada to fully endorse and implement the Declaration in a manner consistent with international standards of human rights, and in keeping with the recognition of the individual, group and collective rights of indigenous peoples.”

Chief Wilton Littlechild, a respected Cree lawyer from Alberta who forged early negotiations on the Declaration, said he was highly encouraged that soon all nations will implement it.

“It’s been a long run since 1975 when our elders, after sacred ceremonies and deliberations, decided to go to the international arena. Concerned about treaty violations, we sought justice by participating throughout the drafting stages and negotiations of the U.N. Declaration. I was very disappointed and felt betrayed after Canada voted twice against adoption of the Declaration.

“I’m happy that we can now move ahead together, reflecting our treaty partnerships, to implement the U.N. Declaration,” he said. “For the United States, it offers a tremendous opportunity to be bold and better. Other nations have tried to qualify their support and endorsement, but the United States should take the lead as a member of the Human Rights Council and indicate that the Declaration is more than an aspirational document.”

Littlechild said plans for implementation should focus on articles in the Declaration for which there is substantial agreement, while work can continue on the few remaining areas of concern.

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Bill Means, an Oglala Lakota activist who chairs the International Indian Treaty Council, recalled a 1974 historic meeting of more than 90 indigenous nations that gave IITC a mandate to work with the United Nations on treaty rights.

“Treaties with indigenous peoples worldwide became the foundation of our work in fighting for the recognition of our human rights. After over 30 years of struggle, we witnessed a turning point in history when the General Assembly adopted the Declaration. This is a new beginning, however, and indigenous peoples will not rest until we take our rightful place in the family of nations.”

On a practical level, implementing the Declaration in the United States requires additional work. Alan Parker, an attorney, professor and former counsel to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, has some concrete suggestions.

Parker recommends the creation of a commission to implement the Declaration comprised of Native leaders who represent a cross-section of Indian country as well as representatives of the U.S. Interior, Justice and State departments.

The commission should examine federal policies to assess how U.S. policy and laws should be amended to meet the standards of the Declaration. He also recommended the Obama administration consult with Canada, New Zealand and Australia to coordinate the process of policy adjustment and modification.

Parker said President Obama should recommend that the United Nations modify the practice of treating Indian nation delegates as non-governmental organization representatives.

He suggests creating a special category of Indigenous Nation Governmental Representatives with the right to submit testimony directly to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Nation Issues, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Convention on Biodiversity.

The Obama administration should also request that intellectual property laws and standards administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization be adjusted to accommodate the concerns of indigenous peoples regarding their unique cultural resources such as medicine plants, sacred symbols and traditional knowledge.

“There are numerous instances where traditional wisdom passed down over many generations was appropriated by scholars and researchers who file copyrights on their reports containing this information and then assert ownership rights as a private individual or corporate entity,” said Parker, leaving indigenous peoples without any legal recourse to their own property.

It’s time to change the long history of discrimination and oppression in the United States, and to acknowledge that indigenous peoples worldwide deserve the same rights as other citizens of the world.

President Obama, be the change you want to see. We urge you to quickly adopt the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is an award-winning journalist, media strategist and indigenous rights advocate. She is based in Albuquerque, NM. Contact her at