Tribes Take Lead In Implementing UN Declaration

Robert T. Coulter (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), Executive Director of the Indian Law Resource Center, is preparing a series of articles on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and how Tribes throughout the United States are taking a lead role in its implementation. As a preface, Mr. Coulter has offered observations on current issues and efforts toward progress, excerpts from which include the following:

It has been just a year since President Obama announced the Administration’s support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and promised action to implement at least some of those rights. Across the country, tribal governments are seizing the Declaration and using it creatively to protect their lands and resources, and especially their rights to cultural and sacred sites.

Not surprisingly, other Indian and Alaska Native nations are using the Declaration to seek changes in federal laws and regulations, re-establish tribal jurisdiction to address violence against Native women and other crimes, regain control over Native lands and resources, and promote economic development. Obviously, tribes want to see real, concrete changes in federal laws, regulations, and policies – changes that will improve the lives of their citizens or members and assure the well-being of each tribe or nation. It is going to take a strong, national campaign by tribes to get serious, concrete changes made. Tribes will need to come together behind specific proposals for changes in administrative regulations and policies and for corrective legislation. The UN Declaration is a very useful guide for what changes are necessary. It contains dozens upon dozens of rights covering nearly every conceivable topic. Tribes are studying these detailed provisions, making strategies, and deciding what changes are most important – what elements of the Declaration to implement first.

(A) top concern almost everywhere is environmentally safe and sustainable economic development. The Declaration contains many provisions that could help tribes to gain real control of their lands and resources and overcome some of the worst barriers to development in Indian Country. The provisions in the Declaration that acknowledge tribes’ rights to self-governance, to manage their own lands and resources, and to protect their subsistence economic activities, and that prohibit discrimination against tribes and their members, will all contribute to creating a positive climate for business, investment, and economic development in Indian Country. A number of important proposals for changing federal law to give tribes a fair chance for development have been drafted by the Indian Law Resource Center with the support of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. These are available on our website at

Another top priority is the protection and restoration of tribal governmental jurisdiction in order to increase the ability of tribes to prosper and survive, and especially to increase tribes’ ability to deal with the problem of violence against Native women. The UN Declaration contains more than 15 articles spelling out and protecting many aspects of tribal self-government and jurisdiction. These detailed provisions, along with the Administration’s support for them, could stop excessive interference and change the way the federal government deals with tribal governments. This could give tribal governments a greater chance for success and increase safety in all Native communities.

The protection of and access to sacred sites is yet another set of issues often raised by tribes. The Declaration acknowledges that tribes have “the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.” These provisions call for serious changes in federal law and policy. In July, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and the Cortina Band of Wintun Indians used the Declaration to successfully negotiate a cultural easement on a municipal park in California. The easement, which will be permanently associated with the park, allowed the tribes to cancel the construction of bathrooms on a sacred site, and to relocate and resize a planned new parking lot so that visitor traffic will be diverted from sacred sites.

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