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.

President Obama Announces US Support For The UN Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples

The President has announced a change to the United States’ status as the sole holdout in supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stating:

“And as you know, in April we announced that we were reviewing our position on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And today I can announce that the United States is lending its support to this Declaration.”

The President’s remarks came during the close of the second Tribal Nations Conference held by the White House. His full statement on the Declaration and other Tribal issues can be viewed HERE.

While the statement declares a change in US policy, there will be much practical work required to implement the provisions of the Declaration and assess its impact on relations between the federal government and Tribal communities.

US To Review Position On UN Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples



April 20, 2010


Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to
the United Nations, at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,
April 20, 2010


Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous
Issues, Distinguished Representatives of indigenous groups from around
the world, Excellencies and distinguished delegates.

In his Presidential Proclamation last fall honoring Native American
Heritage Month, President Obama recognized that the “indigenous
peoples of North America—the First American—have woven rich and
diverse threads into the tapestry of our Nation’s heritage.” What is
true in the Americas is true around the world. There is no true
history that does not take into account the story of indigenous
populations—their proud traditions, their rich cultures, and their
contributions to our shared heritage and identity.

But in the United States and many other parts of the world, indigenous
communities continue to feel the heavy hand of history. Our first
nations face serious challenges: disproportionate and dire poverty,
unemployment, environmental degradation, health care gaps, violent
crime, and bitter discrimination. Far more must be done—at home and
abroad—to tackle these challenges, expand the circle of opportunity,
and work with our Native communities to ensure they enjoy the security
and dignity that all citizens deserve.

President Obama is deeply committed to strengthening and building on
government-to-government relationships among the United States and our
tribal governments. Our Administration has moved quickly to launch
programs to improve the lives of Native Americans. Shortly after his
inauguration, the President appointed my colleague, Kimberly Teehee,
as his Native American policy advisor and began extensive outreach to
tribal leaders. In November of last year, President Obama invited
representatives from each of our 564 Indian tribes in the United
States to attend a White House Tribal Nations Conference. Nearly 500
tribal leaders participated—the most widely attended White House
tribal meeting with the President, Cabinet Secretaries, senior
officials, and members of Congress in U.S. history. The President
signed a Memorandum on November 5, 2009, directing every federal
agency to develop plans to implement fully the Executive Order on
“Consultation and Coordination with Tribal Governments,” which
mandates that all agencies have an accountable process for meaningful
and timely input by tribal officials in the development of regulatory
policies that have tribal implications. The level of tribal
consultation is now at historic levels—marking a new era in the United
States’ relationship with tribal governments.

Last month, President Obama signed a historic reform of the U.S.
health care system that includes important provisions to reduce the
gaping health care disparities that Native Americans still face.
Signing and implementing this landmark law constitutes a major step
toward fulfilling our national responsibility to provide high-quality,
affordable health care to all citizens, including American Indians and
Alaska Natives.

The U.S. government has also made improving public safety in tribal
communities a high priority. The Department of Justice supports an
initiative to hire more Indian country Assistant U.S. Attorneys to
prosecute cases of violent crime on Native lands. This initiative
will also provide additional federal agents to support law-enforcement
efforts in tribal communities. Combating crimes involving violence
against women and children on Native lands is a particularly high
priority for the U.S. government.

Last year, in the face of a global economic crisis, President Obama
took swift action to spur economic activity and create new jobs. The
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act specifically allocates more
than $3 billion to assist tribal communities. These funds are being
used to renovate schools on reservations across the country, to create
new jobs in tribal economies, improve housing, support health care
facilities, and bolster policing services. The President’s Fiscal
Year 2011 budget request also proposes a 5 percent increase in federal
funding for Native American programs, to a total of $18.5 billion.

The United States also supports programs that help indigenous
communities around the world. We are especially committed to
promoting corporate social responsibility, particularly with
extractive industries whose operations can so dramatically affect the
living conditions of indigenous peoples. The United States has
therefore engaged in a multi-stakeholder initiative to encourage firms
to operate safely within a framework that fully respects the rights of
surrounding communities. We support the Initiative for Conservation in
the Andean Amazon, a regional program designed to strengthen
indigenous efforts to protect and conserve the Amazon Rainforest. In
Peru, our common efforts focus on the conservation of the Manu
National Parks, together with the Yanesha and Ashaninka peoples, by
providing training in sustainable resource management and expanding
environmental conservation capacity. The United States also
participates fully and actively in the Arctic Council, a high-level
intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic states where Arctic
indigenous peoples -- represented by Permanent Participant
organizations -- have a co-equal role.

Consistent with President Obama’s call for a new era of U.S.
engagement with the world, the United States applauds the Permanent
Forum’s efforts to raise awareness of issues affecting the world’s
indigenous peoples and to generate ideas for substantially improving
their livelihoods and communities.

Thus today, I am pleased to announce that the United States has
decided to review our position regarding the U.N. Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We recognize that, for many around the
world, this Declaration provides a framework for addressing indigenous
issues. During President Obama’s first year in office, tribal leaders
encouraged the United States to reexamine its position on the
Declaration—an important recommendation that directly complements our
commitment to work together with the international community on the
many challenges that indigenous peoples face. We will be conducting a
formal review of the Declaration and the U.S. position on it. And as
we move ahead, we look forward to consulting extensively with our
valued and experienced colleagues in the federally recognized Indian
tribes and interested nongovernmental organizations.

While many steps have been taken in the Administration’s first year,
we are not satisfied. We seek to continue to work together with our
partners in indigenous communities to provide security, prosperity,
equality, and opportunity for all. There is no American history
without Native American history. There can be no just and decent
future for our nation that does not directly tackle the legacy of
bitter discrimination and sorrow that the first Americans still live
with. And America cannot be fully whole until its first inhabitants
enjoy all the blessings of liberty, prosperity, and dignity. Let
there be no doubt of our commitment. And we stand ready to be judged
by the results. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Negotiations Continue Into New Year: American Declaration on Indigenous Rights

On December 9-12, 2008 in Washington D.C. at a special session of the OAS Working Group in charge of negotiating the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Working Group identified regional concerns that an American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should reflect in comparison with the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Since it was a special session, participants did not negotiate any language concerning the articles of the draft American Declaration. Instead, the session focused on evaluating the negotiation process and identifying specific measures that should be considered in future negotiations.

The Working Group reviewed the following major issues: 1) articles that were already approved, 2) articles that are close to agreement between indigenous and state representatives, and 3) articles containing complex issues where consensus has not been reached.

According to the Indian Law Resource Center, negotiations will resume on the American Declaration on Indigenous Rights early this year.

Specifically, the OAS Working Group  will start negotiating articles at its next negotiation session scheduled for February 16-20, 2009 preceded by preparatory meetings of the Indigenous Caucus on February 14-15, 2009.

This is an important notice because tribal leaders are encouraged to attend and give their opinions and comments. For more information about attending, please contact Shayda Naficy at 202.547.2800.

OAS Pursues Declaration On Indigenous Rights In 2009

The Organization of American States is pursuing the establishment of an American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, designed to address political, social, economic, and environmental issues confronting Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. The OAS Working Group in charge of the effort has identified regional concerns that an American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should reflect, supplementing the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Working Group is currently focused on evaluating the negotiation process and identifying specific measures that should be considered in future negotiations in creating the draft Declaration. The Group has presently identified: 1) articles of the Declaration that have been approved by consensus, 2) articles that are close to agreement between indigenous and state representatives, and 3) articles containing complex issues where consensus has not been reached. The Working Group agreed to start negotiating those articles that are close to agreement between the participants at its next negotiation session scheduled for February 16-20, 2009 preceded by preparatory meetings of the Indigenous Caucus on February 14-15.

In his statement opening the recent draft session, Chief Karl Hill of the Cayuga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Confederacy) remarked:

Today the world faces climate change and global economic crises. Much of it is caused by greed and the intent to make profit at any cost. As a result, Indigenous Peoples, their lands, territories and resources are being endangered and exploited. Thus, the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas are at the center of both of these crises. As the most marginalized peoples in the hemisphere, Indigenous Peoples stand to suffer the most from the global economic downturn and have the most to lose from the monumental and unpredictable effects of climate change. …
Indigenous Peoples are people of peace who can contribute significantly toward resolving the many crises facing humanity today. The American Declaration is of critical importance. It will address the regional challenges of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas while fully respecting the standards of the universal United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.