Obama Will Sign Rights Declaration

What with the Afghan war review, tax-cut extensions, omnibus budget bill, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, and the DREAM Act, a bit of good news got mostly ignored Thursday. President Barack Obama informed representatives of  hundreds of recognized American Indian tribes that he will sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Obama made the announcement during a speech at the 2nd Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference:

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 aspirations it affirms – including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples – are one we must always seek to fulfill.  And we’re releasing a more detailed statement about U.S. support for the declaration and our ongoing work in Indian Country.  But I want to be clear:  What matters far more than words – what matters far more than any resolution or declaration – are actions to match those words.  And that’s what this conference is about.  That’s what this conference is about.  That’s the standard I expect my administration to be held to.

Let me respond with one of the first words my Seminole grandmother Simmalikee taught me more than 60 years ago: “M’vto,  Mr. President. Thank you.” This is a small but welcome step in the right direction.  

Although not legally binding, the human rights declaration, a public acknowledgment of indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, property, religion, language and culture, has been sought for decades. When it was first voted on at the U.N. General Assembly in 2007, only four votes were cast against it – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Canada now remains the only hold-out.

Susan Masten, a Yurok who is chairperson of the board of directors of the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), had this to say:

Robert T. Coulter, a Potawatomi who is founder of the ILRC, wrote a column praising Obama’s announcement.

At Indian Country Today, the Oneida Nation-owned weekly based in  Canastota, N.Y., Rob Capriccioso reported:

The president also used his summit speech to clarify his support for the Native American Apology Resolution, which he signed last year, after which he did not make an out-loud apology to Native Americans for the historic federal injustices noted in the legislation. Some Natives said at the time that for the apology to hold weight, he should say it out loud.

“It’s a resolution I fully supported – recognizing that no statement can undo the damage that was done; what it can do is help reaffirm the principles that should guide our future. It’s only by heeding the lessons of our history that we can move forward.”

Heeding history’s lessons is good advice in a lot of matters.

American Indians have been next-to-invisible in our nation’s discourse over the past 120 years, marginalized, ignored, discriminated against and cheated simply because we can be without political repercussions. Voter suppression that would raise holy hoopla if it were imposed on any other ethnicity gets little attention. Indian poverty, crime, domestic violence, endemic joblessness, resource rip-offs and a multitude of other ills are covered by the media in the most superficial and stereotypical manner when they are acknowledged at all. It’s not untypical to hear non-Indians say that casinos have made things all better.

Signing the indigenous rights declaration won’t make all these problems go away, of course. And there are no doubt those who would love to see this as merely a feel-good symbolic ritual that requires no follow-up. But, if it’s taken seriously, it should spur “actions to match those words,” such as the recently signed Claims Resolution Act. As Masten, Coulter and others say, this is just a beginning. There have been false starts before. But the Obama White House has already done more than the past 11 administrations to advance the rights of Indian nations. Most important of all, it has shown the good sense to listen.