“During President Obama’s first year in office, tribal
leaders encouraged the United States to re-examine 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.
“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. We stand ready to be judged by the results.”
Many Native leaders view this as a
positive sign that the United States is moving toward
endorsing the Declaration. Critics say there is no need to
delay it with additional reviews since the United States was
part of negotiations for more than 25 years.
Tonya Gonnella Frichner, an Onondaga
attorney and member of the Permanent Forum representing
North America, said during his campaign President Barack
Obama clearly stated to tribal leaders that he was committed
to the adoption of the Declaration.
“We still feel very positive about it and
hope that he will commit to that promise,” she told the
forum, attended by nearly 2,000 registered delegates.
Others were disappointed that the United
States – a country that postures itself as a champion of
democracy and human rights worldwide – did not support it
“We’ve already been there. It seems
extraordinary to review it again since it has already been
debated and adopted by the international community,” said
Debra Harry, Indigenous People’s Council on Biocolonialism
executive director. “We’d like to see the United States
adopt it now, and then let’s talk about how to implement it
A less formal meeting was scheduled on
the third day of the forum to discuss elements of the
review, and to allow time for Native delegates to dialog
with members of the U.S. delegation led by Kimberly Teehee,
the White House senior policy advisor for Native American
Affairs; and Ambassador Rick Barton, U.S. representative to
the Economic and Social Council.
Teehee said anytime new laws or policies
are introduced, it triggers a process for review across
federal agencies to evaluate how it will impact United
States laws, policies and regulations. This must be done to
properly plan for implementation, she said.
“We are a new administration and we care
about what you think. Our approach has been to continue the
president’s engagement and commitment to Indian country.
“In the spirit of consultation and
partnership, we will engage tribal leaders, stakeholders and
NGOs (non-governmental organizations.) We need to be
thoughtful about that process. I assure you that your voices
will be heard.”
When asked about the timeframe for the
review, Teehee said the process was just beginning and she
could not yet define how long it would take.
Cayuga Chief Karl Hill of the
Haudenosaunee reminded the U.S. delegation that the Iroquois
Confederacy negotiated the first treaties with the United
States dating back to 1704.
“We have worked on this since its
beginning more than 30 years ago, and we urge you to be
expeditious in your review,” said Hill, who delivered a
statement from the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus
containing eight major recommendations for implementing the
The Declaration has strong provisions for
supporting treaty rights and affirms indigenous peoples’
collective rights to self-determination and control over
their lands and natural resources. These rights will likely
conflict with development plans by extractive industries and
multinational corporations, but will provide greater
protections for indigenous peoples.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
encouraged nation states to move forward with adopting the
Declaration, and cited alarming statistics from the
first-ever United Nations report on the State of the World’s
Indigenous Peoples released in January.
“Indigenous peoples suffer high levels of
poverty, health problems, crime and human rights abuses all
over the world. You make up five percent of the world’s
population – but one third of the world’s poorest,” he said.
“Every day, indigenous communities face issues of violence,
brutality and dispossession. In some countries, an
indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than his
“Indigenous cultures, languages and ways
of life are under constant threat from climate change, armed
conflict, lack of educational opportunities and
“Elsewhere, your cultures are being
distorted, commodified and used to generate profits which do
not benefit indigenous people, and can even lead to harm.
This is not only a tragedy for indigenous people. It is a
tragedy for the whole world.”
Ban said that according to current
forecasts, 90 percent of all languages could disappear
within 100 years. The loss of these languages erodes an
essential component of a group’s identity.
“Diversity is strength – in cultures and
in languages, just as it is in ecosystems.
“The loss of irreplaceable cultural
practices makes us all poorer, wherever our roots may lie.
That’s why the theme this year is ‘Development with Culture
and Identity.’ It highlights the need to craft policy
measures that promote development while respecting
indigenous peoples’ values and traditions.
“We need development that is underpinned
by the values of reciprocity, solidarity and collectivity.
And we need development that allows indigenous peoples to
exercise their right to self-determination through
participation in decision-making on an equal basis.
“The United Nations will continue to support you.”