July 16, 2011

Oneida Indian Nation and Navajo Nation Leaders Launch Discussion on Indigenous Issues

The Navajo Nation with its spectacular Utah, Arizona and New Mexico landscapes of buttes, canyons, and wide open spaces is strikingly different from the Oneida Indian Nation of central New York whose equally spectacular territory of rivers, lakes and woodlands has been settled for hundreds of years. But when the northeastern nation’s leader met the southwestern nation’s vice president recently a new friendship and partnership was forged based on the commonalities of all Indigenous Peoples.

In early July, Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim led a delegation from the Navajo Nation to Verona, New York, where he met with Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises. It was the first high-level government-to-government meeting between the two nations and it yielded a fruitful discussion about health care, education, economic development and other subjects, and a promise to work together with other leaders to move these issues forward across Indian country.

“Our goal is to bring more tribal leaders together and talk about a national agenda and issues that are critical to our nations and start working on them,” Jim said.

“We were delighted and honored to have the representative from the great Navajo Nation visit our community and our people,” Halbritter said. “We had a very good discussion about a number of issues we identified as common areas of concern. It was a great first meeting and we look forward to more discussions. As tribal leaders, this is what we should be doing. Our responsibility is to look out for our generations to come.”

Although the two nations met for the first time, they already had a mutual connection – Notah Begay, the famous PGA Tour tournament winner. Begay is half Navajo, one-quarter San Felipe, and one-quarter Isleta – and 100 percent dedicated to positively impacting the American Indian community, particularly its youth. In 2005, Begay launched The Notah Begay III Foundation, which works to battle obesity and diabetes in Indian youth. The Oneida Nation has hosted golf tournaments featuring golf superstars such as Tiger Woods, Camilo Villegas, Mike Weir and Begay himself at Oneida’s Atunyote Golf Club to raise funds for the Notah Begay III Foundation’s health and wellness programs for American Indian youth on reservations throughout the country.

“The Navajo Nation and the Oneida Nation are great supporters of those efforts for Indian youth and the Navajo were in the area and they called and we thought it would be a great opportunity to sit down and discuss those issues that are common to all Native people,” Halbritter said.

Jim said that Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly had assigned him to take charge of health, education and international issues that relate to indigenous peoples.

“Notah Begay is very interested in young people and health issues, and we’re dealing with diabetes and obesity and we want to work with him to see if he could bring some of his program to Navajo to help us with that. At the same time we’re also interested in fund raising for scholarships for Navajo people,” Jim said.

Part of the Navajo delegation’s tour of the northeast included visits to Ivy League colleges, including Yale University in Connecticut, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Harvard University in Boston. “What we’re attempting to do is tap into their resources,” Jim said. Indian country needs to access the privileges described by the Ivy League institutions, Jim said. “So we’re trying to test them out and say, ‘You need to help and partner with indigenous nations.”

Halbritter noted that, historically, many of the Ivy League schools, including Dartmouth and Harvard, were developed “to help bring, in their view, some education to the Indigenous Peoples of this country.” A number of the schools were given land by Indian people, Halbritter said. “And through time their original missions faded so this is a wonderful idea that the Navajo people have, because they’re giving the Ivy League schools the opportunity to remember their original missions and also their historically close connections to Native peoples.”

Harvard, for example, was given funds to establish the Indian College by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Natives in New England for Indian education in the late 1640s. In its Charter of 1650, Harvard acknowledged the “necessary provision for the education of the English and Indian youth.” The first Native students who attended the Indian College were John Wampus, who departed before graduation, two Wampanoag students, Jacob Iacoommes and Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck who were members of the class of 1665. Iacommes, who was killed shortly before the commencement in 1665, was honored with a posthumous degree during commencement in May.

Before the 1970s, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was the only Native American student who lived long enough to receive a Harvard degree, although he died of tuberculosis one year after graduation, according to the university website. “With no students, the Indian College was dismantled in the 1690s, its bricks put to other uses.” The university resurrected its Indian program in the 1970s.

Dartmouth College was founded specifically: “…for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in the Land in reading, writing & all parts of Learning which shall appear necessary and expedient…” Mohegan preacher Samson Occom raised funds for the college in Britain with King George III giving the grant in 1769. Only 28 Indians attended Dartmouth between 1865 and 1965, however. On March 2, 1970, Dartmouth’s 13th President, John G. Kemeny, re-affirmed the college’s commitment to American Indian education during his inauguration and since then Dartmouth has developed one of the most robust Indian programs in the country.

“Some of us went to Ivy League schools,” Jim noted, “and Oneida has good connections to Harvard so we hope to work together more in that area on how we can access the education they offer.”

In fact, both Jim and Halbritter are graduates of the crème de la crème of Ivy League schools – Princeton and Harvard, respectively. Jim received a BA in English from Princeton in 1986; while Halbritter earned a law degree from Harvard Law School. The Oneida Nation endowed a chair at Harvard – the Oneida Indian Nation Professorship in American Indian law – in 2003 and funded it with a $3 million gift.

Halbritter said the Navajo initiative is also timely because technology now allows for distance learning and potentially distance medicine to be used in the more remote areas of the Navajo Nation and other areas of the southwest. Navajo lands cover some 27,000-plus square miles over the three states.

“I think there’s a really good opportunity to bring distance learning and potentially distance health care to remote areas that you sometimes find particularly in the southwest where Navajo is situated. The technology could be used for any remote location, even in Central and South America. We know those people are our brothers,” Halbritter said.

But what is needed for the Navajo’s grand scale vision to bring improvements in health care, education, economic development and other areas to Indian country is for indigenous leaders to join the initiative, Jim said.

“One of the things about this whole initiative is we do have national programs but they are initiatives started by other people, let’s said the Indian Health Service, and to a certain degree they’re the ones driving these initiates, but we want to turn it around and say, ‘This is what we want as tribal nations, as sovereign nations and we are the tribal leaders speaking,” Jim said.

A good example of the need for a unified tribal leadership is the implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Jim said.

“We’re not going to sit around and wait for the U.S. or somebody else to say, ‘This is how you should do it.’ We need to take bold actions and say, ‘This is how we want it done and then you will do whatever you need to do – changing your laws or whatever – to accommodate what we are doing,’“ Jim said.

Both Halbritter and Jim were involved in the making of the Declaration – Halbritter at the beginning of the process and Jim toward its end.

When Jim was elected to the Navajo Nation Council in 2003 he began attending the sessions at the U.N. where the Declaration was being written. “I actually participated in the casting of language and in the debate and did some research and so on as part of the Navajo delegation,” Jim said.

Halbritter was among a delegation of indigenous leaders who first went to the U.N. in Geneva in 1977 seeking justice and a redress of the many treaty and human rights violations by the dominant societies that had colonized their aboriginal lands.

“I was very honored back in 1977 when I was fortunate enough to attend that conference which was the beginning of the discussion of the Declaration. It’s taken so many years, but it’s good to know that from those humble beginnings something has come about,” Halbritter said.

The U.S. – with Canada, Australia and New Zealand – voted against endorsing the U.N. Declaration in the General Assembly on September 13, 2007, and was the last nation to finally accepts the international document asserting indigenous human rights. President Obama announced that the U.S. would “lend its support” to the Declaration at the White House Tribal Leaders Conference on December 16, but questions about the administration’s intent and interpretation of the Declaration arose almost immediately because of the ambiguity of the language used both in Obama’s speech and in a 15-page letter issued by the State Department.

So, how will the nations actually persuade the U.S. to go about implementing the Declaration and living up to its obligations under the international agreement particularly in issues of indigenous land rights?

“It’s certainly not that we expect it to be an overnight process,” Halbritter said. “It’s probably a generational process, but that’s what our job is, that’s what we need to do.” It won’t be an easy task, Halbritter said. “The U.S. government has a responsibility to live up to truth, justice and the American way and that includes American Indian peoples. They’ve lost some of their knowledge of history in complicated arguments, but to me the issues are quite simple: the treaties are plain and clear. Certainly it’s a challenge and we have to assert ourselves. We’re here and we’re not going away. We’ve been here since time immemorial and we’re going to be her as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.

Indian leaders will soon have the opportunity to meet and discuss these issues and plan their next steps. The Navajo Nation will hold its annual fair September 7-11. Halbritter and other tribal leaders will be invited to attend and start the discussion and work on the issues. “We’re looking at leadership across Indian country and beginning a relationship with those leaders that are bold and doing certain things that we think are advancing the sovereignty of the nations,” Jim said. “They may not even be aware of it, but they may be already exercising and implementing some of the U.N. Declaration articles and those are the leaders who are making those moves that we want to bring together and start talking about in face to face meetings.”

Halbritter said plans are in the works for an Oneida delegation to attend the Navajo event.

“I think this fair is a wonderful opportunity for leaders to come together and continue this discussion. This is where it begins – in discussion. That’s where everything begins,” Halbritter said.

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December 12, 2011

UN Declaration’s One-Year Anniversary: ‘Much to Celebrate, Much More to Be Done’

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the United States formally reversing its opposition to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While some involved in the indigenous rights struggle say little has changed since then, others say there’s a lot to celebrate—mostly because indigenous people are working hard to make sure that declaration is implemented in all interactions with nation-states.

At the second White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 15, 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would “lend its support” to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “The aspirations it affirms, including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples, are one we must always seek to fulfill,” Obama said. “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, indeed, actions were what Indigenous Peoples were looking for after Obama’s announcement. It took indigenous representatives from around the world more than 20 years to draft and negotiate the declaration, which provides a human rights framework for the world’s approximately 370 Indigenous Peoples. The UN General Assembly adopted it on September 13, 2007, with 144 states in favor, four votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstentions. Australia, New Zealand and Canada later endorsed the human rights declaration before the U.S. did. So when the president made his historic announcement one year ago, Indian activists in North America shifted their focus from advocacy to implementation. “There’s much to celebrate, but much more to be done,” said Andrea Carmen (Pasqua Yaqui Tribe), executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC).

A request for comment on the president’s view on progress in implementing the Declaration was referred to the State Department, where spokeswoman Tiffany Miller said in an e-mail that there’s no simple answer. “As you know, the Declaration has implications for many agencies across the U.S. Government. However, I can tell you that the Obama Administration is committed to making U.S. support of the Declaration meaningful.”

Carmen played an important role in the international forums that developed the Declaration and over the past year she has led and participated in dozens of workshops and presentation in front of tribal governments and organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians, educating Indigenous Peoples on the Declaration and how to use it as a tool in every interaction with federal, state and local governments. “The recognition of rights is the basis for peace. The denial of rights is the cause of conflict,” Carmen said. “The interactions of the past – we can’t forget them because there’s redress and restitution, which is also included in the Declaration. But the discussion can start on a new level based on recognition, upholding and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in this Declaration that the U.S. is now a party to. It’s an amazing step forward.”

The implementation of the Declaration is beginning both in the international arena and the U.S. A good example of progress in the international arena took place last January during the continuing negotiations in the drafting of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is being created under the auspices of the Organization of American States “When there was a challenge to the proposed language, the chair said, ‘We need to fall back on the language in the U.N. Declaration on this issue.’ That may not sound like much but it was the first time that happened. And previously the U.S. and Canada always opposed using the Declaration as the minimum standards for the discussion on the American level. But they didn’t say a word in opposition this time – they couldn’t because they support the Declaration now,” Carmen said.

The Declaration was instrumental in the U.S. in another important issue this year – the protection of a sacred shell mound at Sogorea Te in Glen Cove, California, said Mark Anquoe (Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma), IITC’s administrative and communications coordinator. “There was a 109-day spiritual encampment at the site, so it was huge and it was special because it was the first time the Bay area Indian community rallied around the Declaration,” Anquoe said.

Not everyone working in the arena of indigenous rights sees that kind of progress over the past year. Steve Newcomb, (Lenni/Lenape), a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, says the U.S. State Department distorted the Declaration’s meaning of Indigenous Peoples’ right to self determination and needs to rectify its error before progress can be made. Article 3 of the Declaration says, “Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Newcomb says the State Department “did not tell the truth” about Article 3 in its 15-page white paper issued December 16, 2010. “In its statement, the State Department said it was ‘pleased to support the Declaration’s call to promote the development of a new and distinct international concept of self-determination specific to indigenous Peoples. (emphasis added)

“The State Department expanded on this falsehood by saying that the ‘Declaration’s call is to promote the development of a concept of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples that is different from the existing right of self-determination in international law.” This is patently and blatantly false! This was never the understanding of the process that led to the adoption of Article 3 and its relationship to the international human right of self-determination found in the International Human Rights Covenants. By its statements of bad faith—statements it has not disavowed in the past year—the United States destroyed the very basis for implementing the key provision in the UN Declaration that Indigenous Peoples were working toward in their efforts to create positive reforms in the area of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. This needs to be rectified as a first step in talking meaningfully about ‘implementing’ the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Michael Leroy Oberg, Professor of History Co-coordinator of Native American Studies at the State University of New York, Geneseo, and author of Native America: A History, said Obama’s “lending of support” to the Declaration was a “nice gesture,” but he doesn’t think it will turn out to be more than that. The problems are both in the executive branch and the judiciary, Oberg said. “The meaning of ‘self-determination’ in the Declaration, is much more literal than that which has developed in the United States over the past half-century, and much less constrained by some of the long-standing and, I would argue, colonial assumptions built into American Indian policy.”

He argues that the courts have had a far more dramatic impact recently than the executive branch. “The Supreme Court especially—and especially with regards to Indians in New York State—has placed significant limitations on tribal sovereignty and the rights of Native nations,” Oberg said. “Only an optimist of the most sunny sort would expect the Declaration, I am afraid, to have any significant impact on the conduct of the judicial branch of the government.”

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