Recognition and rebuilding

Amy E. Den Ouden, Jean M. O’Brien

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

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On December 16, 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to the State Department’s press release, “U.S. support of the Declaration goes hand in hand with the U.S. commitment to address the consequences of a history in which, as President Obama recognized, ‘few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans-our First Americans.' " 1 The State Department’s press release stresses that the decision “underscores the U.S. commitment to strengthening government-to-government relations with federally recognized tribes.” The U.S. had been one of the original four no-vote states when the Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2007. The others-Canada (November 2010), Australia (April 2009), and New Zealand (April 2010)-changed their positions and endorsed the Declaration prior to Obama’s announcement. Native leaders and scholars in the U.S. have expressed diverging positions on the potential political significance of Obama’s statement of U.S. support for the Declaration. National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel remarked in his 2011 State of the Indian Nations address (January 27) that Obama’s statement “is a great step forward in respect and recognition of Indigenous peoples throughout the world.” 2 Steven Newcomb, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, argues in a December 31, 2010 Indian Country Today essay that the U.S. position on the Declaration as it is detailed in the 15-page State Department announcement “seems well designed to maintain the status quo of federal Indian law and policy,” and to “maintain [its] bedrock categories and concepts.” Andrea Carmen (Yaqui Nation), Executive Director of the International Indian Treaty Council, has said that the U.S. statement of support is “a positive, necessary, and long overdue step forward”; but, along with Rebecca Adamson, founder of the organization First Peoples Worldwide, Carmen draws our attention to the ambiguity of President Obama’s language in his announcement-that the U.S. will “lend its support” to the Declaration. Adamson emphasizes that Obama “has to act on his language”: “This is Obama’s chance to become for Indigenous rights what Kennedy was for civil rights,” Adamson said. But, as Carmen explains, the State Department’s official announcement implies that the U.S. seeks to “redefine Indigenous - Amy E. Den Ouden and Jean M. O’Brien - self-determination in international law as the ‘internal’ self-determination of U.S. law,” and thus to “reduce the Declaration’s standards of international law to U.S. federal laws and policies.“Founder and Executive Director of the Indian Law Resource Center, Robert Tim Coulter, argues that the Declaration “sets an agenda” for the establishment of new relations between Native peoples and the U.S., and that “our work to ensure justice for Indian nations in this country begins in earnest with the U.S. endorsement of the UN Declaration.” 3 In this essay, we probe the history of recognition and rebuilding of tribal nations in the U.S. as a way of framing contemporary discourse surrounding recognition as a fundamental collective right of Indigenous peoples in the global context. We begin, then, by sketching the broad strokes of settler colonialism in the U.S. that produced a long history of sovereignty struggles as the crucial context of this contemporary discourse. 4 We note that present-day official policies of recognition in the U.S. and elsewhere assume a posture of dominance that is belied by the complex, messy, inconsistent, and sometimes incoherent or at least illegible reality of the relations between tribal nations and local, state and federal governments in the U.S. We note that contemporary relations between Native peoples and external governments must be assessed in terms of on going and intensifying efforts on the part of Indigenous people-including activists, leaders, and scholars in North America and around the world-to transform the international legal system in the interest of genuine legal pluralism and a possible future of just and peaceful coexistence between Indigenous peoples and states, as called for in the Declaration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe World of Indigenous North America
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781136332005
ISBN (Print)9780415879521
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

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© 2015 Taylor & Francis.


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