December 21, 2010
Obama trival nations

President Barack Obama greets audience members after speaking at the White House Tribal Nations Conference on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010, at the Interior Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

( – President Barack Obama, addressing a tribal nations conference at the White House last week, announded that the U.S. government is now supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which includes a sweeping declaration that "indigenous peoples" have a right to lands and resources they traditionally occupied or "otherwise used."

"Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired," says the U.N. resolution.

The Bush administration had declined to support the resolution.

At the White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama reminded the group that last year he signed a resolution passed by Congress that “finally” recognizes “the sad and painful chapters in our shared history--a history too often marred by broken promises and grave injustices against the First Americans,” he said.

The president added that “no statement can undo the damage that was done,” but he said the resolution can “help reaffirm the principles that should guide our future.” 

“It’s only by heeding the lessons of our history that we can move forward,” Obama said.

In his remarks, Obama also recalled his trip to a Montana Indian reservation during his presidential campaign where he said he was honored with a new name.

“I remember, more than two years ago, in Montana, I visited the Crow Nation -- one of the many times I met with tribal leaders on the campaign trail,” Obama said. “You may know that on that trip, I became an adopted Crow Indian.” 

“My Crow name is ‘One Who Helps People Throughout the Land,’” Obama said. “And my wife, when I told her about this, she said, ‘You should be named ‘One Who Isn’t Picking Up His Shoes and His Socks.’” 

Another reversal of Bush policy

The president told the Native Americans the U.S. will now support the U.N Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a resolution the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 2007 but the Bush administration rejected because of language it described as vague and open to interpretation.

The U.N. declaration begins by affirming a view of equal rights that seems consistent with the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, namely that "indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples" and "should be free from discrimination of any kind." But then it goes beyond that.

The declaration expresses concern that indigenous peoples have "suffered from historic injustices" as a result of colonization and "dispossession of their lands, territories and resources," and recognizes "the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights" of indigenous peoples -- "especially their right to their lands, territories and resources."

The U.S. State Department, in a Dec. 16 posting on its Web site, explained the Obama administration’s decision to support the U.N. resolution, saying it “resulted from a comprehensive, interagency policy review, including extensive consultation with tribes.”

The State Department noted that the U.N. declaration is not legally binding, but it “carries considerable moral and political force and complements the president’s ongoing efforts to address historical inequities faced by indigenous communities in the United States.”

Brent Schaefer, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, told that although the U.N. declaration now supported by the Obama administration is non-binding, it represents a “significant policy shift” from the Bush administration.

Schaefer also said that before crafting legally binding international treaties, the U.N. usually starts the process with a non-binding resolution -- a fact that will put the U.S. in a more difficult position if it objects to similar language in a formal treaty.

“It puts our negotiators in a weaker position going forward,” Schaefer said.

The Bush administration voted against the resolution in 2007, noting that under U.S. law, Indian tribes already are recognized as self-governing political entities.

The Bush administration said many of the issues covered by the U.N. declaration already are covered by U.S. law, including self-determination, lands, resources and redress for past mistreatment.

The U.N. declaration includes 46 articles, many of which dictate how nations should deal with their indigenous peoples.

Article 26 reads in part, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired,” and it says nations “shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources.”

The Bush administration called Article 26 “particularly unworkable,” because it “appears to require recognition of indigenous rights to lands without regard to other legal rights existing in land.”

The text “could be misread to confer upon a sub-national group a power of veto over the laws of a democratic legislature,” the Bush administration warned. “We strongly support the full participation of indigenous peoples in democratic decision-making processes, but cannot accept the notion of a sub-national group having a ‘veto.’”

Article 21 reads in part, “States shall take effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of their (indigenous people’s) economic and social conditions. Particular attention shall be paid to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.”

Article 16 directs nations to “take effective measures to ensure that State-owned media duly reflect indigenous cultural diversity. States…should encourage privately owned media to adequately reflect indigenous cultural diversity.”