Message from the Executive Director

For over 40 years, the Indian Law Resource Center has helped American Indian and indigenous peoples across the Americas to demand justice and equality and respect for indigenous peoples human rights. With Indian and Alaska Native nations, we have defined, championed, and advanced new human rights at the international level. We have mounted legal challenges against forces that threatened to bury Indian sovereignty and won justice in national and international legal and policy arenas. We have raised awareness of the systemic inequities and, along the way, changed attitudes that were predicated on ignorance and racism. Certainly a great deal remains to be done, but the opportunities that are before us today are absolutely immense. Thank you for your support in 2021 and helping to position us before some major opportunities in the year ahead. Together we are stronger.

Racial Equity 2030 Challenge…Accepted!

In September, the Indian Law Resource Center was named one of ten finalists in a global competition of ideas for how to change systems and institutions to create a more equitable future for families and communities. Our Indigenous Lands Initiative – our idea for helping indigenous communities gain formal, legal recognition of their lands and resources – rose above more than 1,300 others and landed us a thrilling opportunity: a chance at winning a $10-$20 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation. (A link to the announcement of finalists.)

We’re working intensely with two key indigenous partner organizations – long-time collaborators that work in the Brazilian Amazon and the Peruvian Amazon – to turn our idea into an actionable eight-year plan and make a compelling case for a multimillion-dollar investment. The funding would lead to the creation of an independent, indigenous-led agency that would work across Mexico and Central and South America to provide many more communities with free technical and legal assistance to help them overcome the pervasive barriers they face in legalizing their rights to their lands and territories. Our agency/organization would assemble and deploy a network of experts who can assist communities free of charge and, through information and idea sharing, test new strategies for strengthening, scaling and accelerating indigenous land ownership rights. ( A link to a summary of our initial proposal.)

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Court Date Set! Maya Q’eqchi’ Agua Caliente Community v. Guatemala

Throughout the year we continued to argue an indigenous land rights case against the government of Guatemala before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and set the stage for securing another important advance in the law concerning indigenous peoples’ land and natural resource rights. The Court has finally set a hearing date for oral arguments and a schedule for receiving final arguments. This may very well be the penultimate milestone in what has become a 12+ year legal strategy to force Guatemala to create a legal-political framework that recognizes the collective rights of the country’s indigenous majority. 

Unfortunately, threats, intimidation, and violence in El Estor really intensified this past fall. The government declared a state of siege to quash indigenous protests over the mine and the mining company’s violation of a Court order to suspend operations. The police evicted nearly 100 Maya Q’eqchi’ families, bulldozed homes, and set fire to their belongings. The hardline stance of the Guatemalan government has drawn condemnation from a group of U.S. congressmembers and a call for the State Department to take action. (A link to their letter/statement.) We’re working to keep these congressional offices apprised of our case. Ongoing diplomatic scrutiny and pressure from the U.S. and other governments is critical to addressing the human rights violations against indigenous communities in Guatemala.

We’re certain we can win a ruling in favor of our Maya Q’eqchi’ clients along with Court decisions forcing national law and policy reforms to prevent the theft of indigenous lands and help remedy land-related conflicts across Guatemala. Our legal team is also pressing for something more. Our case is the first time the Court is being asked to apply the international legal principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources to indigenous peoples. If we successfully argue the point, it could set a hugely important precedent concerning indigenous peoples’ natural resource rights, including subsurface resources. This could be pivotal in future legal action to fight deforestation, mining, and other unsustainable resource extraction throughout Mexico and Central and South America.    

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The Agua Caliente community will finally have their day in Court on Feb 9th. The case is the Center’s second time before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; our first, Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua, resulted in a landmark judgement. In finding Nicaragua in violation of the collective land rights of an Indigenous people, the Court established the right of indigenous communities to their collective land as a basic human right.   

Making Safety in Native Communities a National Priority

Through our Safe Women, Strong Nations project we continued to bring attention to and educate local, national, and international audiences about how essential it is for tribes to have the resources and authority to police their lands and protect Native women and other vulnerable community members from violence. While politics continued to thwart the passage of important national legislation, namely the reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), we believe that our ongoing and consistent work to educate decisionmakers and decision influencers and amplify the experiences of Native women may be one of the best ways to start to bridge the political divide.

Despite the political stalemate on VAWA, there were developments to celebrate. This year, U.S. Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision in United States v. Cooley affirming the authority of tribal police officers to temporarily detain and search non-Natives on tribal land if suspected of violating state or federal law. Due to the case’s potential impact on tribes’ authority in policing violence against Native women, the Center had joined an amicus to the Court for the case. (An article about the ruling in Time magazine cited/linked to the Center’s website). In addition, President Biden’s recent Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People, which explicitly makes the safety and well-being of Native Americans a top priority for the Administration, makes us hopeful that further progress is within reach in the year ahead.