In the span of less than two years, the four countries that voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States — all changed their positions. Indigenous peoples’ leaders in those countries must be commended for their diplomatic efforts. Here in the United States, the White House received more than 3,000 letters in support of the Declaration, with several Indian and Alaskan Native Nations officially supporting an endorsement by the United States.
The United States endorsement of the Declaration, on December 16 of last year, was cause for celebration. With his announcement of support for the Declaration, President Obama emphasized that the endorsement wouldn’t be an empty gesture, but that the administration will take actions in line with the Declaration.
White House staff has said repeatedly that the Administration is eager and ready to consult with tribes about how to implement the Declaration. They express a willingness to consider affirmative steps to promote the rights in the Declaration as well as corrective measures to change present law or policies. Such statements of openness have been made as well by Interior Department and State Department personnel.
According to Hillary Thompkins, Solicitor General of the Interior Department, the Interior Department is engaged in an internal review to determine how to implement the Declaration in its policies and procedures. Once the internal review is complete, officials will host consultations in several regions of the United States to get feedback from tribal representatives.
This presents a truly extraordinary opportunity for tribes to consult with the Administration about possible legislative initiatives, policy changes, possible new programs, changes in administrative practices, and long-term efforts to correct conditions that impede tribal development or that undermine tribes’ right to self-determination, cultural rights, and resource rights.
Indian and Alaska Native leaders from many regions have begun to make plans for taking advantage of this opportunity.
Some leaders are discussing the possibility of a nationwide campaign to implement the Declaration and to bring about long-needed changes in federal law and policy. Clearly such a campaign will call for long-term effort and strategy, but it may be possible to achieve some positive results even in the short term. Changes that can be achieved in a relatively short time are changes that can be put in place by the Administration without new legislation.
Major changes in federal law and policy will probably require that most tribes support the proposals. Native leaders are aware that it will be necessary to work together on joint proposals. We are glad to see that Native leaders are beginning to make plans to form a national campaign and bring attention to the need for comprehensive law reform.
The key factor that is crucial in the present opportunity is the White House-driven willingness of practically all federal departments and agencies to consult with Native leaders about how to implement the Declaration and make positive changes in federal law, federal policies, and government practices.
We at the Center are already working with tribes to help build a strategy for implementation and positive change. We are eager to provide legal help to Indian and Alaska Native nations that want to work for implementation and for specific changes or initiatives.
Naturally, there is much interest in advocating for changes in federal Indian law such as what the Center and others have developed in our Native Land Law Project. (http://www.indianlaw.org/content/land-law-reform-key-finding-balance-native-communities ; ,; ;,; http://www.indianlaw.org/node/289 ) The 17 draft principles of law and commentaries developed in the Native Land Law Project sketch out how the federal Indian law needs to change in order to be consistent with the U.S. Constitution and international standards, such as the Declaration. Copies of the draft legal principles and commentaries about the principles are available by contacting the Center.
The momentum is building. We need to continue advocating and creating opportunities for change to better the lives of indigenous peoples around the world.
Thank you for your interest and support.
Robert T. Coulter