UN Investigator to US: Give Mt. Rushmore & Other Stolen Lands Back to Native Americans
A United Nations investigator completing a 12-day visit to the United States to probe discrimination against Native Americans is urging the US government to return some of the land it stole from Indian tribes over the past centuries. Some of the land, like the site where the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located, is considered sacred to Native Americans.
The Guardian reports that James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said that returning stolen lands would be a step toward fighting ongoing “systemic” racial discrimination against Native Americans.
Anaya, who visited Native Americans living on reservations and in cities, said that they suffered a history of land and resource theft, societal breakdown and “numerous instances of outright brutality, all grounded in racial discrimination.”
“It’s a racial discrimination that they feel is both systemic and also specific instances of ongoing discrimination that is felt at the individual level,” he said.
Anaya also decried “discrimination in the sense of the invisibility of Native Americans in the country overall that often is reflected in the popular media. The idea that is often projected through the mainstream media and among public figures that indigenous peoples are either gone or as a group are insignificant or that they’re out to get benefits in terms of handouts, or their communities and cultures are reduced to casinos, which are just flatly wrong.”
The UN official, who is American and is the Regents’ and James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy at the University of Arizona, visited the Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where the per capita income is an abysmal $7,000 per year. That’s about 1/6 the national average, and on par with impoverished Ukraine. Life expectancy on the reservation is a shocking 50 years. If the reservation were a country, it would rank 217th out of 222 (sandwiched in between Somalia and Afghanistan) in global life expectancy.
The Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota are among the poorest places in the United States and are plagued by super-high unemployment, the highest suicide rate in the Western hemisphere, substance abuse, rape and general despair the likes of which would shock most Americans if they knew.
“You can see they’re in a somewhat precarious situation in terms of their basic existence and the stability of their communities given that precarious land tenure situation,” Anaya said. “It’s not like they have large fisheries as a resource base to sustain them. In basic economic terms it’s a very difficult situation. You have upwards of 70% unemployment on the reservation and all kinds of social ills accompanying that. Very tough conditions.”
Returning stolen land, said Anaya, may not only improve Native Americans’ economic situation but also help with reconciliation.
“At Rosebud, that’s a situation where indigenous people have seen over time encroachment on to their land and they’ve lost vast territories and there have been clear instances of broken treaty promises. It’s undisputed that the Black Hills was guaranteed them by treaty and that treaty was just outright violated by the United States in the 1900s. That has been recognized by the United States supreme court,” he said.
Indeed, in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians that the US government had illegally seized land in the Black Hills, where Mt. Rushmore is located. The Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868 pledged that the Great Sioux Reservation, including the Black Hills, would be “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians.” But in 1874, an expedition led by General George Custer sparked a gold rush and it wasn’t long before the US had violated the Ft. Laramie Treaty. To add insult to injury, the land being stolen from the rightful owners was considered sacred earth.
In United States v. Sioux Nation, the court ordered the US government to pay compensation to the wronged Indians. But the Sioux rejected monetary damages and called for the return of their land instead. This, obviously, has not happened.
Anaya, who said he received “exemplary cooperation” from the Obama administration during his 12-day probe, will hold back on detailed recommendations regarding land redistribution until his final report to the UN human rights council is delivered this September.
“I’m talking about restoring to indigenous peoples what obviously they’re entitled to and they have a legitimate claim to in a way that is not devisive but restorative. That’s the idea behind reconciliation,” he said.
Anaya expressed his disappointment that no member of the US Congress met with him during his investigation.
“I typically meet with members of the national legislature on my country visits and I don’t know the reason,” he said.
He added that any proposal to right the historic wrongs committed by the US against Native Americans would likely be met with strong opposition from Congress, which has historically shown disdain for any calls to compensate African-Americans for centuries of enslavement.
In addition to citing the Obama administration’s cooperation with his probe, Anaya also praised this year’s $1 billion settlement over nearly 56 million acres of Indian land held in trust by Washington that was exploited by business interests at the expense of its rightful owners. But while US attorney general Eric Holder said that the settlement “fairly and honorably resolves historical grievances” between the US government and wronged Native American tribes, Anaya asserted that while the agreement was an “important step” in the right direction, there are “deeper issues that need to be addressed.”
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