I can’t think of a headline more guaranteed to rile up a certain segment of Americans: ‘UN to investigate plight of US Native Americans for first time.’
Not only is it an international body daring to investigate America, but it is that body delving into something which America has successfully swept under the carpet and refused to deal with, a sore which should itch but does not: the huge poverty rates and bad health rates linked to the historic treatment for over 400 years of around five million American people.
Despite the arrival of casinos, the poverty rate of all Native Americans remains at 25%. The poverty rate of Native Americans living on reservations is 39%; for whites it is 9%. Those living on ‘Indian land’ have incomes that are less than half of the general U.S. population.
Around a fifth of those on reservations make less than $5,000 annually. Places like Blackfoot Reservation in Montana have unemployment rates of 70%. The tribe with the lowest per capita income on a non-gaming Reservation are those living on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota with $4,043, not much more than the average Indian — that’s Indian from India.
Only 30% of native Americans have health insurance, and bad health — diabetes, alcoholism and much more — plagues those on reservations.
This is not some effect vaguely related to the distant past. Only last week, the U.S. government settled for nearly a billion dollars with 41 tribes on the broken promises of fair treatment of predecessor governments. These people were systematically robbed over generations, that’s what the settlement was about. The settlement follows a promise made by Barack Obama three years ago to ‘make good.’
A settlement is still to be reached with another 70 tribes. In 2009, the government agreed to a $3.4 billion settlement over past ‘mismanagement’ of trust funds, and restitution for past robbery.
But the judicial branch continues to block settlement over historic grievances, with only Justice Sonia Sotomayor resisting a Supreme Court decision last year blocking an Apache tribe’s access to documents regarding past mismanagement of funds and lands. And the GOP is still blocking the appointment of only the third ever Native American federal judge, Arvo Mikkanen.
The United Nations investigation is being led by James Anaya, a professor of Human Rights Law and Policy at the University of Arizona who has been the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples since 2008.
Ananya has spent many years working for indigenous peoples, particularly in Central America.
“I will examine the situation of the American Indian/Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples against the background of the United States’ endorsement of the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. My visit aims at assessing how the standards of the Declaration are reflected in U.S. law and policy and identifying needed reforms and good practices.”
That 2010 decision by the Obama administration to support that UN declaration, which sets basic international standards for recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, could have extensive implications, such as on mining rights. However it was “support” and not “endorse” — so it could mean nothing in terms of international law.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration about-face on the Bush prior decision to refuse to support the UN declaration was enthusiastically received by tribal leaders.
Among the states Anaya will visit is Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory established in the 19th Century as a concentration camp for the native populations banished from the Eastern seaboard during the infamous Trail of Tears. It was in Cushing, Oklahoma that President Obama made a speech approving the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline last month — and where protesting native Americans were literally kept caged, miles away:
“President Obama is an adopted member of the Crow Tribe, so his fast-tracking a project that will desecrate known sacred sites and artifacts is a real betrayal and disappointment for his Native relatives everywhere,” said Marty Cobenais of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Tar sands is devastating First Nations communities in Canada already and now they want to bring that environmental, health, and social devastation to US tribes.”
The United Nations is not investigating history in America’s treatment of its indigenous peoples — it is investigating what’s happening right now.
Photo credit: Anti-Columbus day protest picture by chuckmoody