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Next President Should Fully Embrace UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Gesture would respect and celebrate diversity

A depiction of Sakakawea, a North Dakotan Shoshone Indian who helped the Lewis and Clark expedition, was the first statue of a Native American woman in the Capitol. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
A depiction of Sakakawea, a North Dakotan Shoshone Indian who helped the Lewis and Clark expedition, was the first statue of a Native American woman in the Capitol. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

This is something we all know: The United States has a pretty poor track record in relations with indigenous nations. Even the most mainstream history books will give you a sense of this.

What the history books often fail to teach, however, is that we are still here, and have a diversity of diplomatic relations with the United States of America. Many of our nations still have valid treaties with the United States, and are still sovereign. It’s a lesson we have to teach U.S. officials over and over, and usually comes as something of a surprise.

Democrats and Republicans both included consideration for Indian Country in their political platforms this year. The Democrats’ platform improved from a mere two paragraphs on “Tribal Sovereignty” in their 2012 platform to a full two pages on “Honoring Indigenous Tribal Nations” in 2016, perhaps not to be outdone by the one page in the Republican platform on “Honoring our Relationship with American Indians.”

While the Democrats got slightly closer to the reality of sovereignty in their language, both parties rely on the assumption that all indigenous nations are somehow part of the American political system. Some are due to forced assimilation.

We — the Haudenosaunee, known in history books as the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, comprised of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations — are not.

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted United States citizenship to all native peoples within its borders. The Haudenosaunee promptly sent a letter and representative to Washington, D.C., to reject this offer and maintain our own sovereignty.

Just a year before, a Cayuga Nation chief traveled to Geneva to present our concerns to the newly-formed League of Nations, traveling on his own passport. To this day, our people travel on Haudenosaunee passports, and we participate with the United Nations. Our right to political self-determination is recognized by Article Three of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which the United States finally embraced, the last nation in the world to do so.

At a minimum, the next president of the United States should work with Congress and indigenous peoples to fully endorse and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Article VI of the Constitution holds that treaties are the supreme law of the land. In 1794, the Haudenosaunee signed a treaty with the United States — ratified by Congress — in which the United States recognized Haudenosaunee lands and pledged never to claim them, nor disturb the free use and enjoyment of these lands, and to bring any complaints of land violations to the president of the United States. It built upon the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act that established that only the federal government could make treaties with Indian nations. This treaty is still in effect today, even though New York State was allowed to illegally — even in the eyes of the American legal system— steal huge tracts of our land.

Those lands have been mercilessly abused, as in the case of Onondaga Lake, a body of water left in such a horrendously polluted state by more than a century of extractive industrial plunder that it remains on the Superfund list despite half-hearted efforts by federal and state regulators to oversee a cleanup.

Federal courts have used every opportunity to strip rights from indigenous peoples who seek justice, starting with Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), which used the Christian concept of the doctrine of Discovery in U.S. law to lay claim to the underlying title of indigenous lands. Even though legal scholars recognize that applying the doctrine in such a way is based on a legal fiction, it was cited as recently as 2005 in a decision written by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to dismiss the Oneida Nation’s search for justice, and subsequently, to dismiss the Cayuga and Onondaga Nation cases, even after the Cayugas had won recognition for the theft of their lands.

We appreciate the respect for indigenous nations in both party platforms, and hope they reflect a final turn away from a long history marked by settlers’ attempts to eradicate us. Those efforts failed, and we are still here.

Why not try a new tactic of celebrating and respecting our diversity?

Lyons, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, Snipe Clan, is president of the American Indian Law Alliance.

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