U.S. Slow to Adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 13, 2007, by a majority of 144 states in favor, and 4 votes against.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that the four nations voting against the Declaration were the four with the most atrocious records in terms of their relations with their own Indigenous Peoples: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

Andrew Armitage explains in “Comparing the Policy of Aboriginal Assimilation: Australia, Canada and New Zealand,” that by the 1970s “child welfare agencies had succeeded residential schools as the preferred care system for First Nations children.”

Armitage explains that: “Children were removed from their parents without regard to differences of history, culture, or ethnicity because the assumption was that these factors were much less important than were physical health, diet, housing, absence of alcoholism in the home, and so on.” He further explains: “It was thought that the heritage and culture of the adopting parents or foster parents could be acquired by the child.”

The removal of Native American children by social workers in the United States came to be recognized as “cultural genocide,” and led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The House Report accompanying the Indian Child Welfare Act clearly indicates that many of these removals of Native American children from their families were economically driven:

    In some instances, financial considerations contribute to the crisis. For example, agencies established to place children have an incentive to find children to place.

    Indian community leaders charge that federally-subsidized foster care programs encourage some non-Indian families to start “baby farms” in order to supplement their meager farm income with foster care payments and to obtain extra hands for farmwork. The disparity between the ratio of Indian children in foster care versus the number of Indian children that are adopted seems to bear this out. For example, in Wyoming in 1969, Indians accounted for 70 percent of foster care placements but only 8 percent of adoptive placements. Foster care payments usually cease when a child is adopted.

These assimilationist policies were examined in detail in a recent article posted on my web site. Suffice it to say here by way of a brief summary that scores of Indigenous children were literally scooped up simultaneously in all four of the dissenting nations – first into residential schools, then into foster and adoptive homes.

To be sure, there were many other egregious indignities endured by Indigenous peoples in each of these nations, however the most agonizing, by far, was the literal scooping up of their children.

Since the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Australia and New Zealand have reversed their positions and now endorse the Declaration, the United Nations explains. The UN notes also that: “In March 2010, the Government of Canada announced it would take steps to endorse the UN Declaration and, in April 2010, the United States indicated that it will also review its position regarding the Declaration.”

A press release issued by the Government of Canada, issued on November 12, explains: “The Government of Canada today formally endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws.”

“We understand and respect the importance of this United Nations Declaration to Indigenous peoples in Canada and worldwide,” said the Honourable John Duncan, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-status Indians. “Canada has endorsed the Declaration to further reconcile and strengthen our relationship with Aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

“Canada is committed to promoting and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said the Honourable Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Canada’s active involvement abroad, coupled with its productive partnership with Aboriginal Canadians, is having a real impact in advancing indigenous rights at home and abroad,” the press release explained.

Writing in Indian Country Today, Valerie Taliman explains: “When Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recently, it created a groundswell of hope in Indian country, and put more pressure on the United States to step up soon.”

Chief Wilton Littlechild, a respected Cree lawyer from Alberta who forged early negotiations on the Declaration, said he was highly encouraged that soon all nations will implement it.

“It’s been a long run since 1975 when our elders, after sacred ceremonies and deliberations, decided to go to the international arena. Concerned about treaty violations, we sought justice by participating throughout the drafting stages and negotiations of the U.N. Declaration. I was very disappointed and felt betrayed after Canada voted twice against adoption of the Declaration.

“I’m happy that we can now move ahead together, reflecting our treaty partnerships, to implement the U.N. Declaration,” he said. “For the United States, it offers a tremendous opportunity to be bold and better. Other nations have tried to qualify their support and endorsement, but the United States should take the lead as a member of the Human Rights Council and indicate that the Declaration is more than an aspirational document.”

Alan Parker, an attorney, professor and former counsel to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs recommended that the Obama administration consult with Canada, New Zealand and Australia to coordinate the process of policy adjustment and modification.

Taliman closes out her article with a plea to the President: “It’s time to change the long history of discrimination and oppression in the United States, and to acknowledge that indigenous peoples worldwide deserve the same rights as other citizens of the world.

“President Obama, be the change you want to see. We urge you to quickly adopt the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

I agree, Mr. President. That, and actively seek vigorous enforcement of the Indian Child Welfare Act – which the states have largely ignored since it was enacted in the late 1970s.

If you can accomplish those two things, Mr. President, you may forever be memorialized by Native Americans as the greatest President of all time.

Related reading:

Government of Canada, Canada Endorses the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Marketwire, (November 12, 2010).

Valerie Taliman, United States cannot be the only country opposing indigenous rights, Indian Country Today, (November 26, 2010).

Forcible foster care ‘genocide’: UN Declaration, The First Perspective, (November 24, 2010).

Official United Nations Web Site describing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Wikipedia entry on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For a discussion of the ICWA in a broader global context, see my article Little Angel Bird: Reflections on a Young Girl’s Death in Alberta

See also generally Under Siege: The Indian Child Welfare Act

See generally also my recent blog entry The Indian Child Welfare Act: Where Are We Today?

See also Lifting the Veil’s ICWA article collection which holds 60 links to scholarly articles, field studies, Congressional testimony and other related resources.