Nation & World

Redressing five centuries of injustice: A start

5 min read

On May 4, 1493 — less than a year after Columbus set foot in the New World — Pope Alexander VI issued “Inter Caetera,” a papal bull that still resonates more than five centuries later.

This edict (in English, “Among Other Works”) divided the undiscovered world in half, giving equal parts of all lands — “found and to be found” — to the royal families of Spain and Portugal.

“Inter Caetera” settled a conflict between two early colonizing powers. But it also laid the legal foundation for land ownership in the Americas, and for the subjugation of the New World’s non-Christian inhabitants.

The consequences of this sweeping edict — and modern efforts to redress it — were the subject of a panel discussion last week (Nov. 6) sponsored by the Harvard University Native American Program and moderated by Bethany Berger, the Oneida Indian Nation Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Panelist Tonya Gonnella Frichner, an Onondaga and president of the American Indian Law Alliance, called the subsequent 500 years a period of “brutality and injustice” against indigenous peoples.

Panelist Oren Lyons, chief of the Onondaga Indian Nation Council in upstate New York and a retired professor of American studies, used similar language, calling what followed the landmark papal bull “500 years of slavery and murder.”

Both were joined by Potawatomi Indian and attorney Robert “Tim” Coulter to discuss a recent step toward righting centuries of wrongs: the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a resolution 30 years in the making, and passed by the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007.

The title of the document alone is a triumph, said Lyons, because adding an “s” to the generic term “people” is an international admission of native identities.

“‘People’ is a generic term,” said Lyons. “If you add an ‘s,’ you’re talking about Cheyenne, you’re talking about Onondaga, Cherokee, Mayans — you’re talking about peoples, with an ‘s.’ We battled [for] that for years and years and years.”

Both Lyons and Coulter were among the first small group of Native American activists who in 1977 approached the United Nations for redress. Why? “Because of the lawless situation we found in the United States,” said Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Montana and Washington, D.C.

Regarding native peoples, he said, both the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court for more than 200 years embarked on “unfair, unjust, unconstitutional” exploitation — the theft, in effect, of native lands, natural resources, and money.

“They treated Indian nations as if they would soon disappear [and were] a temporary problem,” said Coulter — a “vanishing race” whose short life opened the door to unequal treatment.

Going to the United Nations in 1977 had a historical precedent, he said. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — frustrated at the pace of civil rights reform — did the same in the early 1950s.

Coulter called the U.N. declaration a road back “to justice and honor” — the first time indigenous peoples were acknowledged in an international forum.

The United States agreed in principle with nearly all 46 articles of the 2007 declaration, but declined to sign it, said Coulter, who said he spent hours “at painful length” arguing with U.S. representatives. (The other dissenters were all nations with large indigenous groups: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.)

In the end, said Coulter, the U.S. delegation balked at the idea that human rights could be collective rights — insisting that human rights are the province of individuals, not groups.

Still, on Sept. 13, 2007, “we became peoples,” recognized by international norms, said Frichner. She called the declaration at least a good first step in winning full rights and recognition for indigenous peoples, which number as many as 500 million worldwide.

Lyons said the declaration offered “a breather” — an opportunity to get ready for “the big fight” ahead: transforming the resolution into a convention, which would give it the weight of law.

In the meantime, the 2007 declaration is an acknowledgment of what native cultures had to offer the world from the beginning — “human rights and dignity,” said Frichner. “This isn’t something new to us.”

In the United States, native peoples also embody the idea of the “seventh generation,” she said — a consideration that decisions today affect those generations to come, far in the future.

The right to a sound environment is one of the five most important rights in the 2007 U.N. declaration, said Coulter, who said tribal lands had over time been looted of their resources, and, in some cases, turned into profit centers for hazardous waste companies.

Lyons, a 44-year member of his tribal council, brought up the environment too — and went further. Global warming — “coming hard, and coming fast” — would soon trump all other planetary arguments and worries, he said — calling on the United States and the world to “clean our own house [then] move on together.”

Frichner, a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, outlined changes made to the document under pressure from the United Nations — nine items that some say watered the document down, she said.

Coulton agreed, but added that the 2007 resolution is faithful to the basic principles enumerated by him, Lyons, and others back in 1977. It memorializes the rights to native sacred sites, medicines, border crossings, intellectual property, and others.

“We would have liked it to be stronger than it is,” he admitted. “But it ain’t over. Human rights and international diplomacy are never over.”

For one, the United States has a chance to make amends for not signing the 2007 U.N. resolution, he said — by signing on to a declaration of native rights being crafted by the Organization for American States, which might be ready in three years.

The panelists acknowledged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — 60 years old next month — and other international documents already affecting change. “It’s helpful,” said Berger, “to have many different laws.”