UN wants the US to return Native American lands

posted at 2:01 pm on May 6, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

I can’t imagine how this plan could possibly produce anything but a stunning success, can you?

A United Nations investigator probing discrimination against Native Americans has called on the US government to return some of the land stolen from Indian tribes as a step toward combatting continuing and systemic racial discrimination.

James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said no member of the US Congress would meet him as he investigated the part played by the government in the considerable difficulties faced by Indian tribes.

The report goes on for paragraph after paragraph about proposed plans based on the concept of systemic racism against indigenous people, but it does also manage to touch on one issue which is very real.

Anaya visited an Oglala Sioux reservation where the per capita income is around $7,000 a year, less than one-sixth of the national average, and life expectancy is about 50 years.

The two Sioux reservations in South Dakota – Rosebud and Pine Ridge – have some of the country’s poorest living conditions, including mass unemployment and the highest suicide rate in the western hemisphere with an epidemic of teenagers killing themselves.

“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. 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,” he said.

Conditions on many of the reservations are indeed horrible. There are some exceptions, of course, among some in the Northwest with ocean access and others with casinos, but many of the tribal lands are simply desolate pools of poverty. If there is anything to the questions being raised by the UN, though, it is likely to be found less in some sort of nebulous cure for any sort of endemic racism than in the technicalities of a court of law.

The United States has indeed made many treaties with Native Americans spanning three centuries. Some were honored, (at least in part) but many were either ignored or crafted in patently unfair ways. There are numerous examples, but one case in New York is fairly typical. A series of treaties between both the state of NY and the federal government with the tribes of the Iroquois Nation were repeatedly violated even though the federal courts weighed in on the side of the natives on more than one occasion. One of them assured the Oneida Indians possession of the lands west of the Hudson and north of the Mohawk rivers for “as long as the sun shall shine and the rivers shall flow.” If that’s the case, it’s pretty dark and dry in the Empire State these days.

Obviously we can’t have a serious conversation about giving all of the lands (i.e. most of the country) back and I doubt anyone is seriously fielding such an idea. But there may be cases where a valid legal case could result in some return of lands or other compensation which might provide some new opportunities and a chance for prosperity to people who are admittedly living in crushing poverty.


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