Reports Indian Country Today, on November 5: “More than 400 members of federally recognized tribes gathered today at the Department of the Interior at a Tribal Nations Conference hosted by President Barack Obama, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Cabinet Members.” This was the largest gathering ever of Native leaders. In Salazar’s and Obama’s remarks, there were many profound acknowledgments and expressions of historical understanding and of commitment to change in government behavior and in relations between the government and Tribes.

If you read the Q & A with Obama, you will see that Native leaders believe in him, while they all acknowledge – Obama, too – that all these promises have been made so many times before. So many people do believe in Obama. So far, that is his historical significance and promise. Even in the context of that belief, two concerns were raised. Ben Shelley, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, expressed worry over what will happen when Obama is gone. Advances were made under President Clinton, in consultation, for instance, between federal departments and Tribes, and the guidelines were ignored under the Bush administration. Obviously, changed relations are meaningless, in the end, if they are the product only of the good will of a single administration.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, reiterated the point, telling Obama that he had been specifically requested by the membership to say that

Tribes across the country strongly support the creation of the executive order you just mentioned and we’re certainly proud of that, reaffirming the inherent sovereign status of our nations and renewing the pledge to honor the treaties and to trust responsibility. We particularly hope for the establishment of real mechanisms for accountability, not only for this administration but set a path for the future.

Keel also stated

We request that you address the issues of Indian lands and the trust responsibility. We need to restore tribal lands that have been taken away. We need to change the management that exists on existing tribal lands.

This, of course, includes the issues of the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund litigation, ongoing now for 13 years, and regarding which there has so far been no change, under the Obama administration, in the obstructive role of the Interior department. It includes, too, the Tribal Trust Fund litigation. You can read more about both here. Fair settlement of both of these suits – products of years government abuse and misappropriation of Native monies – would provide many tens of billions of dollars with which Tribes might address their longstanding problems in health, education and job creation. These monies would not be a government handout. They would not be reparations, however deserved – they would be return to Native peoples of their own monies supposedly held in “trust” beginning in the nineteenth century.

In the lead up to the conference, Joe Kennedy, Chairman, of the Western Shoshone Nation, sent a letter to the President. It specifically addressed the issue of greatest concern, cited above: Native Americans cannot be reliant upon the good will of any individual American President. Systematic change is required. Kennedy’s letter offers a foundation for that systematic change:

Mr. President, we write this in recognition of what we believe is your sincere commitment to uphold and strengthen the relationships with the US government and American Indian Nations.   In keeping with your invitation to meet leaders of the Nations and Pueblos of Indigenous Peoples of North America which brings us to Washington DC, we offer our greetings to you and extend our hands in the spirit of a renewed and re-visioned expression of this relationship.  A critical part of this relationship is recognizing that the time has come to break the chains from centuries of racism, colonization and ongoing oppression across North America.  This can begin to be accomplished by the US adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We have entered a new age – a time of reflection and correcting the wrongs of previous eras.  Let us set forth on a positive pathway together.  As you know, thousands of Indigenous Peoples here in the US, and indeed throughout the world, stood up with trust and faith in your message of equity and justice for all, during your campaign.  As Indigenous Peoples are equal to all other Peoples, it is time that the relationship of our Nations and Pueblos with the US must be redefined.  This is more than a matter of honor.  It is a matter of doing what is right and it is critical to our continuing and ever evolving relationship with the US federal government….

Although an apology for the oppression of US policies that brutalized our homelands and have devastated our peoples, cultures and ecosystems, is well in order and in fact long overdue, it is not enough.  Adopting the UNDRIP is a meaningful and responsible step toward long-term reconciliation that can resonate across the globe with Indigenous Peoples of the World.

The implementation of the UNDRIP institutes a new systemic standard that calls for complementary readjustment among entities of the government states and the Nations of the Indigenous Peoples, normalizing peaceful relations and creating partnerships based on mutual respect and cooperation.

The United States, during an Obama administration, needs fairly to settle the Trust Fund litigations, and it needs to act toward the adoption, as U.S. policy in relation to Native Tribes and peoples, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These acts would be long lasting and a true measure of c commitment, in light of the past, to the future of Native Americans.

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