Walter Echo-Hawk: In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America & the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples' Law and Policy Program

Walter Echo-Hawk, legendary civil rights attorney, discusses his latest book In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America & the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stressing the need for Native nations and peoples to band together to mount a campaign to compel the United States to fully embrace and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Echo-Hawk, Walter. "In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America & the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." Indigenous Peoples' Law & Policy Program, James E. Rogers College of Law, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 20, 2013. Presentation.

James Anaya:

“The Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program is pleased to host a range of thought-provoking speakers in multiple settings over the course of each academic year as part of our multi-faceted program of learning and outreach. This evening we are especially privileged to have with us one of the truly groundbreaking advocates and thinkers of recent decades on issues concerning Native Americans in the United States and abroad, Mr. Walter Echo-Hawk.

A citizen of the Pawnee Nation, Walter Echo-Hawk is a distinguished lawyer who for years was one of the leading attorneys of the Native American Rights Fund, a former justice of the Supreme Court of the Pawnee Nation and now the Chief Justice of the Kickapoo Supreme Court, an author with numerous influential books and articles, and an activist whose energies extend to innovative initiatives to support Native American arts and culture. His vast legal experience includes precedent-setting cases involving Native American religious freedom, prisoner rights, water rights, and rights of reburial and repatriation. His work litigating and lobbying on Native American rights goes back to 1973 and much of that work occurred during pivotal years when America witnessed the rise of modern Indian nations. As American Indian tribes reclaimed their land, sovereignty and pride in an historic stride toward freedom and justice, Walter Echo-Hawk worked at the epicenter of a great social movement alongside tribal leaders on many issues, visiting Indian tribes in their Indigenous habitats throughout North America. He was instrumental in the passage of numerous important laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act amendments in 1994.

As a scholar and author, Walter Echo Hawk’s numerous published works include his acclaimed book In the Courts of the Conquerors: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided. This is an outstanding and insightful critique of the evolution of federal Indian law doctrine and its social implications. This evening we’re privileged to hear Walter talk about his most recent book In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America & the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In this book, Walter explains how the harm historically inflicted on the Indigenous peoples in the United States still commands attention because of the ongoing affects of the past on conditions today. He helps us understand why justice requires confronting the combined injustices of the past and present and he points us to tools for achieving reconciliation between the majority and Indigenous peoples focusing on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations as such a tool.

This UN declaration is an expression of standards grounded in fundamental human rights and a global consensus among governments and Indigenous peoples worldwide. It was adopted in the year 2007 by the UN general assembly with the affirmative votes of an overwhelming majority of UN member states, [and] expressions of celebration by Indigenous peoples from around the world who had been long advocating for the declaration. At the urging of Indigenous leaders from throughout the country, President Barack Obama announced the United States’ support for the Declaration on December 16, 2010, reversing the United State’s earlier position and he did so before a gathering at the White House of leaders of Indigenous nations and tribes. In his wonderful new book, Walter Echo Hawk shows us the seeds of change in the Declaration. “With the Declaration,’ he tells us, ‘we are in a rare moment of potential transformation, of a tectonic shift toward a new era of human relations that extends the promise of justice beyond the boundaries set by the past. It is a move farther along the path of greatness for which America yearns.’ This book inspires and moves us to seize that moment. Please welcome, please join me in welcoming Walter Echo-Hawk.”


Walter Echo-Hawk:

“Well, thank you so much Professor Anaya for that very kind and generous introduction. I have admired Professor Anaya for many, many years. We first met in the mid 1970s when Jim was the General Counsel to the National Indian Youth Council [NIYC] and I was on their board of directors, and at that time he was deeply involved in civil rights litigation on behalf of NIYC and international litigation and international tribunals as well way back in the early 1980s. I’ve admired your work and your groundbreaking career for many, many years in the field of international human rights law and I think that your work has really opened new vistas for our Native people here at home and I’m very, I think, indebted to you also for writing the foreword to my new book In the Light of Justice and I’m grateful for that. It just put a lot of pressure on me to do my best because I have respected your work so much over the years.

I want to thank Professor Tatum, Melissa Tatum, the Director of the Indian [Peoples] Law [and Policy] Program here, Professor Mary Guss also as well for your kindness in showing me around town, making my presence possible here this evening. And lastly, I thank each and every one of you for coming tonight to be with me here. It’s certainly my great honor and privilege to be here at the Law School. This ranking law school is well known throughout Indian Country and among my colleagues in the practice of federal Indian law as being an important center for Indian law and policy. Some of the very brilliant scholarship that has emanated here from the Law School with folks like Professor Anaya and the other faculty, all-star faculty that is assembled here at the Law School including Professor Williams, Rob Williams, have truly opened some major vistas for Indian tribes and my colleagues throughout the nation. So I’m very glad to be here, very honored to be at this center of knowledge here. I feel like I’m very at the fount of knowledge if not very close to it.

And so I’m very honored to give a presentation this evening about my book In the Light of Justice, and this book is about a brand new legal framework for defining Native American rights here in the United States. The book does basically three things. First, it examines the landmark UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that Professor Anaya mentioned. This is a landmark international human rights instrument that creates a very comprehensive stand-alone legal framework for defining the rights of Native Americans as well as Indigenous peoples worldwide. As Jim mentioned, this UN declaration was approved in the year 2007 by the General Assembly. It was endorsed by the United States government in the year 2010 so it’s technically a part of U.S. Indian policy and today 150 nations around the world have also endorsed this UN Declaration, making it the new order of the day it seems to me. Secondly, this book goes on then to compare our existing law and social policy with regard to Native Americans to these UN standards, these minimum human rights standards that is established by the Declaration to see how well our domestic law stacks up against these human rights standards. And then thirdly, the book urges our nation to undertake a social and legal movement to implement these UN standards into our law and social policy.

What I’d like to do tonight is to basically cover three areas with you this evening. First, I’d like to talk about why I felt compelled to write this book. Secondly, I want to describe briefly this declaration and this new human rights framework for defining Native American rights. And then thirdly, I want to discuss some of the findings that I made in my comparative legal analysis and some of my conclusions that I drew in this legal analysis of the declaration and especially to talk about the need for implementing these standards in our own nation here in the United States, including some of the implementation challenges that our generation or this generation will face in implementing these UN standards into our law and social policy. But before I begin, I need to add a caveat here and that is that I am not and don’t hold myself out to be an international law expert. I haven’t gone to the UN, I haven’t gone to Geneva, I did not participate in the making of this declaration and the book simply examines this declaration and its implications purely from the standpoint of a domestic practitioner of federal Indian law to look at the possibilities of this in terms of strengthening our existing law and policy. So with that, I think after I hope we’ll have time for some questions and answers and then we’ll be able to sign a few books afterwards and I think this’ll be a rare opportunity especially if James joins me in signing some books. So you’ll have the signature of both of the authors of this book. So it should be a collector’s edition for you book collectors out there.

But at the outset, I’d like to just begin with the premise of this book and that is this -- that I believe that this is a historic time for federal Indian law and policy and of course we know that federal Indian law is our current legal framework here in the United States for defining Native American rights and we know through our experience in the modern era of federal Indian law that federal Indian law basically has two sides to it. On the one hand, it has some very strong protective features that are protective of Native American rights that arise from the doctrine of inherent tribal sovereignty and the related protectorate principles that was articulated in Worcester v. Georgia, and within that protective side of federal Indian law in the last two generations our Indian nations have made great nation-building advances in this tribal sovereignty movement and we can look around the country and see the fruits of that effort all around us, and it’s been described by Charles Wilkinson as giving rise to our modern Indian nations rivaling the great American social movements, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement in American history. But on the other side of the coin, federal Indian law also has a dark side to it as well with some very clear anti-Indigenous functions that are seen in a whole host of nefarious legal doctrines that were implanted in the body of federal Indian law by the Supreme Court many decades ago, in numerous unjust legal fictions and a significant body of the jurisprudence of racism as defined by Webster’s dictionary book can be found in some of these Supreme Court decisions that are still the law of the land today. So this dark side to federal Indian law holds us back as Native people, it makes us vulnerable and it also keeps us poor. And so we have these two sides of our existing legal framework.

But today as I mentioned is a historic time because we can now clearly see two legal frameworks for defining Native American rights. Our old legal framework of federal Indian law and then out on the horizon we can see this brand-new human rights framework out on the horizon and it reminds me of an old Pawnee song about a spotted horse that we see way far away and it’s coming our way and it makes us feel good because we know it’s bringing good things for us and that’s how this declaration is. And so we can clearly see these two frameworks now and we stand at a crossroads today between these two legal frameworks here in the United States and I think that the challenge of our generation of legal practitioners and tribal leaders and Native American peoples is to basically work to save the very best from our old framework, our most protective features and to merge that with this new human rights framework to create a stronger body of law that is more just and to make it a merge the two frameworks into a strengthened and more just legal framework for the 21st century in a post-colonial world.

So I want to turn to my first task tonight and that is: why did I write this book? I was motivated by three reasons, the first being the need to strengthen federal Indian law. As I’ve alluded to earlier, although we’ve made great strides under our existing legal framework, I feel like we have stalled out in recent years because there’s been a gradual weakening of federal Indian law since 1985 with the U.S. Supreme Court trend towards trimming back hard-won Native American rights beginning with the [William] Rehnquist Court in 1985. Court observers tell us that Indian nations have lost over 80 percent of their cases into the present day, in some terms losing 88 percent of our cases, and that frightening statistic means that prison inmates fare better before the high court than our Indian nations. That’s caused some of our leading legal scholars to ask, ‘Is federal Indian law dead?’ And then we have this dark side to our body of law that I mentioned earlier and that compounds this problem it seems to me. Scholars have thoroughly studied this dark side to federal Indian law. They’ve identified these factors there that make our rights vulnerable today. These nefarious legal doctrines have been traced to their origins in medieval Europe. These internal tensions that are found in our body of law between self-determining peoples that have [an] inherent right of tribal sovereignty on the one hand being hostage to these doctrines of unfettered colonialism, conquest and colonialism. You can’t have these two conditions, they’re mutually incompatible so we have these inherent tensions that struggle...are pitted against one another in our body of law. And so that’s not questioned today in the year 2013 in any serious way, but we’ve lived with this body of law since 1970 at the inception of the modern era of federal Indian law. Our litigators basically took this legal framework as we found it. We didn’t create federal Indian law, we simply took this legal framework as we found it and tried to make the best of it. We tried to coax the courts into applying the most protective features of this legal framework and then simply living with this dark side. But it seems to me that now in recent years we have stalled out. I think we’ve faltered in recent years. I think Indian Country is huddled against an assault by the Supreme Court for its further weakening our legal rights and we’ve stalled out it seems to me at the very doorstep of true self-determination as that principle is broadly defined in modern international rights law and it may be that our Indian tribes have come as far as we can go under this existing regime and to go any further we’re going to have to reform that legal framework. I think there’s an axiom here and that is that a race of people can only advance so far under an unjust legal regime and that there’ll come a time where they have to turn on that legal regime and challenge it to go any further in their aspirations. And I think we may have rode our pony as far as we can and to go further we’re going to have to focus for the very first time on challenging some of the dark side of federal Indian law and strengthening our legal framework. So these problems in the law have troubled me as a lifelong practitioner of federal Indian law and I felt that federal Indian law today is in deep trouble. It needs a lifeline and perhaps this UN Declaration is that lifeline. So I felt it well worth my while to examine this new legal framework.

The second reason that motivated me to write this book was if you look around Indian Country today and in our tribal communities, we will see numerous, hard-to-solve social ills that stalk our tribal communities today. Despite our best efforts to redress these social ills, we see these shocking socioeconomic gaps between Native Americans and our non-Indian neighbors with the lowest life expectancy in the nation, the highest rate of poverty, poorest housing, serious shocking gaps in the medical treatment, mental healthcare, highest rate of violence in the nation, highest suicide rates, unemployment. These ills have lingered for so long in our tribal communities that they’re seen as normal and they threaten to become permanent. How do we account for these shocking inequities? Social science researchers tell us that these are unhealed wounds inherited from historical trauma from [the] legacy of conquest; dispossession, subjugation, marginalization created these open wounds and they haven’t healed yet in the year 2013, despite our best efforts. These are the end products of our current legal regime, our existing law and policy, and I believe that this declaration is specifically designed to redress this inherit...the inherited effects of colonialism through a human rights framework. It’s a prescription for the social ills, and so I therefore thought it was worth my time to examine that framework in this book.

The third reason that I wrote this book is that the UN approval of this declaration in the year 2007, which was done in a landslide crowning victory for over 20 years in the United Nations of work by Indigenous pioneers who accessed the international realm for the very first time in a couple hundred years. This landmark achievement was basically unheralded. It caught the United States by surprise; it caught Indian Country by surprise. I feel like it caught our tribal leaders and our tribal attorneys [who] were unfamiliar with it. We hadn’t read it. It caught us with our chaps down, so to speak. And so since that time, and especially since the year 2010, Indian Country has just begun to read this document for the very first time and our tribal attorneys to read it and educate ourselves. It’s been the subject of a Senate oversight hearing. It’s been the subject of conferences at the federal bar, at NCAI [National Congress of American Indians], at tribal leaders' forums and law school conferences. And as we study this document I felt that it would be helpful to provide some baseline information about this declaration to help our self-education process on this new human rights framework, to look at some of the implications, to provide some baseline information about it, some reconnaissance-level legal analysis and that’s what this book attempts to do, to assist Indian Country and our nation in looking at this new legal framework for defining the rights of our people.

Let me turn now to: what is this UN framework? And let me just ask you, if you’ve read this raise your hand. If you’ve read this declaration, raise your hand. By golly, I’m glad James has read it. That’s a pretty nice substantial fraction. But many places where I ask that question, very few hands will go up.

So I just want to make about seven fundamental points about this new human rights framework. The first, the point is that 46 articles, it lays out the minimum standards, minimum human rights standards for the...protecting the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples worldwide -- that includes Native Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians. As Professor Anaya mentioned, it was approved by the UN in 2007, it was formally endorsed by the United States in 2010, 150 nations around the world as well.

Secondly, this document contains the authentic aspirations of Indigenous peoples in large measure because they wrote it and they negotiated it through the UN human rights framework. And if you read it as a practitioner of federal Indian law, you’ll see that all of the issues that our clients are concerned about and that we’ve litigated on and towards are contained in this document.

Thirdly, these standards as I mentioned earlier are comprehensive in nature. They address the full range of our Native American issues and aspirations. Our property rights, political rights, civil rights, economic rights, social rights, cultural rights, religious rights, environmental rights; it’s all there in this framework. And the interesting thing about it is the rights that are described in here are described as inherent, inherent human rights and I think that that’s very significant because an inherent human right means that the UN didn’t give these rights to Native people. These are rights that we already have.

So these are inherent human rights that nobody gave to Indigenous peoples, but rather they arise from our Indigenous histories, our Indigenous institutions, but were beyond reach by Native people in their domestic legal forums. What the United Nations did here was basically look to the larger body of modern international human rights law and simply pulled the norms and the human rights treaty provisions, pulled it out of this larger body and put them into this declaration and it’s showing the 150 nations of the world how to interpret this larger body of human rights law in the unique context of Indigenous peoples so that Indigenous peoples have the same human rights that the rest of humanity already enjoys. Further, these rights that are described in here, it is said that they’re supposed to be interpreted according to notions of justice, equality, good faith, democracy, a very just foundation for these inherent human rights, more just foundation than that found in the dark side of federal Indian law. Moreover, related to that, these rights are not considered to be new rights or special rights, but simply as I mentioned earlier just simply rights that are drawn from the existing body of international human rights law.

Next I’d like to talk about some of my major finding about these rights that I... conclusions that I drew in this book. Firstly, that these UN human rights standards are largely compatible with our U.S. law and policy in its finest hour. And at its very best and in its finest hour ,our federal Indian law in the 10 best cases ever decided about Indians show a fundamental compatibility with many of these standards. And those standards, if they were to become part of our body of law would simply make the very best in our legal culture more reliable and more dependable, but at the same time I also found, secondly, that many areas in our existing law and policy simply fail to pass muster under these standards, they don’t comply with these standards. And the book goes on to lay out these many, many areas that we need...where we need to uplift our existing law and policy so that they conform or are compatible with these minimum human rights standards.

The sixth point I wanted to make about this framework is that the Declaration is not a self-implementing instrument. It’s not legally binding law that federal courts must enforce, but rather the Declaration asks the United States to implement these standards in partnership with Native people, that the United States and all these other 150 nations are supposed to work with Native people to implement these standards, to provide technical assistance, to provide funding, to go forward in a nation-building kind of an effort to implement these standards. And so I think that that is a call to action to Indian Country to sit down with the government and see how we should go about implementing these standards in partnership.

I’d like to begin winding this lecture down here by looking at the need for these standards in our own country here. I think that the threshold question for all Americans of good will, including our tribal leaders and our tribal attorneys, is why do we need these standards in our own country? Aren’t we the leading democracy? Are you saying that we have injustice in our midst? Many Americans of goodwill will admit that yes, our nation was birthed on the human rights principle and we’ve got a very proud heritage of human rights that have always animated our nation from the very inception down to the present day. We’ve gone to war to protect human rights, to punish those who violate human rights, and it may be true that we haven’t always lived up to these core American human right values throughout our history in terms of our treatment of Native people here in the U.S., but are we responsible for healing a painful past when we didn’t personally have any hand in these appalling miscarriages of justice? It’s unfair to come to me when I had no part in that and ask me to heal the past. Others will ask, honestly ask, ‘Is an international law ineffective and unenforceable?’ That’s a myth that I once believed in as a dyed-in-the-wool practitioner of federal Indian law. Besides, many people just don’t like the UN. We don’t want to be bossed around by the UN or international law. Other Americans of good faith, goodwill, will say, ‘Why can’t we just rely on our existing law and policy to address these problems? After all, we have the Bill of Rights. Why not just apply the Bill of Rights and treat everybody alike and nothing more? We’ve got a comprehensive body of federal Indian law already. Why not just rely on it to fix these problems?’ And as advocates we must be able to answer each of these questions in a very persuasive way at the outset, otherwise we should fold up our tents and go home. So this book tries to answer those questions about the need for these standards in our nation. It explores answers. It looks basically sees four reasons regarding the need for these standards: legal reasons, political reasons, social reasons and environmental reasons. And I hope that after you review these reasons in the book that you’ll agree with me that we do have compelling reasons and a compelling need to implement these standards here in the United States.

The first reason being a legal reason. As I mentioned earlier, to strengthen our body of federal Indian law, to reform that dark side of federal Indian law and root out the law of colonialism, the doctrines of conquest, doctrines of racism, all of these dark sides of our existing framework that have anti-Indigenous functions, to resolve our internal tensions and we have to remember that as I mentioned earlier or maybe it was later today that right now in our existing legal framework if you read our Supreme Court decisions in our foundational cases you will see that when it comes to defining Native American rights that the Supreme Court expressly eschews looking at ‘abstract principles of justice’ or ‘questions of morality’ when defining Native American rights. So this has produced an amoral body of law that is bereft of the human rights principle and I think that that has led to an amazing prevalence of unjust cases in federal Indian law. And so there is a need to reform federal Indian law to try to inject this human rights principle. I know as a litigator whenever you’re able to inject human rights into your issue, your position is immediately strengthened, and we found that when we were making the NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] statute that we were stymied in our negotiations, stalled out because of self-interest between the scientists, museums and the tribal communities until we agreed to follow the human rights principle and that kind of cracked the case and led to the passage of NAGPRA. And you can imagine if your client’s right to self-determination was considered an inherent human right, your client’s right to culture, your client’s right to accountable public media and so on and so forth, rights to protect Indigenous habitat were deemed to be inherent human rights, that’s going to put you in a much stronger legal position. So we have a legal reason here.

Secondly, we have social reasons, that is this inherited legacy of conquest that I talked about earlier, and the need to finally try to solve these hard-to-solve social ills. These are root problems that we’ve inherited in our tribal communities, cry out for healing in a national program of reconciliation and I think that this declaration is the antidote for those social ills and will enable our nation to solve them at long last and then move forward.

Thirdly, we have these political reasons to implement this declaration. Our nation has long been plagued with the Indian question or the Indian problem, ever since the United States first embarked on colonizing Indian lands and peoples. The political question has always been, ‘What do we do with the Indians once we’ve colonized everything? What do we do with them?’ And this has long perplexed our nation and historically...well, it’s a universal problem that all settler states with a history of colonialism have had to confront. How do we bring the Native people into the body politic? What’s the best approach for doing that on a political basis? And we’ve tried many approaches here in the United States. We’ve tried this Worcester framework of inherent tribal sovereignty for domestic dependent nations operating under the protection of the United States. We’ve tried Indian removal, to remove the tribes from our body politic. We’ve tried to exterminate Indians at the zenith of the Indian wars. We’ve zigzagged back to guardianship and Christianization methods to bring Native people into the body politic. We’ve tried self-government under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. We’ve swung back from there to termination to make our Indians disappear and then in 1970 swung back to Indian self-determination. So we’ve had these zigzagging policy shifts in U.S. history trying to figure out the best way to bring Native people into the body politic. The problem is that the normal mode for assimilating immigrants into our free and democratic society simply doesn’t work for Native people because we already inhabit the nation and we want to retain our Indigenous rights. Well, this declaration shows us how to do that. It tells us that we want to bring Native people into the body politic using the self-determination principle with our Indigenous rights intact, basically saying that we got it right with our Indian Self-Determination policy of 1970, that we should stay the course and do whatever we need to do to bring Native America into the body politic with all of their Indigenous human rights intact.

Fourth reason that is discussed in this book is environmental reasons. I think that there’s a healthy byproduct in recognizing and protecting Indigenous rights and that healthy byproduct has to do with this environmental crisis that our nation is confronted with. We have a growing environmental problem and a crisis that is a worldwide environmental problem that threatens human security. We see it in the mass extinction of animals and plants, the pollution of Father Sky, Mother Earth, our waters, our oceans. We see it in this climate change. We now live in a warming world thanks to the industrialized nations emitting these gases into the atmosphere. And this has caused...this crisis has caused scientists to fear a catastrophic collapse of some of our important global life systems. And so the scientists are sounding the alarm, but no one is listening. This crisis continues to get worse and not better. We can’t solve it without first getting a land ethic and [an] ocean ethic that can guide us, a moral compass to show humans and our modern society how we should comport ourselves to the natural world. And as far back as 1948, Aldo Leopold urged America, ‘Get a land ethic.’ But it’s never taken root in our nation yet. Why? We don’t have any clear guidance from our Western traditions, the Western religions, science or technology. They don’t tell us how humans should comport to the natural world. We have to look to Indigenous peoples for that, into their value system, our primal tribal religions, our hunting, fishing and gathering cosmologies and those value systems, which were the first world views of the human race that were wired into our biology as humans spread across the planet, and in that set of Indigenous value systems I think our nation will find the ingredients for an American land ethic. Without that ethic, we’re not going to be able to solve this environmental crisis and we’ve placed ourselves on the path of failed civilizations. We can’t solve it, the problem, without an ethic to guide us. It’s just simply too expensive. The problem is too severe. It costs too much money and we lack the political will to address and solve this problem. So we sorely need a land ethic and I think that there is a congruency between protecting Indigenous habitat and Indigenous land uses of Indigenous land, Indigenous cultures, empowering the Native people to protect their ways of life so that they can come to the seat at the table and maybe share some of their traditional knowledge and their value system and help us forge a land ethic. If you look at the Amazon forest, the remnants of that forest exist because of the Indigenous peoples that reside in these habitats that have been empowered to continue to live there and to defend those areas. Were it not for them, that forest would probably have long been gone. So there is that relationship between protecting and empowering Indigenous peoples and their environmental rights and addressing this environmental crisis.

So I’ve spoken too long and I want to just simply close with some quick concluding observations about the challenges in implementing this declaration and I think that I would direct your attention to James Anaya’s report that he submitted to the United States in his capacity as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In the year 2012, he conducted an official mission to the United States to consult with the United States government, to consult with tribal leaders to identify the human rights situation of Native Americans and barriers to implementing all of these human rights standards and he compiled this report in August of 2012. It’s entitled The Situation of Indigenous Peoples in the United States of America. And I would urge you to go to your computer and download it, and in fact I think we may have copies here this evening alongside my book tonight, our book I should say, in which Professor Anaya gives recommendations to the United States for steps that our nation must take to implement these standards. He concludes that we have a significant challenge in doing that, in rectifying and addressing our legacy of conquest here in the United States and it calls for changes, fundamental changes in all three branches of the federal government -- Congress, the President and the Executive Branch and our courts -- and these are fundamental changes that he is recommending that our nation take. And so it lays out a big task it seems to me for our generation and the next to implement these challenges to...I think this report is one of those rare policy analyses that come across from time to time, once in a great while, that can become a catalyst for change and so this report is a good starting place to download it and read it and I think you’ll agree that it does lay out a big task for our generation. And there’s a role for our law schools, our law professors, our law students, Native people, Americans of goodwill to come forward, our tribal leaders to come forward, to reach out for these human rights standards and work to implement them.

And I think the first step here is a...there’s a need for a focused national dialogue on the nature and content of human rights for Native Americans. And our nation has never had such a national dialogue of that nature in the same way that we looked at...our nation looked at Black America and the need for equality under the law for Black America. That was serious national conversation, but we’ve never had one when it comes to talking about human rights for Native America and our legal framework has no human rights judicial discourse in it at all and so we need to have a national discourse to understand the need for these standards in our country, to debunk the reasons not to act and I think that that’s a first step.

Secondly, I think we have to build a national campaign to implement these standards, to coax the government into developing a national plan of action through a national program of reconciliation to implement these standards in partnership with Native America. To do that...unless we do that, nothing’s going to happen and these human rights standards will remain beyond reach. So we need the internal machinery to set that in place for a campaign complete with guiding legal principles to develop this seamless new framework, employing some of our finest legal minds in our ranking law schools to help us do that, strategies and a focused public relations and public education campaign to educate the public about this, very similar to the campaign that Black America engaged in for 58 years to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. There’s lessons to be learned there in that campaign. There’s lessons to be learned from our tribal sovereignty movement that could be helpful in guiding a campaign to implement these standards in the 21st century.

And so with that brings me to my final point that this campaign has to also develop some philosophical foundation, some philosophical principles to motivate social action, social justice action and to guide our campaign into the light of justice. I don’t think we have to look far for that philosophical foundation for this campaign. We only have to look as far as to our wisdom traditions of the human race, remembering that from day one of the history of the human race has been one of atrocity, acts of genocide, warfare, catastrophes brought about by man’s inhumanity to man in the whole course of human history and along the way our ancestors developed some wisdom traditions that come to us from the world’s religions that teach us and tell us how to heal historical injuries, injuries of the kind that we have perpetrated on other people. These wisdom traditions work as sure as the rain must fall and they tell us it’s just five steps, it’s not rocket science. The first step being an injury has taken place and here we’re talking about this legacy of conquest that is still seen and felt today.

The second step is whatever tradition you come from your finest and highest teachings tell you that when you’ve injured somebody you must go to that person and apologize, prostrate yourself and ask for forgiveness. It’s a very hard step to do because we often demonize the people that we have harmed, wished them ill and it’s inconceivable, unthinkable to then go to them on bended knee and ask them to forgive us. It’s a hard thing to do, but our wisdom traditions teach us that we have to do that to relieve our guilt, to relieve their shame, to begin clearing the air for a healing process.

And that brings us to our third step in this healing process and that is to accept the apology and forgive; also very hard to do. I think one of the indicia of a traumatized community is simply they’re unable to forgive those who have trespassed against them. It’s hard to do, but it’s important that we forgive. Only the strong can forgive. It’s probably our highest, strongest human spiritual power that we have to forgive and all of our traditions teach us that we must forgive.

That third step then leads us to the...once peace is made it leads us to the fourth step in this process, acts of atonement. The burden shifts back to the perpetrator’s community to perform acts of atonement, to make amends, to wipe the slate clean as best as humans can do. We know we can’t turn back the hands of time, but we can do everything within our power as humans to make things right and I think these acts of atonement and this process are laid out in that declaration. It shows us what we must do here.

Once that step has gone through, it brings us to the last step and that is healing and reconciliation and at that point we’ve done everything that humans can do to heal, taken that high road to heal a historical injury in our midst regardless of the cause and from there we sit at the center of human compassion and we can honestly say at that point that I am you and you are me and we are one. We’ve been reunited and we can go on from there. And so I think that these wisdom traditions work in even the most heinous situations and I think we only need to look that far as a philosophical foundation for a campaign to guide us to that promised land so that we might all stand in the light of justice.”


James Anaya:

“Walt has agreed to take a few questions. You have about five, maybe 10 minutes.”

Walter Echo-Hawk:

“Okay. I was hoping to filibuster so that we wouldn’t have to do any questions, but as long as they’re easy ones but please...yeah, five minutes, questions and then we have some books compliments of the campus bookstore. Anyone? Sir.”

Audience member:

“I think it was wonderful to hear you. And you have talked about how the United Nations Declaration can help the United States of America and do you have anything in the United Nations Declaration, which could be taken from the United States? I mean is there some teachings of United States Native culture, which is endorsed by the United Nations Declaration?”

Walter Echo-Hawk:

“Well, I feel that it’s very important for the United States to take a leadership role in implementing these standards in its own backyard. As President [Dwight] Eisenhower said, ‘Whatever America wants in the rest of the world first has to take place in our own backyard,’ and we hold ourselves out to the world as a human rights champion. We’re always running to the UN to have humanitarian intervention, to get support of the UN, and so I think that we don’t want to be the last nation on earth to implement these standards. We want to be among the first and the rest of the world is already embarking upon implementing these standards and that train is leaving the station and we need to be in there because I think that we are a very strong world power, we have influence around the world and if we’re able to successfully implement these human rights standards here in our own land, in one of the hard-core settler states or settler nations, then that would provide, I would hope, precedent for other nations to do the same thing around the world. It’s getting to be a smaller globe and we need to look across our boundaries to other lands. Certainly that’s what happened in the making of this declaration when Indigenous peoples came together and went to the UN. But I think it’s important for America not to be the last country on the planet to fully implement each and every one of these standards, that we should be among the first to try to take a leadership role to redeem our place as a champion of human rights worldwide because we use this as a tool in our foreign policy. Human rights is an important tool in our foreign policy and so we need to get matters fixed in our own backyards before we can do that in a legitimate way. Ma’am?”

Audience member:

“What suggestions could you give us in regards to getting such a national campaign you’re calling for moving, to find who needs to listen, who can move things and basically who can do what? Do you have any suggestions of how to achieve this, how to support and contribute?”

Walter Echo-Hawk:

“I think that...well, I have a couple, two chapters in the book that’s devoted to that, chapters nine and 10, so you’ll have to read it. You have to buy the book and read it. I think we have to mount a social movement, maybe a mother of all campaigns. To do that we have to internally put in place the machinery to do that, we have to go to our tribal leaders, ask them to get out of the casinos for a little bit, uplift their vision to see this new framework. We need a cadre I think of tribal leaders that can lead us into the light of justice. We need to staff them with some of our best attorneys that we have that are versed in human rights law and we need to have a lot of ingredients internally to vet some of these remedies that we’re talking about. We want to be sure we’re not going to make bad law or we’re not going to weaken our rights as Native Americans that we already have, rather we want to be sure that we strengthen them. Then we have to develop a strategic law development strategy and guided by astute political strategists with a...armed also with a very vigorous public education campaign. So I’m talking about the entire race of people and all of our assets and I think that we’re in a much better place to do that, Native America, in the year 2013. We’ve come a long way. We’ve got the experience, the capability and the resources to do that. Our survival, cultural survival depends on it. And you can look back to when the national...the NAACP was founded in 1910 and they were trying to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson and they had enormous hurdles in front of them at that time and yet it took them 58 years, but they did it. And I think we’re more poised now, Indian Country, to do that, but it’s going to be...take a lot of work. I think our young attorneys have to talk...learn the parlance of human rights, international human rights because we are now in a brand-new era of federal Indian law, a human rights era. And when President Obama endorsed this declaration, it ushered in a brand new era for federal Indian law and I think that the task for this next generation is to implement that declaration. Just like back in 1970, our goal at that time was to implement the Indian self-determination policy and it took a couple generations to basically do that in full measure. As I say, I think we’ve made big advances, we’ve come as far as we can though and now we’re in this human rights era of federal Indian law and policy and I think it’s incumbent upon you younger people, it’s easier for me to say, to take that up and carry it forward. Sir?”

Audience member:

“I was wondering, you mentioned some domestic examples like NAACP sort of leading the way for Black America. You also mentioned we should be sort of the leader as the United States in implementing human rights. Are there any...the declaration granted in 2007, are there any countries that sort of set a good precedent for us to follow?”

Walter Echo-Hawk:

“Yeah, I think...was it Bolivia or which country...? It just simply passed a statute incorporating the whole declaration in one fell swoop, but I think Jim may have a better idea on that. But there’s other countries. I think each country is unique. They have their own Indigenous issues, they have their own legal cultures that they’re looking at and I think we can look around the world and benefit from the experience in other countries in implementing it and the book kind of does that in a few limited examples. But I don’t know if you have anything to offer, Jim, from your perspective? Sir, in the back.”

Audience member:

“In your perspective, what is self-determination? Is there a timeframe of that since 1970 to now or further?”

Walter Echo-Hawk:

“Well, I think that in the United States we reached our low point in 1950. In the ‘50s it was the termination era. It was a low point in Native life in our country it seems to me. The policy was termination, to make Indian tribes disappear as quickly as possible. And our activists and tribal leaders in the 1950s and in the 1960s worked as best they could to resist immediate and wholesale termination by the federal government. And their the ‘60s, Vine Deloria was the Executive Director of NCAI and Clyde Warrior was the President of the National Indian Youth Council. They were articulating, especially Vine was articulating this self-determination principle to set our Indian tribes on a different path to the promised land in the civil rights movement, which was implementing Brown v. Board of Education. He articulated the self-determination policy to -- ultimately, that was approved in 1970 by President Nixon in a historic message to Congress -- and that Indian self-determination policy broke from termination and forced assimilation to transfer power back to the tribes as much as possible. And so from that point, from 1970 to the current date, I think that’s been at the center of our tribal sovereignty movement and I think it will continue to be. The UN Declaration, at the very core of this declaration is the self-determination principle, and so it shows us that our nation is sort of on the right path here with our self-determination aspiration, self-government, Indigenous institutions, tribal cultures, the right to culture. All of these are related to our self-determination or sovereignty -- political sovereignty, cultural sovereignty, economic sovereignty. And so I think that this, as far as I can see, it’s still...and it’s the centerpiece of this UN Declaration and that’s why it’s pretty compatible with our existing U.S. policy and we need to continue on that path by just simply uplifting these different areas where our existing laws fall short of the UN standards.”

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