The Rights of Indigenous People and the Rest of Us

In early 2011, President Obama announced that the United States would sign the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Now the U.N. wants us to give Mt. Rushmore to the Indians.  James Anaya, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, spent twelve days in the U.S. meeting with representatives of Native Americans.  Returning to Geneva, he urged the government to turn over control of lands considered sacred to the tribes, including the Mt. Rushmore site.

It was bound to happen.

With typical overstatement, the president said as he announced U.S. participation in the Declaration, "The aspiration it affirms, including respect for the institutions and rich cultures of native peoples, are ones we must always seek to fulfill." 

Always?  Americans happily adapt and adopt parts of other people's cultures (Chinese food unlike anything served in Beijing, pizza Italians wouldn't recognize, St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo parties) and respect other parts (forms of dress, holy days and fasting for Ramadan).  But there are aspects of "native" cultures that simply do not warrant respect: honor killings, female genital mutilation, slavery, stripping trees for cooking fuel, clubbing baby seals, and governance by the sword come to mind.

The Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a prescription for endless warfare.  "Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired," according to Article 26.  Article 28 states that qualified groups "have the right to redress," which can include "restitution" or "just, fair and equitable compensation" for land or resources that have been "confiscated, taken (or) occupied."

Applied to American Indian tribes, it not only covers Mt. Rushmore, but also may include reparations and mineral rights.

Applied to Palestinians and Kurds, not to mention minorities from Azeris in Iran to Uighurs in China to Armenians, Hmong tribesmen, and Guatemalan Indians, it could wreak havoc.

The Kurds form a tribal/national grouping that spans Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.  They are unquestionably an "indigenous people" with a distinct language and culture.  Is the United States prepared to support border changes to allow them the right of self-determination?  American lives were expended in the quest for a unitary Iraq, and we supported Turkey's determination not to allow Kurds to secede during the PKK war.  But how can we deny the Kurds while supporting a Palestinian "right to self determination"?

This raises the question of whether the Palestinians are actually a separate grouping outside their multigenerational refugee status and determination to erase Israel.  Certainly they are less separated from West Bank, Israeli, and Jordanian Arabs than the Kurds are from Turks and the Arabs of Iraq.  Palestinians are largely descended from the people of the Ottoman vilayet of Syria and the British Mandate.  But Jordan's King Abdullah is a Hashemite from the Hejaz of Arabia.

This in turn raises the question of which set of people is the "indigenous" one, and which is the usurper.  How long does it take before a former indigenous people are lost to history and their usurpers become the new indigenous people?  Those who call themselves "Palestinians" are not the descendants of the indigenous Philistines; they are the descendants of Arab tribes that arrived in the 7th century.

Today, one of the few things upon which Hamas and Fatah agree is that all of Israel and Jordan are "occupied" Palestinian territory.  While it is surely pushing for the establishment of Palestine in part of the old British Mandate territory, is the United States prepared to turn Jordan over to its "indigenous peoples" so they can have the rest of it?  Or replace Israel with "Palestine"?

It is noteworthy in this context that the Jewish people constitute the ultimate success of an indigenous people reclaiming sovereignty and rights in their historic space.  Jews have been there from the time of the Bible.  Most but not all of them were expelled in the early part of the last millennium, but Jews maintained religious, cultural, linguistic, and tribal ties to the land until the establishment of the Third Jewish Commonwealth in 1948.

The conferring of "rights" on "peoples" implies a corresponding debt to be paid to them by others.  Doing so without responsibility (the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is non-binding) is a prescription for demands by people determined to wrest something from others who may not be prepared to pay or even acknowledge that the debt is real.  And the debt may not be real.

Far from a harmless exercise in multicultural sensitivity, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets the stage for an endless series of "small wars" that may have big consequences.  Mt. Rushmore is only the beginning.

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.  An early form of this article appeared in The Philadelphia Bulletin in January 2011.

In early 2011, President Obama announced that the United States would sign the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Now the U.N. wants us to give Mt. Rushmore to the Indians.  James Anaya, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, spent twelve days in the U.S. meeting with representatives of Native Americans.  Returning to Geneva, he urged the government to turn over control of lands considered sacred to the tribes, including the Mt. Rushmore site.

It was bound to happen.

With typical overstatement, the president said as he announced U.S. participation in the Declaration, "The aspiration it affirms, including respect for the institutions and rich cultures of native peoples, are ones we must always seek to fulfill." 

Always?  Americans happily adapt and adopt parts of other people's cultures (Chinese food unlike anything served in Beijing, pizza Italians wouldn't recognize, St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo parties) and respect other parts (forms of dress, holy days and fasting for Ramadan).  But there are aspects of "native" cultures that simply do not warrant respect: honor killings, female genital mutilation, slavery, stripping trees for cooking fuel, clubbing baby seals, and governance by the sword come to mind.

The Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a prescription for endless warfare.  "Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired," according to Article 26.  Article 28 states that qualified groups "have the right to redress," which can include "restitution" or "just, fair and equitable compensation" for land or resources that have been "confiscated, taken (or) occupied."

Applied to American Indian tribes, it not only covers Mt. Rushmore, but also may include reparations and mineral rights.

Applied to Palestinians and Kurds, not to mention minorities from Azeris in Iran to Uighurs in China to Armenians, Hmong tribesmen, and Guatemalan Indians, it could wreak havoc.

The Kurds form a tribal/national grouping that spans Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.  They are unquestionably an "indigenous people" with a distinct language and culture.  Is the United States prepared to support border changes to allow them the right of self-determination?  American lives were expended in the quest for a unitary Iraq, and we supported Turkey's determination not to allow Kurds to secede during the PKK war.  But how can we deny the Kurds while supporting a Palestinian "right to self determination"?

This raises the question of whether the Palestinians are actually a separate grouping outside their multigenerational refugee status and determination to erase Israel.  Certainly they are less separated from West Bank, Israeli, and Jordanian Arabs than the Kurds are from Turks and the Arabs of Iraq.  Palestinians are largely descended from the people of the Ottoman vilayet of Syria and the British Mandate.  But Jordan's King Abdullah is a Hashemite from the Hejaz of Arabia.

This in turn raises the question of which set of people is the "indigenous" one, and which is the usurper.  How long does it take before a former indigenous people are lost to history and their usurpers become the new indigenous people?  Those who call themselves "Palestinians" are not the descendants of the indigenous Philistines; they are the descendants of Arab tribes that arrived in the 7th century.

Today, one of the few things upon which Hamas and Fatah agree is that all of Israel and Jordan are "occupied" Palestinian territory.  While it is surely pushing for the establishment of Palestine in part of the old British Mandate territory, is the United States prepared to turn Jordan over to its "indigenous peoples" so they can have the rest of it?  Or replace Israel with "Palestine"?

It is noteworthy in this context that the Jewish people constitute the ultimate success of an indigenous people reclaiming sovereignty and rights in their historic space.  Jews have been there from the time of the Bible.  Most but not all of them were expelled in the early part of the last millennium, but Jews maintained religious, cultural, linguistic, and tribal ties to the land until the establishment of the Third Jewish Commonwealth in 1948.

The conferring of "rights" on "peoples" implies a corresponding debt to be paid to them by others.  Doing so without responsibility (the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is non-binding) is a prescription for demands by people determined to wrest something from others who may not be prepared to pay or even acknowledge that the debt is real.  And the debt may not be real.

Far from a harmless exercise in multicultural sensitivity, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets the stage for an endless series of "small wars" that may have big consequences.  Mt. Rushmore is only the beginning.

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.  An early form of this article appeared in The Philadelphia Bulletin in January 2011.