A UN human rights official is urging the U.S. to turn over control of lands considered to be sacred to Native Americans, including the site of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, unveiled his recommendations in Geneva on Friday after completing a 12-day visit to the U.S. where he met with representatives of indigenous peoples in six states.
The fact-finder also had a chance to meet members of the Obama administration and briefed the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, but no member of Congress agreed to meet with him.
‘I have heard stories that make evident the profound hurt that indigenous peoples continue to feel because of the history of oppression they have faced,’ Mr Anaya said in a statement.
For over a century, he said, the government had seized lands and resources from Native Americans, removed children from their families and communities, caused the loss of languages, broke treaties with tribes and oppressed the indigenous peoples on the grounds of racial discrimination.
‘The sense of loss, alienation and indignity is pervasive throughout Indian Country,’ Mr Anaya said.
He welcomed the U.S. decision to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010, reversing a previous vote, but said that more must be done.
Mr Anaya’s findings will be included in a final report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council. While not binding, the recommendations carry moral weight that can influence governments.
In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, where some indigenous tribes depend on hunting and fishing, Mr Anaya said residents face ‘ever-greater threats… due to a growing surge of competing interests, and in some cases incompatible extractive activities, over these lands and resources.’
Laxly regulated mining for natural resources, including uranium, in some parts of the country has also caused serious health problems among indigenous peoples, who are suffering the after effects of water contamination.
The UN expert visited an Oglala Sioux reservation where the per capita income hovers around $7,000 a year, less than one sixth of the national average, and life expectancy stands at about 50 years, according to the Guardian.
He also said indigenous peoples feel they have too little control over geographic regions considered sacred to them, like the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and the Black Hills in South Dakota. Mr Anaya suggested such lands should be returned to native peoples.
Mount Rushmore, a popular tourist attraction, is located in the Black Hills, which the Sioux tribes consider to be sacred and have territorial claims to based on an 1868 treaty.
Shortly after that treaty was signed, gold was discovered in the region, and the U.S. Congress eventually passed a law taking over the land.
‘I’m talking about restoring to indigenous peoples what obviously they’re entitled to and they have a legitimate claim to in a way that is not divisive but restorative,’ Mr Anaya said.
In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the land was seized illegally and ordered the government to pay compensation. The Sioux, however, rejected the money, calling for the return of the now public lands.
Mr Anaya said he will make specific recommendations on these and other issues in a full report to be released in September.
Last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced that the government had agreed to pay more than $1billion to 40 Native American tribes to settle lawsuits over the use of tribal lands held in trust by the federal government, but exploited by private companies for timber, mining and farming.
The U.S. is home to some two million Native Americans, nearly half of them living on 310 reservations. While some tribes have prospered thanks to the booming gambling business, others are trailing national averages in income and health.
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