This year, for the first time in the history of the United Nations, the UN has decided to open an investigation on the US Government’s former and current treatment of Native Americans. The country’s estimated 2.7 million Native Americans live in federally established tribal areas called Reservations which are plagued with unemployment, alcoholism, high suicide rates and other social problems.
Aside from social issues, US Native Americans are involved in continuous disputes over sovereignty and land rights with the US and State governments due to enduring violations to their territories and rights.
The human rights inquiry is led by Human Rights and Policy Professor and a Native American, James Anaya. I had a chance to interview Ms. Charmaine White Face who is one of the advisors and the spokesperson for the Sioux Nation Treaty Council. She is also the founder and Coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills.
ED: The UN has been conducting a special investigation into the way the US treats its native populations, including in Alaska and Hawaii. Obama administration formally backed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2010, although the USA is the last country to sign it in 2007. Why do you think it took UN this long to start this investigation? What do Native Americans expect from this investigation?
CWF: I think that it took the UN this long, because the USA does not want an investigation, and they always say that there is nothing wrong here, and they won’t admit to reality of treatment of Native Americans. That’s one thing; the second thing is that the Declaration that the UN passed is not the one Indigenous people have approved, and so there is a big scandal about that too, but nobody will talk about it. There were few, you could call, collaborators approved the UN Declaration, but that was not the original one Indigenous people around the world have approved.
I was in the UN debates about the Declaration between 2002 until 2006, that’s why I know what happened and I wrote an analysis on it and my publisher–which is a non-profit–is trying to get the funds together to publish it. The UN started this process under the Working Group in Indigenous Population (WGIP) program in 1984, because the Indigenous people around the world were complaining that their rights were being violated. The UN sent experts all over the world to talk to Indigenous people about their rights. Finally, after meeting with many Natives around the world and in Geneva, in 1994, the Sub-commission of Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the WGIP came up with a Declaration that was approved by all the Indigenous people of the world. It was a collaborative effort and it was passed in 1994, but the UN did not utilize that one after all the time and effort.
What we wanted as the American Natives is that the Declaration implemented by Natives not by the US Government. Declaration states that each country must implement it individually, but we want our people to implement it, unfortunately that will not happen. Throughout the UN debates, every time we mentioned self-determination –because that is what we want, full and complete self-determination, we are a nation- US representatives would refute and say “we already gave self-determination to our Native Americans through their tribal governments.” What they don’t tell to the rest of the world that USA created those governments. They are not our traditional form of government. The USA has total control of these tribal governments, and that’s how they dictate to tribes how we are supposed to live. If we try to expose corruption or any other dysfunction in our governments, they will block it immediately.
My nation – Sioux Nation- for example has a signed Treaty with USA government in 1868 called Sioux Treaty of 1868. But the Treaty has been repeatedly violated by the USA and the State Governments. Originally, all the Reservations were created as POW camps (Prisoner of War.) The department that was handling the Native issues was the War Department.*
ED: Unfortunately not one member of the US House or Senate would meet with the UN representative professor, James Anaya, when he asked to speak to them as a part of his study. Why do you think no one from the US Congress agreed to meet with Mr. Anaya? How many Native Americans are currently serving in the US Congress?
CWF: If the Congress would agree to meet with Professor Anaya, that means they would have to answer his questions.The USA would never answer any questions from the UN. I have been at the meetings with the Committee on the Elimination of the Racial Discrimination, they have a periodic review of the USA, and we have submitted questions to the committee, and the committee did ask those questions but USA delegation never answered them. Plus Professor Anaya is Native American; he is an Apache from Arizona. This exposes US Congress’s racist attitude towards Native Americans.
Those of us who know who we are, we are an occupied nation. United States occupied Iraq and they put their puppet Government there, and they have done the exact thing to us. I think they were hoping that we would totally assimilate into their culture, and many of us have done it, so it has worked for some, but for those of us refuse to assimilate, we refuse to vote and get involve with USA Government.
It is our way of protesting their governmental and political process. Although there have been few representatives and senators and a half Native VP, not many Natives have participated in the US political process. Also the desire to get involve in US political process depends on what Nation you belong to, how far the colonization has occurred within your people. Some of us, like me, are called traditionalists. We do not want to get involve and we want our own government.
ED: The United Nations has requested that the US government return some of the stolen land back to Native Americans, as a necessary move towards reconciliation and combating systemic and ongoing marginalization of Natives starting from the seizure of their lands and resources, the removal of children from their families and communities, the loss of languages, violation of treaties, and brutality, all grounded in racial discrimination. There are also talks about land restoration. Professor Anaya says Mt. Rushmore Site should be returned to Indigenous Native American Tribes. Could you tell us the significance of Mt. Rushmore for Native people and why should it be returned to Natives?
CWF: Mt. Rushmore itself has no significance, but it happens to be within the Black Hills. The Black Hills are very sacred to us, and not just to us many other, at least 30 nations. Professor Anaya does not say specifically return Mt. Rushmore; he says an example could be return of the Black Hills. Our ancestors have lived in these areas tens of thousands of years, before it was taken away from us.
If you look at the map of the 1851 and 1868 Treaties, the Black Hills are right in the center. Our ancestors were trying to protect the Black Hills from any kind of exploitation. They are also one of the oldest mountains in the world. Discovery of gold in the region after the Treaty of 1868 was signed has played a major role in US Government’s violation of it.
Originally the Great Sioux Nations covered 14 American States and parts of 3 Canadian Provinces and many many Treaties were made between France, Great Britain and United States, but encroaching has continued until finally the last one 1868 Treaty was signed. This Treaty states that it can only be changed if ¾ of our adult males agree to it, and they never did want to change it, never agreed to any change. Also this Treaty is protected by the USA Constitution Article 6 that says Treaties are the supreme law of the land, additionally by an American Federal Law called the March 3rd Act of 1871 that says Treaties before that day may not be changed or abdicated. So they are also violating their own laws.
When US president Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877) allowed the gold miners to come in he told the army to look the other way. The US Army never upheld the Treaty and simply allowed miners to desecrate our land despite a signed Treaty. That was the beginning of our downfall as the nation. Once Black Hills were taken over, they also started to kill the buffalo which ruined our economy. Our people were starving and that was also used as an excuse to push us into the camps.
ED: You have upwards of 70% unemployment on the reservations. Native Americans have also long suffered from disproportionately low statistics in health and education, as well. I also wanted to talk about the high suicide rate among the Native youth. This is so heartbreaking; what do you think are the major causes of this and how can it be stopped?
CWF: All the statistics you have primarily are for the Northern Plaines, for the Sioux reservation, especially in the South Dakota, not for all other Reservations in the country. Colonization and the racism are the two main causes of this abject poverty and suicide rates.
Also the ghettoizing of the Reservations; it is an unwritten policy of the USA Government to continue to allow the corruption and poverty and its subsequent result of violence until the people start to believe that this is the only way to live. The suicide rate is about the hopelessness and powerlessness. So the poverty and high suicide rates are the symptoms of the ghettoizing, colonization and racism.
The reason other nations might look as they are doing better is because they have been colonized and assimilated long time before us. We are the last nation that had white contact. They are doing better according to the American system, and have experienced colonization longer than we have. They have assimilated better, and that is the price to pay.
ED: You have sent me an article titled “America’s Secret Chernobyl” Uranium Mining and Nuclear Pollution in the Upper Midwest. US Environmental agencies and departments has done nothing so far to either investigate or correct this dangerous situation. Could you tell us more about it?
CWF: The two biggest nations that are left are our nation located up in the Northern Plains and in the South, Navaho Nation. These areas are naturally very rich in Uranium. In the 1940s and 1950s the US Government was trying to find Uranium after the discovery of Nuclear energy and the Atomic bomb. In 1972, the Nixon Administration has declared these areas “National Sacrifice Areas” for nuclear development. Now, we did not know about this and we are the ones being sacrificed.
This naturally occurring uranium is all around us, but because we are not a farming nation as digging into the Earth is considered very disrespectful, we have survived with raising and trading of the Buffalo until they were forced into extinction by the over hunting and introduction of the non-native diseases by the colonists.
After the discovery of the Uranium, white settlers came in and they went out to their backyard and started digging. That is why currently there are more than 3000 open Uranium pits in this entire region. Their process was to fill up these pits with gasoline to start a fire until the uranium boiled over, and then they would collect it in barrels or buckets. It was done with their bare hands, with shovels, and after that some big mining companies with their large equipment came, and that’s why you would find some of these massive abandoned uranium mines, especially in the Southwestern region, some as big as a mile square.
These mines are abandoned, left open after 1972 when the cheaper alternatives were found. Now they still disgorge dangerous levels of Uranium, because they are not properly covered or cleaned. There are also over 10,000 exploratory wells, all over here, they are not capped, they are not marked, and some of them are big enough that anyone can fall into one.
Unfortunately now, Uranium mining has started up again, but this time they are not using open pits, instead they are recovering Uranium through boreholes drilled into a deposit which is called In-situ leaching (ISL), also called in-situ recovery (ISR). We have been working on this Uranium issue for eight years now, and trying to get the message out has been the hardest. Of course, these Northern Great Plains states and the federal government don’t want anyone to know what is happening here for many reasons. But this “America’s Secret Chernobyl” as we call it, is affecting the whole world.
The region has the highest cancer rates in the USA, but the CDC or any other related Health or Environmental Agency are refusing to investigate or study the cancer rates; they told us there has to be more than 1,000,000 people in a region in order for them to even do a study. South Dakota’s population is less than 1,000,000 and only 50,000 of them are Native Americans.
The Indian Health Services has done a study on the cancer rates, but they won’t tell what is the cause of it. The story about the Uranium mining and the cancer connection has been covered by German Journalists. And the UN has done nothing on the Uranium issue, despite our repeated requests for a study, investigation and/or a report from the World Health organization (WHO.)
Please also note that, any investigation about Uranium or any other nuclear matter that can be conducted by the WHO (World Health Agency) has to be approved by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). So if they did the studies, the word would not get out anyway. State Governments are not doing anything about it either because they are concerned about the tourism revenue, because if tourists who visit Mt. Rushmore knew they were inhaling radioactive dust or drinking water that could be contaminated with uranium or other mining chemicals they would not come.
And the worst part of it, this is an agricultural State, for example Harding County itself has 104 abandoned open-pit uranium mines, and they raise cattle there. The ranchers there feed their cattle copper sulfate so that their fur will be the brown color it is supposed to be, because those cows are eating the grass that has radiation in it, their fur lost its natural color.
ED: You talked about self-determination before. Does each nation have its passport?
CWF: The only nations that had their own passports and used it for years were the Iroquois confederacy. Unfortunately, their passports have been taken away last year by the US Government due to Homeland security issues, the US stated.
ED: Thank you very much for your time Ms. White Face. I hope this interview will shed more light onto the plight of your people.
Professor James Anaya’s final report will be presented to UN in September. Information presented about the maps, Treaties and Uranium is in PDF and Word documentation form, and can be requested through the author’s email [email protected]
Here is a video that showcases the plight of Native Americans in the United states:
* From 1789 until the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, such affairs were under the control of the secretary of war, except for a government-operated factory system of trade with the Indians begun in 1795.
A November 1800 fire in the War Department destroyed most of its previous records; therefore, the records of the Office of the Secretary of War during its period of direct administration of Native American affairs exist only from late 1800 until 1824.