Last week we attended a speech by Walter Echo-Hawk, author, tribal-law expert and Pawnee from Oklahoma.  He is a brilliant speaker—warm, funny, incisive and inspiring in his ability to be positive and hopeful amidst decades of untangling legal trespasses enacted against Native American tribes.

Echo-Hawk discussed how indigenous people in North America are approaching an exciting new era of reclaiming human rights, led by internationally endorsed legal framework put forth by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Obama and the United States officially signed in support of in 2010 (the US was the last country to sign it).

Echo-Hawk sited the need for a national discourse on Native American human rights and human rights violations.  He pointed out that the US has made significant strides in designing policy that grants human rights to women and people with disabilities, but not for Native Americans.  Tribal cases lose over 80% of Supreme Court rulings, & indigenous peoples are among the most impoverished populations in the US, which is directly linked to an oppressive legal system that denies tribes human rights.

Legal framework for protecting human rights as outlined by the United Nations protects the basic right to exist and practice one’s culture.  To Native Americans, that means being able to care for and manage their traditional sustenance lands.

Just a few days ago in Maine, state governor LePage transgressed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by trying to deny Passamaquoddies fishing privileges on their own land, making threats to close their hatcheries, despite the fact that Maine tribes are sovereign nations with their own Fish & Game departments to enforce fishing & gaming limits on their territory.  Such human rights violations among us cannot be tolerated.

Echo-Hawk discussed how current US laws dealing with tribal-state and tribal-federal issues are based on colonialism and racism, which uses oppressive, abusive language based on the Doctrine of Discovery, such as calling Maine tribal peoples imbeciles who require parental guardianship.  Echo-Hawk spoke of the necessity for a new legal framework based on recognizing past and present human rights violations perpetuated against Native Americans, safety from further injustice, healing from wrongs, and enabling indigenous cultures to manage land and practice their cultures.  The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a blueprint for how to ensure indigenous peoples are allowed such rights.

When indigenous cultures are allowed to exist and flourish, practices of reciprocity and living in balance with nature create a healthier environment and better, more diverse world for everyone.  Human rights for indigenous people enables human rights for animals, water, air, and land as well.

Echo-Hawk ended his talk by calling for forgiveness and healing among Native Americans and non-Indians.  He described how all wisdom traditions contain forgiveness practices, and sited these steps for healing from wrongdoings:

1 Acknowledge that injury has taken place

2 The person who harmed another apologizes and asks for forgiveness

3 Person or community accepts apology and forgives

4 Offer voluntary acts of retribution and atonement to wipe the slate clean

5 Healing process allows justice and compassion