Obama: US will back UN on rights of native peoples

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By Matthew Daly
Washington (AP) December 2010

President Barack Obama said last week that the United States will reverse course and support a United Nations declaration defending the rights of indigenous peoples.

Obama told Native American leaders that the declaration affirms the importance and rich cultures of native peoples throughout the world. The U.S. voted against the declaration when the General Assembly adopted it in 2007, arguing it was incompatible with existing laws. Three other countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, also opposed the declaration, but have since announced their support.

The nonbinding declaration is intended to protect the rights of more than 370 million native peoples worldwide, affirming their equality and ability to maintain their own institutions, cultures and spiritual traditions. It sets standards to fight discrimination and marginalization and eliminate human rights violations.

Administration officials said last April that they were reviewing the U.S. position on the declaration.

More important than any resolution or declaration are actions to match those words, Obama said, adding that his administration is working to help Indian tribes meet a variety of challenges.

Obama noted that this year he signed laws to improve health care and law enforcement for Native American tribes and helped resolve long-standing disputes over discrimination against American Indian farmers by the Agriculture Department and mistreatment by the Interior Department of those with royalty rights for oil, gas, grazing and timber.

“We’re making progress. We’re moving forward. And what I hope is that we are seeing a turning point in the relationship between our nations,” Obama told a conference of tribal nations attended by more than 500 people representing more than 320 tribes.

Those efforts include creating jobs, building roads on reservations, improving education and improving health care, Obama said.

He recalled that Crow Indians gave him the name “One who helps people throughout the land.” And he joked that his wife, Michelle, says his name should be “One who isn’t picking up his shoes and his socks.”

Timothy Hinton, vice chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, said Obama’s support for the U.N. declaration is among several steps forward the administration has taken this year on Native American issues. The new Indian Health Care Act, Tribal Law and Order Act and the resolution of disputes with farmer and royalty holders are landmark events and fulfill campaign promises Obama made, Hinton said.

The settlement of the nearly 15-year-old Cobell royalty case, which Obama signed last week, includes separate measures settling four long-standing disputes over Native American water rights in Arizona, New Mexico and Montana. Among the tribes winning settlements were the White Mountain Apaches, which will receive $292 million for construction and operation of a rural water system. The payment settles a dispute over water rights on the reservation that dates to 1917.

“I think it’s a real new start for Indian Country,” Hinton said, adding that the flurry of activity on tribal issues “helps us get started in every way.”

In a related development, the administration said last week that the Department of Energy is creating an Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs to promote tribal energy development.

The new office will be led by Tracey LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. The office will work with the Energy Department’s tribal energy program, which funds projects to improve energy efficiency and develop geothermal, solar, bio-mass and wind energy on tribal lands.