By Lise Balk King
On Saturday, August 25, folks will gather in the Black Hills from near and far for what is locally one of the best social gatherings around – the rural South Dakota auction. Once you’ve been to one of these events, you’ll always be able to recall the rattling of the auctioneer as the backbeat to coffee chatter and smiling folks, enjoying the weather and the excitement of a big sale. Not everyone is there to buy, some come to visit with the family and support the emotional process of letting go of estate property – often precipitated by what auctioneers call the “Three D’s that drive our business: “Death, Divorce and Debt.”
This sale day, however, will be emotional to many more than the family and friends of the sellers. This property, approximately 1,940 acres just north of Deerfield Lake, “owned” by the Reynolds family since anyone in these parts started keeping track of such things, has a second historic “owner.” They are the people who were pushed out of the Black Hills by the United States cavalry during the Gold Rush of 1876, the Oceti Sakowin, aka The Great Sioux Nation, and this particular piece of land is the home to their creation stories. They call it Pe’ Sla, or, The Heart of Everything that Is.
In a nail-biting race against the clock, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the media group LastRealIndians.com have joined forces in a heroic fund-raising campaign to buy back as much of the land as possible. To date, this effort has been remarkably successful (http://www.indiegogo.com/PeSla-LakotaHeartland?c=home). They have gotten major media coverage and have been tweeted and re-tweeted by thousands, including several celebrities. (for more info: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/ict_sbc/black-hills-auction-saving-pe-sla)
But this is a one-time fix. Even if they are successful and the Internet fund raising campaign yields unprecedented success, the next logical step is a longer-term solution. The good news is that one such possibility is already in process. The rub is that it is going to take sustained engagement to make it a reality.
On December 16, 2010, President Obama announced the United States’ support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the UNDRIP), an aspirational document adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. And in May of this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Prof. James Anaya, made his first official visits to Indian Country – the first of any UN special rapporteur. His tour included consultations in Arizona, Alaska, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Dakota, where he visited the Black Hills and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. His official analysis and recommendations included restoring some land to Native American tribes, and he specifically suggested returning portions of the Black Hills. It was a prescient statement. Efforts are now underway to activate the UN intervention process for the case of Pe’ Sla.
The UNDRIP has not yet been tested here in the United States, and the fight for Pe’ Sla may provide the first such opportunity. While it is true that US property laws make legal the land grab that created this country (aka Manifest Destiny), international human rights regimes recognize the inherent moral and legal obligations to the indigenous inhabitants.
There are a number of Articles of the Declaration that are relevant to land rights, such as “Article 8, Section 2: States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for: (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;” and also specifically relevant for culturally and spiritually significant sites, such as “Article 11, Section 1: Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites…”
(for full list, see http://www.indianlaw.org/sites/indianlaw.org/files/DRIPS_en.pdf)
In interviews with tribal leaders and other concerned parties about their interest in the UNDRIP, the conversation inevitably leads to the question “What can an ‘aspirational’ document actually do for us?” The answer is simple. When the United Nations was formed in the aftermath of WWII, the founding statement known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an aspirational document. It was an ideal, a goal set forth by the international community to create a statement of shared moral expectations. It has since become normalized international law.
The next question is “What do we need to do to recreate this for indigenous rights?” By simply engaging the process and using the document everywhere it is relevant. The more it is cited and used, the more foundation is built for its eventual acceptance. The key is to become familiar with the document, educate your constituents, policy makers and legislators, judiciaries and executives, educators and community leaders. When you have a relevant issue, draw associations and cite the statutes wherever appropriate – in court cases, tribal councils, congressional testimony, government consultations, City Hall and even school board meetings. Use the Declaration and help build a foundation for it’s eventual normalization.
When appropriate, contact the Special Rapporteur with specific concerns. It is at his discretion which cases warrant intervention by the United Nations. In the case of the fight to save Pe’ Sla, Prof. Anaya may choose to intervene on behalf of the United Nations. No matter what the outcome of the auction is on Saturday, take heart in this: the UNDRIP is like a new element that’s been added to the alchemy of political and civil righteousness. And while the wheels may turn slowly, the moral arc of history does “bend toward justice.”
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