Monday, November 30, 2015

Walter Echo Hawk: “The Human Rights Era of American Indian Law”

American history is American Indian history, from Fort Laramie’s popularity among settlers traveling the Oregon Trail to the cherished legend of the Thanksgiving feast.  Often called the “Cowboy State,” Wyoming situates itself both in the myth and the history of the United States’ expansion into the West.  The University of Wyoming has long had institutional and community connections with tribal communities, including collaborative research and educational programs between WyCEHG and the Wind River Reservation tribal community. 

In 2004, the University of Wyoming established the High Plains American Indian Research Institute (HPAIRI), whose mission is to promote positive and productive relationships between the University of Wyoming and regional American Indian communities. HPAIRI will facilitate and expand on those crucial exchanges. 

In order to underscore the relevance of HPAIRI to tribal sovereignty, an annual High Plains American Indian Research Institute Distinguished Lecture has been established.  On October 19, Walter Echo-Hawk visited UW as HPAIRI’s inaugural distinguished lecturer.  His theme was indigenous rights as human rights.  After giving the audience a detailed timeline of Indian rights in American history, he offered a cogent argument for an affirmative statement of indigenous rights as a vital next step for America. 

Walter Echo-Hawk’s career as an attorney and legal scholar spans four decades, and Echo-Hawk took part in legal milestones such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments (1994).  His writing includes In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided and In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America & the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 
Echo-Hawk contends that “Indian rights” in American jurisprudence are a mishmash of contradictory precedents, fundamentally contaminated by colonialist definitions of indigenous rights and claims.  He points out that there has never been a Supreme Court precedent or constitutional amendment that would, once and for all, vitiate hundreds of years of history that includes land-grabbing, residential schools, resource theft, widespread corruption, and asymmetric war. 

“Indian law” in the United States still includes and refers to precedents dating from hundreds of years ago – long before self-determination and tribal rights entered the national conversation.  “There’s never been a public discourse about the nature and content of human rights of Native Americans in the same way that questions of slavery and discrimination against black Americans were the subjects of very serious national discourse and soul search.  We have to face our inner demons as to some truth-telling about what happened – what we did to the Indians.” 

The Supreme Court still relies on cases associated with inequality, citing them with approval.  “We are appalled by Supreme Court decisions in the Dred Scott case, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu.  Those cases have all been overruled and rejected as repugnant judicial missteps – but the cases that do the same thing in the very same kind of language pertaining to Indians have never been reversed.  They remain good law that is still relied upon today.” 

Echo-Hawk believes that American Indian history is at a point of transformative change, what he calls a “human rights era” in law and policy.  He believes that American Indians have progressed as far as they can under current US legal precedents, and must aim higher: according to Echo-Hawk, the next step is a constitutional amendment recognizing indigenous rights for American indigenous peoples as fundamental human rights.

Echo-Hawk acknowledges that this is an ambitious undertaking: “It’s a very huge change and it would lead to thinking of Native-American rights as inherent human rights.”  He argues, however, that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides both an impetus and a model for that effort. 

He also argues that seeing Native Americans as colonized people – and American history as colonialist history – would be an important and challenging move forward for the United States as a whole.    

“When we think of genocide, we think of that occurring in distant lands – it’s been with us since day one, but we never think of genocide in our own country.  Many Americans would rise up in anger at the very idea that our nation committed genocide against indigenous peoples – but if you apply the definition of genocide from the 1948 UN genocide convention, most observers would conclude that acts of genocide did in fact take place.” 

Echo-Hawk sees universities as sharing an important role in this reconciliation process.  Universities are focal points for research and public debate, as well as sites for collaboration, intellectual exchange, and community outreach.  Through cooperative efforts like WyCEHG’s work with the Wind River Reservation community and HPAIRI, the University of Wyoming can assist in this important process. 

After Echo-Hawk’s address, I spoke with Judith Antell, Director Emerita of the American Indian Studies Program at UW; and Torivio Fodder, a postdoctoral researcher in the American Indian Studies Department.  Judith is director of HPAIRI, and both have been instrumental in the creation of HPAIRI.  They were very pleased to welcome Walter Echo-Hawk to UW. 

As Judith explained, “We brought Walter here because his work really dovetails with the thinking behind the creation of HPAIRI.  We hope to foster goodwill and help the university develop its relationships with tribes in the region, supporting indigenous sovereignty in the process.”

HPAIRI also arranged a lunch for Echo-Hawk and UW students.   Torivio pointed out that face-to-face interactions are valuable: “Students can see that this is a human being, a man who has kids of his own.  It really humanizes this scholarly mystery that a lot of people have, how do you become a Ph.D., how do you write articles.” 

Torivio spoke to HPAIRI’s importance from his perspective as a researcher: “We refer to exploitative research practices as ‘extractive research,’” taking without offering anything in return.  “We’re learning how to treat contributions from American Indian tribal communities with respect, to give that information back to the communities.  We’re in the business of building relationships, trust, and mutual respect.” 

Posted to the EPSCoR blog by Jess White

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