Every now and then, a bombshell of a story comes along that screams for a reasonable amount of historical context. Why? Because it doesn't make sense without it. But given a citizenry as poorly informed about its own history as ours, our gross national product may best be measured in foolishness. For instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently administered a civics test to 2,500 elected politicians and college graduates, and 71 percent of them flunked. The average score of 51 percent revealed that seven out of every 10 Americans with college degrees would fail a rudimentary citizenship test.
The bombshell of a story I refer to hit the wires this May: "U.N. fact finder on indigenous rights to recommend land restoration for Native Americans," said a headline in the Washington Post. In the West, this sort of news can get folks worked up. It seems that a special "rapporteur"an investigator working on behalf of the United Nations Human Rights Councilhad just met with members of the administration and the U.S. Senate for two weeks to assess the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The investigator's conclusion: South Dakota's Black Hills are an excellent example of stolen land, and they should be returned to the Indians who originally lived there.
But if almost three-quarters of "well-educated" American citizens can't pass a basic civics test, how many of us know the first thing about the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Moreover, how many Americans know that treaties with Indian tribes indicate a formal acknowledgment of sovereign-to-sovereign legal statussomething that is still protected by the U.S. Constitution as the "supreme law of the land"?
The few Americans who do know these facts also know that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in 1980, that the Black Hills were indeed stolen from the Sioux by the U.S. Congress in 1877. But though the court awarded the tribes $100 million in compensation, that money has never been touched by the Sioux; it has been accumulating interest in the U.S. Treasury ever since.
How would transferring that land back to the Indians work out for the non-Indians who own property in the Black Hills today? It's safe to say it would work out much better for them than it did for those Indians' ancestors, when this country first stole it from them well over a century ago.
After World War II, our visionary ambassador to the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt, helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to prevent the atrocities of the Holocaust from ever recurring. The declaration was ratified in formal treaty deliberations by every member nation of the U.N., except for onethe United States. This country finally signed the document in the 1970s, just to make the embarrassment go away.
Twenty years later, as indigenous groups around the world began asserting their rights, their leaders at the United Nations wrote a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples based on Roosevelt's declaration. When this new declaration was adopted in 1996, it was déjà vu all over again, as every member nation eventually signed on but onethe United States. Why? Because the same political forces that denied basic rights to minority groups for 200 years are still in power, particularly in the South and West. Moreover, despite their oft-proclaimed regard for the U.S. Constitution, they're not about to concede what is demanded by that document: the recognition of the sovereignty of native nations.
Bending to those political forces, Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush both stonewalled this treaty. To its credit, the Obama administration altered course and endorsed the new declaration of rights for indigenous people in 2010.
The U.N.'s special rapporteur, James Anaya, told members of the U.S. Senate that American Indians are unanimous in their cries for greater protection of their constitutional sovereignty. "In all my consultations with indigenous peoples in the places I visited, it was impressed upon me that the sense of loss, alienation and indignity is pervasive throughout Indian Country," he said. The token bits of goodwill extended to Indians in recent years have not begun to overcome the persistent legacy of oppression and the denial of basic rights, he added.
This is the context of a lingering source of shame in our shared history, and it is one that we would do well to put behind us. Two-hundred-and-twenty-four years after our nation's founding, it's high time we started living up to our idealistic promise of observing basic human rights and embracing the dignity of all people. The best way to get our own house in order is to begin by doing one right thing, something we've put off doing for far too long. Let us return the Black Hills to the Sioux Indians. After all, it's theirs.
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory.