UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples Rings Hollow at UIUC

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IN SEPTEMBER OF 2007, the General Assembly of the
United Nations adopted a landmark declaration in support
of the rights of an estimated 370 million indigenous
peoples in some 70 countries worldwide, prohibiting
State discrimination against them in both practice
and policy concerns. The decision was the culmination
of a long history of intense debates, first initiated
in 1923 when Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh traveled
to Geneva to speak
with the League of
Nations about the
injustices suffered
by his people on
this continent.
In response to a
long history of
oppression and marginalization,
United Nations Declaration
on the
Rights of Indigenous
Peoples was
approved by a landslide
vote of 143
member states, with
11 abstaining and 4
opposed. The only
four member nationstates
opposing the
Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—all
emerged, historically, as independent nations as direct
consequence of the brutality of colonial conquest and the
violent genocide of Indigenous Peoples.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the term ‘Indigenous
Peoples’ is defined by the UN “as those with a historical
continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies
that developed on their territories, consider themselves
distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in
those territories, or parts of them. They form at present
non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to
preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their
ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis
of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance
with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and
legal systems.”
The UN Declaration sets out the individual and collective
rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their
rights to culture, identity, language, employment,
health, education, and other issues of well being. The
text emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to
maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures
and traditions and to pursue their development in
keeping with the integrity of their own needs and selfdetermination.
Moreover, discrimination against
indigenous peoples is explicitly prohibited, promoting
and reinforcing their right to full and effective participation
in all matters that concern them, their right to
remain distinct, and to pursue their own visions of economic
and social development.
General Assembly President, Sheikha Haya noted that
“the importance of this document for indigenous peoples
and, more broadly, for the human rights agenda, cannot be
underestimated. By adopting the Declaration, we are also
taking another major step forward towards the promotion
and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms
for all.” Nevertheless, she warned, “even with this progress,
indigenous peoples still face marginalization, extreme
poverty and other human rights violations.”
The violation of human rights and the disregard of the well
being of indigenous peoples appear to be a long held tradition
in this region. As much for UIUC with its tenacious
obsession on the “chief” mascot, as it was for the fledging
state in the 1800s with the ethnic cleansing campaign to
fully eliminate Illinois tribes from the area. Hence, it is not
unusual to read or hear that “there are no Indian tribes
surviving in Illinois today”—a claim often used to dismiss
the rights of indigenous people of this state.
However, many Indian tribes of Illinois, including the
Ho-Chunk, Dakota, Miami, Illini, Shawnee, and Chickasaw,
should not be considered extinct. For like so many
other native tribes, these populations were forced off their
lands and moved against their will to Indian reservations
in Oklahoma, by the American government—a practice
legally sanctioned by the federal government, through
congressional approval of the Indian Removal Act in 1830.
Those who resisted were often murdered, while an estimated
100,000 American Indians were eventually relocated
in the West as a result of this colonizing policy. Consequently,
five southeastern nations were relocated west,
opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement.
Nearly 9,000 Cherokees alone passed through Southern
Illinois, during the winter of 1838 on that bitter journey
now remembered as the Trail of Tears.
It is precisely the shared memories of such brutal histories
worldwide and a sincere desire to make peace with the
past that fueled a 20-year commitment by indigenous advocates
to finally bring to the table the most comprehensive
global statement to date of indigenous rights. The adoption
of the Declaration is viewed as a historic moment of reconciliation,
hopefully tied to clear and committed efforts by
government institutions and civil society to infuse policies,
programs, and practices related to indigenous people everywhere,
with a vision of human rights and social justice.
However, in a historically consistent and familiar pattern,
the four (wealthiest, white-majority, English- speaking)
dissenting colonial powers, cited legalistic concerns
for their refusal to approve the Declaration. Ambassador
John McNee of Canada feigned disappointment in having
to vote against the Declaration; while expressing “significant
concerns” about the language of the document. He
stated that it was “too overly broad, unclear, and capable
of wide interpretation,” particularly in defining what
might be meant by the human rights of indigenous peoples.
Moreover, claims were by the four dissenting world
powers that the twenty-year process lacked “open, inclusive,
or transparent negotiations,” despite the landslide
victory and large-scale dissemination of working drafts
throughout the crafting of the declaration.
It is both striking and disheartening to juxtapose the politics
of the UN Declaration with the politics of indigenous
peoples’ rights within the Champaign-Urbana community.
This is so, particularly, given the recent decision by Chancellor
Richard Herman, who single-handedly caved to the
money-elite, choosing to ignore the March 13, 2007 Board
of Trustees policy: a directive that unambiguously calls for
“The immediate conclusion to the use of Native American
imagery as the symbol of the University of Illinois and its
intercollegiate athletics along with the related regalia, logo,
and the names ‘Chief Illiniwek’ and ‘Chief,’—a directive
specifically tied to compliance with the NCCA policy.
As administrators planned for this year’s Homecoming
Parade—a university activity directly tied to its athletic
program—they created a policy with language that they
considered to be in keeping with the retirement directive.
In reviewing the policy, the Chancellor paternalistically
determined that “the policy was the result of well-meaning
people interpreting—[you guessed it!] over broadly—the
ban on commercial use of the Chief logo.” Thus, Chancellor Herman vetoed a policy, in complete
compliance with the BOT and the NCAA, prohibiting the
official use of “related regalia, logo, and the names ‘Chief
Illiniwek’ and ‘Chief’” in the Homecoming event. Bear in
mind, that nothing in the policy spoke to any prohibition of
non-university-related use of T-shirts or other related paraphernalia—
which, incidentally, anyone with common sense
would consider a violation of free speech. Moreover, it cannot
be ignored that the nature of this humiliating wholesale
cultural appropriation of Native American imagery translates
into a human rights violation.
Unfortunately, Chancellor Richard Herman’s magnanimous
concern for personal expression, comes at the direct
expense of the very moral courage and fortitude that will
be required to move the University of Illinois and its avid
fans beyond it’s disgraceful fixation with “playing Indian.”
For the full text of the U.N. Declaration visit:

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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