What Grade Does The U.S. Deserve On Human Rights And Religious Freedom?

When it comes to indigenous people, we're failing.

The United States fashions itself an international policeman of human rights. It regularly scolds China and Russia, nations in Africa and the middle east. It goes as far as issuing annual report cards grading nation states worldwide about their efforts to protect human rights. It grades them on how well they guarantee religious freedoms.

When it comes to protecting human rights and guaranteeing religious freedoms for indigenous peoples, though, what grade does the U.S. itself deserve? If the world is assessed from a Judeo-Christian worldview, where the faithful pray to a god and adherents can chose the church, synagogue or mosque of their choice, it probably does pretty well. The millions of indigenous peoples in the U.S., however, if grading the U.S. on how they view the nation’s efforts to protect their fundamental human rights would probably give the U.S. an “F.” The U.S. cannot wrap its collective head around the American Indian devotion to the land, to mountains, to rivers, to animals and plants as being sacred, or the connection to ancestors and burial grounds.

The history of the American colonial expansion and an insatiable appetite for land, first for food then for railroads, for gems and mines, for railroads, and ultimately for development, ignored the existential human rights of the Indians who lived and to this day live off the land in a unique non-Anglo spiritual way.

Two smoldering human rights events occurring in the U.S. right now indicate that when it comes to the respecting human rights and religious freedoms on domestic soil, American colonial history is repeating itself and the U.S. still utterly fails to comprehend how the first Americans, the Indians, exist on a spiritual level different from themselves.

In North Dakota at the end of February, the U.S., with military might, forcibly removed American Indians from sacred traditional Indian lands to make way for an oil pipeline to fuel the profits of a private company and the energy appetite of consumers, jailing many of them. Hundreds of criminal cases are still pending against the “water protectors,” along with many members of the news media who covered the conflict.

In Arizona, against the will of a sovereign Indian nation, the U.S. is about to construct a massive wall through an Indian reservation, land the Tohono O’odham people have occupied for many hundreds of years, pre-dating a 19th century arbitrary line drawn across the pristine Sonoran Desert, separating them from their brothers and sisters and the burial grounds of their ancestors, killing off animals, stopping the flow of water.

After a war between Mexico and the U.S. in 1854 the countries signed a treaty, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and negotiated the Gadsden Purchase, the combined result being annexation of a vast stretch of land, much of the southwest and west from Mexico. The treaty established the U.S.-Mexico border and it divided the O’odham people.

In 1874 the first reservation on the U.S. side was created for the O’odham by executive order of President Ulysses Grant, which was enacted into law by Congress. The reservation was expanded over the years by later executive orders and acts of Congress to over two million acres. The reservation today is a vast expanse of land, mountains and valleys, with a long harsh summer and the border is quite unnatural presence for the O’odham. The border still divides the O’odham, and there are nine O’odham communities on the Mexico side and about 1500 enrolled members.

Many O’odham have family on both sides of the border, and they cross the border to see family. They cross regularly for religious pilgrimages (like the “salt pilgrimage” and the annual St. Francis pilgrimage to Magdalena Mexico) they cross for cultural celebrations, to visit sacred sites, for economic and agricultural reasons, to sell and buy goods, to gather water. The O’odham believe a wall will harm their ecosystem, interrupting the flow of water back and forth across the land, and will keep animals from migrating back and forth. There are some 30 endangered or threatened species in the border region. The land, the animals, the plants all very important to the O’odham. They say the wall will cross sacred sites and burial grounds on both sides. At a recent public forum, O’odham leaders referred to a wall as a “scar” upon their traditional lands.

U.S. constitutional law, the First Amendment, protects the free exercise of religion, and international human rights law protects indigenous people whose lands are divided by nation states’ borders. Specifically, Article 36 of The United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples (D.R.I.P.) says:

“Indigenous peoples, in particular those divided by international borders, have the right to maintain and develop contacts, relations and cooperation, including activities for spiritual, cultural, political, economic and social purposes, with their own members as well as other peoples across borders.”

In 2007 when the U.N. General Assembly voted on the Declaration, 144 nations voted yes, but the U.S. and just three other nations voted no. More recently, however, in 2010 the U.S. became the last of the four “no” votes to change its position and after consultation with American Indian Tribes announced its support for the declaration.

Now that the U.S. has joined the international community in affirming the Declaration, and therefore accepted an obligation to work toward enforcing Article 36 and the many other human rights protections it affords to indigenous peoples, will it continue with its plan to construct walls that dissect indigenous homelands and trample burial grounds? Will it continue to arrest and imprison indigenous peoples who fight to protect clean water? WIll it continue to disrespect the international human rights treaty bodies that monitor human rights? If yes, recognize the inherent hypocrisy of declaring yourself the arbiter of human rights and religious freedom. Obviously, the preferable course would be to rise to the occasion. The world is watching.