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Lands, sacred spaces part of US human rights review

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By Valerie Taliman, Race-Talk contributor

ALBUQUERQUE – The “listening session” held by the U.S. State Department on March 16 at the University of New Mexico Law School drew more than 100 Native leaders, legal scholars and human rights activists, many of whom called on the United States to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Testimony from presenters spanned an array of key issues including rights to self-determination, land, natural resources, sacred sites and religious freedom.

The listening sessions are part of the Universal Periodic Review, conducted every four years by the United Nations Human Rights Council, to examine the United States’ record on legally-binding human rights obligations.

The U.S. has been chastised in the past, and is expected to report on what it has done to implement recommendations made by U.N. human rights bodies.

For example, in 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled the U.S. had violated international human rights laws by seizing the property of Western Shoshone elders Carrie and Mary Dann, and “denying their rights to equality before the law, to be free of discrimination, to a fair trial and to property.”

It was the first time an international body formally recognized that the U.S. had violated the rights of Native Americans.

The ruling supported the Danns’ argument that the U.S. government used illegitimate means to gain control of ancestral Shoshone lands. It also questioned the government’s mishandling of millions of acres of land under the U.S. Indian Claims Commission.

The IACHR found that the ICC claims process – which the U.S. contends extinguished the Western Shoshone rights to most of their land in Nevada – was a flawed process that denied the Danns and other Western Shoshones their human rights.

The IACHR recommended that the U.S. government take steps to provide a fair legal process to determine the Danns’ and other Western Shoshone land rights.

Yet at the listening session, Larson Bill, former chairman of the South Fork Band of Te-Moak, said there has been no progress on recommendations to provide a fair legal settlement for the Western Shoshone.

Again in 2008, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination formally criticized the U.S. for not doing more to prevent and punish violence against Native women. Justice Department statistics revealed one in three women will be raped in their lifetimes; 86 percent of the rapes are committed by non-Indian men.

Sacred places vs. development

At an afternoon panel on sacred sites, Zuni Governor Norman Cooeyate talked about his tribe’s historic efforts to protect Zuni Salt Lake, a sacred place for many tribes, from desecration and de-watering.

Cooeyate said they fought for decades to reclaim 5,000 acres of land from the federal government to establish a sanctuary surrounding Zuni Salt Lake in 1985.

But in 1996, without consulting the Zuni or any other tribes, the state of New Mexico issued a permit to Salt River Project, the third-largest public power utility in the nation, to build a coal mine within the sanctuary boundaries of the lake.

The Zuni did not find out about the proposed mine or permit for three years, and were appalled to find the lease had been signed by a former lobbyist for coal companies who worked at the Interior Department.

They also learned that hydrological studies indicated strip-mining coal would use 85 gallons per minute of water from the aquifer that feeds Zuni Salt Lake, reducing the water table to a level that would hinder the lake’s ability to produce their sacred salt.

“The songs, ceremonies, gathering of minerals, plants and medicines are the central and irreplaceable elements of my people’s religion and cultural practices,” Cooeyate said. “The power of these sacred ecosystems cannot be duplicated or replaced. We want the United States to uphold our right to protect our sacred places of prayer.”

Mining indigenous lands