S. James Anaya, a United Nations fact-finder, has learned that vibrant Indian cultures are often invisible in the United States mainstream and that problems of Indians today seem trivial to U.S. citizens who tend to believe Natives and Native issues exist only in the distant past.
Anaya, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also said that there should be presidential support for an existing apology resolution, because any reconciliation over historical wrongs has been hampered from the start by inadequate acknowledgment.
Anaya, of Purepecha and Chiricahua Apache ancestry, spoke January 24 at the University of Colorado Law School on “Reconciliation in the United States in Light of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
He cited the 500-year Native history of abuses, ranging from the initial invasion to the illegal seizure of millions of acres of tribal land, to the boarding schools which “cut deep into Indian communities,” and to predictable present-day results—disproportionately high rates of poverty, disease, early death, violence, alcoholism and suicide.
Yet he found many mainstream Americans who have said, “Just get over it,” an indication of the invisibility of Natives and Native issues in a wider culture that places them squarely in distant history and ignores the ongoing outcome of abuses “very much felt today.”
Anaya said “robust means of reconciliation” should take place, beginning with a heartfelt and public apology for past wrongs. He added that a “superficial apology” would yield a “superficial reconciliation.”
The document emphasized that the apology didn’t constitute support for or settlement of claims against the U.S., but was for the “many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect” inflicted on Native peoples by U.S. citizens.
“History cannot be undone, but the future can mark a new direction,” Anaya said, urging that the Declaration become a part of decision-making when indigenous issues arise in foreign and domestic policy.
On a personal note that illustrated the here-and-now of Native concerns, Anaya said he’d received a letter from a 15-year-old student attending high school near the Rosebud Sioux (Sicangu Lakota) Reservation in South Dakota.
“Life here is very hand-to-mouth,” the student wrote. “I’m going to be honest with you—sometimes I don’t eat. I’ve never told anyone this before, not even my mom, but I don’t eat sometimes because I feel bad about making my mom buy food that I know is expensive.
“And you know what? Life is hard enough for my mom, so I will probably never tell her.”
Anaya gave the Thomson Visitor Lecture as part of the 2012-2013 Speaker Series of the American Indian Law Program.