Native American observers are hoping that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s (ACHP) decision to support the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) signals a sea change among federal agencies that will usher in a new relationship with tribes and American Indian citizens beyond the current trust relationship.
The ACHP, an independent federal agency, announced its plan to support UNDRIP in March, saying it wanted to raise awareness about the Declaration – and its goal to improve the treatment of Indigenous Peoples – within the preservation community. The agency also promised to develop guidance on the intersection of the Declaration with the Section 106 process (which requires federal agencies to take into account the impacts of their actions on historic properties, and federal agencies are required to consult with Indian tribes, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiian organizations when historic properties of religious and cultural significance to them may be affected).
While lofty, this was the first step a federal agency has taken to support and take action on UNDRIP since President Barack Obama announced in December 2010 his decision to endorse the principles of the Declaration.
The background here is intriguing, as the decision was announced just as Lynne Sebastian, an anthropologist, was sworn in as President Barack Obama’s choice to fill a vacant seat on the council over tribal objections. She was a controversial choice due to past poor relations with some tribes, and ACHP leadership knew that; at the same meeting she was sworn in this spring, the agency announced its UNDRIP plan, perhaps to appease tribal concerns, according to several Indian affairs observers with concerns in the area of tribal historic preservation.
Milford Wayne Donaldson, chairman of the ACHP, offered his own take on the agency’s intent, telling Indian Country Today Media Network that this move “is a long-term commitment, both to raising awareness about the rights it seeks to protect, and to encouraging federal and Native Hawaiian organizations.” Associates who know Donaldson well say he was sensitive about the Sebastian situation, and he generally likes to foster strong Native relations since his agency works with tribes frequently.
Whatever the intent, the direction is promising, says Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee advocate for Native Americans. “It’s one of those situations where you take the good news and run with it,” she says. “If it’s tied to Lynne Sebastian’s bad actions in the past, fine—and if it signals a new day, then also fine.”
The bigger issue now becomes whether this support will translate into broader adoption of UNDRIP’s principles across the federal government—a goal envisioned by its creators as a way to strengthen Native rights and sovereignty in a way that the current federal-tribal trust relationship has been lacking.
“Now that one federal agency has done it and the republic still stands, I think it will encourage others,” Harjo says with a laugh. “I think it’s very likely.”
Donaldson is also hopeful: “The ACHP indeed believes that other agencies will meaningfully support the Declaration as they become more familiar with it, and as its provisions correspond with their missions and goals. Remember, the ACHP is comprised of members that represent several federal Departments and agencies, as well as key members of the non-federal national historic preservation framework, so our efforts should assist others to become better acquainted with the Declaration and its significance to their work.”
Still, Indians working on real-life preservation issues are not super confident that the support will result in stronger tribal positioning within the ACHP, let alone the whole federal government. “The future escapes us because of the slippery slopes we have to stand on,” says Darrell "Curley" Youpee, a tribal historic preservation officer with the Fort Peck Tribes. “I sought assistance from ACHP regarding what I believed to be violations of my civil and human rights and was told that it was not an area that ACHP involved themselves in and further; they advise me that they could not refer me to another agency because it might bring a lawsuit on the agency. It was pass-the-buck mentality like I never experienced before.”
To date, the ACHP’s support has led to greater promotion of the UNDRIP (through a post on the White House blog, a new web page, and a few newspaper articles), but not much meaningful action, laments Youpee, who says the federal government has a long way to go before real indigenous self-determination and empowerment can be realized.
“[I]t's now time for them to step up and integrate American Indians into the foundations of freedom, justice and peace by rebuilding policies that nurture American Indian dignity and equal rights in the institutional culture,” says Youpee.