Saturday, March 27, 2010

Navajo Human Rights 'Listening Session'

Navajo Human Rights 'Listening Session'
By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau
Gallup Independent

WINDOW ROCK – Navajo Nation Council Delegate Rex Lee Jim – who is also a medicine man – did a house blessing the other day at a new home in Monument Valley. “The reason was because the other house was contaminated with uranium,” he told members of the U.S. Department of State during their visit Wednesday to the Navajo Nation capital.

The owner of the new home has health problems believed to be related to radiation exposure. “We're doing the best we can with what we have. We ask for your help,” Jim said as he welcomed federal representatives to the Navajo Nation.

Environmental issues, sacred sites, relocation, racism, and unsolved deaths were just a few of the topics discussed as the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission hosted a federal government “listening session” to discuss the federal government's record on human rights in preparation for the Universal Periodic Review in November.

The United States has not endorsed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed in September 2007 by the U.N. General Assembly. The commission is strongly advocating for ratification of the declaration to protect the Dine way of life.

Representatives of the Nation's three-branch government were on hand to express concerns, however, President Joe Shirley Jr. was unable to attend due to another obligation. However, he and First Lady Vicki Shirley did meet later with Jodi A. Gillette, Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Shirley requested her assistance in arranging a meeting with President Obama.

Harrison Tsosie of Navajo Department of Justice appeared at the session on behalf of Shirley to raise the issue of the federal government's failure to acknowledge land ownership.

“It denies Navajo people economic opportunities, progress and other benefits as enjoyed by citizens who hold fee title to their own land,” he said. “I think it's time the United States address this issue.”

Council Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan said the Navajo people have been subjected to abuses for many years, with deaths and beatings being common acts of violence in border towns.

“These acts were mostly done by non-Native people,” he said, citing an example of two Navajos killed in Gallup in the 1970s. “They told the court that they thought they were jackrabbits – and the court bought that,” Morgan said.

Chief Justice Herb Yazzie said it was 142 years ago that the federal government entered into a treaty with the Navajo Nation. “We were at a concentration camp (Bosque Redondo), but a treaty was entered, promises were made, and today I want to impress upon you that that promise, that treaty, guaranteed self-determination.

“We are here to express several concerns about racism, about legal issues, about environmental concerns. I would submit to you that these concerns came to exist because the United States government has not lived up to that promise, this law that they entered into that is supposed to be the supreme law of the land,” he said.

Howard Shanker, an attorney from Flagstaff who has represented the Navajo Nation and other tribes in litigation to protect Dook'o'oosliid, or the sacred San Francisco Peaks, told the delegation there really is no law that substantively protects these sacred sites.

“For decades we have been fighting the U.S. government and we've been fighting the Justice Department,” he said, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lyng vs. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, “essentially held that Native Americans have no First Amendment rights when it comes to government land use.”

Though sacred to 13 Arizona tribes, when it came to protecting the San Francisco Peaks from what the tribes perceived as desecration through the use of reclaimed sewer water to make artificial snow for the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort, the court ruled against them.

“President Shirley, on the stand, said this is like making me watch you rape my mother,” Shanker told them.

Arista La Russo, originally from Sand Springs, said her father resided in the Joint Use Area., but he and her family were relocated in the 1970s. “My parents were advised they had to move because it was the law and that if they did not, they would be forcibly removed by the military,” she said.

Thousands of Navajos and hundreds of Hopis were relocated, resulting in their children and grandchildren being disenfranchised.

There is no federal policy addressing the children of the relocatees who are displaced, she said. “The incompetent planning by the federal government was with no regard to the children of relocatees.” As a result, many turned to drugs, alcohol and violence. “Many children of relocatees do not have a home to come home to,” she said.

Marie Gladeau who lives on Hopi Partitioned Land, said the Accommodation Agreement of 1987 gives legal jurisdiction to the Hopi tribal government and responsibility for services to the Navajo Nation. In doing so, it greatly limits their freedom, she said.

“Things got fast-tracked to get the AA signed into law. The law has created conflict over who has exclusive rights to the home sites, cornfields, and livestock. ... The law is based on Colonial tactics with the outcome being to divide and conquer what was once a shared and equal right to land use,” she said.

Perry Charley, director of Dine Environmental Institute at Shiprock Dine College, said the Navajo Nation faces many challenges in the coming years due to climate changes, including depletion of non-renewable natural resources and water.

Though the federal government instituted the National Environmental Policy Act, CERCLA, or Superfund, and other laws designed to guarantee a safe living environment “oftentimes, these laws fail to recognize Native American cultures and traditions,” Charley said.

Federal policies and regulations also fail to recognize Native American sovereignty issues, as exemplified by the March 8 decision by the 10th Circuit Court which upheld the license for Hydro Resource Inc. to mine uranium in Churchrock, despite the Navajo Nation's ban on uranium mining and processing.

Wahleah Johns of Black Mesa Water Coalition told the delegation, “Water is life, and a basic human right. We don't look at it as a resource, but a sacred element that sustains all life. Without water, life cannot grow.”

Johns told them there is physical evidence of damage to the Navajo aquifer from Peabody Western Coal Co.'s use of it to mine coal. She asked the State Department to look into the “shifting of the water.”

Office of Intergovernmental Affairs' Gillette said the Obama Administration is committed to strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship.

“I know that a lot of you are coming to us with information that you said before in the past. It's been a long time that you've been saying these things and it feels like nobody's listening; but I'm here to tell you that we are listening, I'm listening with an open heart and an open mind. All of us are going to go back and do our best.”

Duane H. “Chili” Yazzie, chair of the Navajo Human Rights Commission, said they will look for a sign within 90 days that the United States has heard them.

“One signal that we will look for is some word from a very contemporary tragedy that continues -- the illegal imprisonment of my brother Leonard Peltier. Show us! Give us a signal that says, 'Yes, these United States of America will sign on to this declaration.'

“It's not something that we should have to ask for. It's not something that we should have to beg for. It's not something that we want to demand. It's something that we should expect from the greatest democracy on this face of the earth.”

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