According to the Organization for American States (OAS), over 50 million people living in the Americas self-identify as indigenous.
Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas have faced historic and persistent oppression, exploitation, and human rights abuses. Many experienced similar fates of forced removal from ancestral lands and relocation threatening sovereignty and autonomy. Today, systemic oppression has resulted in widespread poverty and continuous threats to land rights and self-determination. The Americas have failed to protect and preserve the rights of indigenous peoples. States have been slow to acknowledge and adopt human rights mechanisms and there is a significant lack of enforcement. As a result, indigenous peoples in the Americas are forced to continuously and ardently fight for their rights.
The United States’ relationship with Native American tribes is marred by a history of forced assimilation and repression. In the early to mid-1800s, the United States government began a process of removal, forcing all Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River, a tragic event that became known as the Trail of Tears because of the resulting death of thousands of indigenous peoples. A process of continued exploitation and forced assimilation followed as children were forced into US boarding schools, and as agricultural and Western practices were thrust upon tribes. Today, there are around 566 recognized tribal groups in the United States. These tribal groups continue to face threats to the preservation and integrity of their land and territory. The United States has failed to be proactive and demonstrate concern for the rights of indigenous tribes. In September 2007, the United States voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), finally adopting the declaration in 2010. Although the UNDRIP is not legally binding, States who have adopted it agree to uphold a universal framework protecting indigenous rights. However, despite this acceptance, the US government continues to make decisions that threaten the rights of indigenous tribes. Modern disputes include the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatens the environment of the Sioux tribe in North Dakota, and the expansion of a ski area on the San Francisco Peaks, a sacred site to at least 13 tribes in the Southwest. The failure in both of these cases to seek the free, prior, and informed consent of Native American tribes on legislative decisions and projects that may affect them is a direct violation of the Declaration.
In Canada, the relationship between the First Nations tribes and the government parallels that of the United States; another history marked by forced assimilation and consolidation onto reservations. There are concerns regarding the quality of life and living conditions on many reservations today. Particularly, there are numerous health concerns related to the lack of access to clean water. In 2016, there were 85 drinking water advisories affecting First Nations’ communities across Canada. The water was contaminated by bacteria such as E. coli, cancer-causing Trihalomethanes, and uranium, making it unsafe to drink and resulting in advisories that could last for years. Such an infrastructure failure should not be occurring in Canada on such a massive scale. It demonstrates the government’s failure to adequately fund, regulate, and maintain suitable water systems. Although the 2016 Canadian budget allocated more funds to infrastructure building in First Nations communities, there is a continued failure to prioritize policies that would improve the healthcare and housing of indigenous peoples. Like the United States, Canada also voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, only adopting it in 2016. This stands as a clear pronouncement of Canada’s lack of concern and urgency regarding the rights of indigenous peoples.
South America: Chile
In South America, there are 40 million people that belong to 600 indigenous peoples’ groups. Indigenous peoples often face threats to land rights as a result of resource extraction and are often hindered in their political participation. For instance, the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, a territory of Chile, have faced significant human rights abuses over the years. Chile annexed Easter Island in 1933 without the consent of the indigenous Rapa Nui people. The Rapa Nui were relocated to one segment of the island while other settlers took over. Although the Rapa Nui were granted Chilean citizenship in 1966, their political rights are continuously violated. As the Rapa Nui began to protest and reclaim their land, they faced violent evictions from Chilean forces who frequently arrested and mistreated peaceful protestors. Chile continues to deny the Rapa Nui autonomy and rights to their ancestral lands. This is a situation faced by many indigenous groups in South America.
The protection and assertion of the rights of indigenous peoples have not been a priority for States in the Americas. After 30 years of negotiation, a consensus was reached and the OAS finally adopted the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in June 2016. Despite years of abuse, exploitation, and oppression, States fail to provide redress and adequate support for the livelihood of indigenous peoples. Even after adopting both a UN and American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, basic rights continue to be violated. Although it appears different on its face, the system of oppression and exploitation of indigenous peoples is thriving in the Americas. States need to prioritize the basic rights of indigenous peoples and provide enforcement mechanisms to the declarations before any real progress can be made.