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UN official: US must return control of sacred lands to Native Americans

Ed Menard, Park Ranger

A United Nations official says sacred lands -- like the Black Hills of Dakota, which includes Mount Rushmore -- should be returned to Native American control.

The United States must do more to heal the wounds of indigenous peoples caused by more than a century of oppression, including restoring control over lands Native Americans consider to be sacred, according to a U.N. human rights investigator. 

James Anaya, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, just completed a 12-day visit to the United States where he met with representatives of indigenous peoples in the District of Columbia, Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, Washington State, South Dakota, and Oklahoma. He also met with U.S. government officials.  


"I have heard stories that make evident the profound hurt that indigenous peoples continue to feel because of the history of oppression they have faced," Anaya said in a statement issued by the U.N. human rights office in Geneva Friday. 

That oppression, he said, has included the seizure of lands and resources, the removal of children from their families and communities, the loss of languages, violation of treaties, and brutality, all grounded in racial discrimination. 

Anaya welcomed the U.S. decision to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 and other steps the government has taken, but said more was needed.

'History of oppression'
His findings will be included in a final report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council. While not binding, the recommendations carry moral weight that can influence governments. 

"It is clear that this history does not just blemish the past, but translates into present day disadvantage for indigenous peoples in the country," Anaya said. 

 "There have still not been adequate measures of reconciliation to overcome the persistent legacies of the history of oppression, and that there is still much healing that needs to be done," he said. 

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In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, where some Native Americans depend on hunting and fishing, Anaya said tribes face "ever-greater threats ... due to a growing surge of competing interests, and in some cases incompatible extractive activities, over these lands and resources." 

"In Alaska, indigenous peoples complain about a complex and overly restrictive state regulatory apparatus that impedes their access to subsistence resources (fish and wildlife)," he said. 

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Mining for natural resources in parts of the country has also caused serious problems for indigenous peoples. 

"Past uncontrolled and irresponsible extractive activities, including uranium mining in the Southwest, have resulted in the contamination of indigenous peoples' water sources and other resources, and in numerous documented negative health effects among Native Americans," he said. 

Mount Rushmore
He said indigenous peoples feel they have too little control over geographic regions considered sacred to them, like the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and the Black Hills in South Dakota. Anaya suggested such lands should be returned to Native peoples. 

"Securing the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands is of central importance to indigenous peoples' socioeconomic development, self-determination, and cultural integrity," Anaya said. 

"Continued efforts to resolve, clarify, and strengthen the protection of indigenous lands, resources, and sacred sites should be made," he added. 

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Mount Rushmore, a popular tourist attraction, is located in the Black Hills, which the Sioux tribe consider to be sacred and have territorial claims to based on an 1868 treaty. Shortly after that treaty was signed, gold was discovered in the region. U.S. Congress eventually passed a law taking over the land. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the seizure of the land was illegal and ordered the government to pay compensation. But the Sioux rejected the money and has continued to demand the return of the now public lands. 

Anaya said he will make specific recommendations on these and other issues in a full report later this year. 

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