Civil Rights and Human Rights

Civil Rights and Human Rights

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April 18, 2013

In 2000, when the Montana Human Rights Network published its report Drumming Up Resentment, the United Nations was still seven years away from passing its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which, in essence, extended the international human rights regime to include indigenous peoples. As such, as recently as ten years ago, many Americans were still struggling with the conceptual difference between civil rights and human rights.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know the difference. Nevertheless, the insight of the MHRN report’s author Ken Toole remains essential to the indigenous peoples’ struggle today. In fact, as the Anti-Indian Movement in the United States launches a national offensive to terminate Indian tribes, Toole’s analysis is fundamental to our understanding of the current conflict.

The context in which most people place words like racism, prejudice, and discrimination is the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In that context, an oppressed minority, African Americans, sought inclusion, a piece of the pie, equal opportunity and integration.

The struggle for civil rights in Indian country is different. It rests more on sovereignty and autonomy than on inclusion and integration. The legal framework created by the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s sought to secure equal treatment within existing institutions and law. Indian rights activists, by and large, seek recognition of their right to develop their own law. Basically, they seek recognition of a right to self-determination. This difference is confusing and gives the anti-Indian movement an advantage in the rhetorical arena.

Taken at face value, the anti-Indian movement is a systematic effort to deny legally established rights to a group of people who are identified on the basis of their shared culture, history, religion and tradition. That makes it racist by definition.

–Ken Toole, Montana Human Rights Network, January 2000

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