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Native Vulnerabilities call for Native Leadership
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August 18, 2016

Are native leaders, managers of community assets or visionaries seeking to ensure community security, prosperity and spiritual growth? Violence that visits indigenous communities all over the world receives an outcry and pleas for respect for peoples’ human rights. Reports of such pleas come from the mouths of non-governmental Indigenous rights organization advocates and frequently from indigenous community representatives. Increasingly these appeals for enforcement of human rights norms echo in the United Nations chambers and reports about the violence are referred to the UN Human Rights Council; and there the story usually comes to an end.

Political leaders describe violence against Indigenous Peoples as a matter of human rights, but in reality we are increasingly seeing mass murder, slavery and forced relocations. Indigenous leaders must take their own action instead of waiting for reports on human rights. Direct action by indigenous leaders is not only possible, but also essential if indigenous peoples around the world are to become secure, prosperous and spiritually healthy.

Sitting on a wintery porch with a friend many years ago in the village of Nespelem on the Colville Indian Reservation we talked about what was called “law and order” on the reservation in those days. I was conducting a study with the Social Research Center about the number of Colville Tribal members arrested each year at the boundary of the reservation and if there was a pattern for these arrests. Yes, we concluded. The Washington State Patrol would arrest tribal members every year around per-capita time when the tribes collected money from timber cut receipts and then distributed a portion to each member. We talked about that for a while, saying the State of Washington shouldn’t have authority to arrest Indians. The conversation then moved to something I hadn’t heard much about: The eighty Indians killed that year and no investigations being conducted or arrests by the US Marshal or county sheriff—or by any one.

“You mean to tell me, no one investigated these killings and no one has been arrested?” I asked. He looked down and said that no such investigations and no arrests were made and that these killings had taken place on reservations from Makah on the west coast to the Yakama, to the Nez Perce and to the Flathead reservation.

“Why?” I asked incredulously.

“Too many different legal jurisdictions on the reservation,” he said. “The US Marshal, the BIA police, the county sheriff and the state policy all exercise jurisdiction on different parts of the reservations; and where Indians live on some parcels and whites live on other parcels it is impossible to know who has the lawful authority so nothing happens when an Indian is killed,” he explained as if this would give enough information to settle the question. I was unsatisfied. Tribal leaders began to take control of the situation by organizing their own law enforcement agencies and establishing intergovernmental agreements with counties, states and the federal government to allow tribal cross jurisdiction. Tribal officials took action on their own.

I thought about this front porch conversation when recently I read The Guardian and its 15 August 2016 report that police in the United States killed 666 people in the 8 months since January. What startled me was to read that American Indians were killed by police at a rate of 5.49 per million as compared to 4.18 African Americans, 1.89 Latino, 1.65 Whites and .56 Asian and Pacific Islanders. In other words while African Americans were being killed by police at a huge rate per million, American Indians were being killed at a rate per million higher than the terrible African American rate by 75%. “Why isn’t that a story,” I asked myself? Probably, I thought, for the same reason that 80 uninvestigated killings on Indian reservations wasn’t a story worthy of popular outrage outside of Indian Country years ago.

To give me more to think about, I received an email message from the First Nations Development Institute announcing that the two Senators from Montana and Montana’s single Representative were introducing resolution (not a law) designating May 5, 2017 as “The National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.” They wanted to demonstrate solidarity with the families of Native women and girls killed. I thought to myself, “That’s your response to the killing of native women and girls?” This resolution, they said, is to raise awareness, but nothing in the way of federal, tribal or state leadership was being offered to stop the killing.

The vulnerability of native peoples, men and women, boys and girls, is a stark reality that receives little or no attention in the press, by public officials or as it turns out even tribal government officials. In North America, Africa, Pacific Island, Asia, South and Central America, Africa and Europe indigenous men and women, boys and girls are being enslaved, killed (by official state action as well as wars and organized crime); they are forced into refugee status (from wars, climate change and state instability) and displaced. We read about some of this in Intercontinental Cry Magazine, but virtually nowhere else.

According to the Borgen Project ( there are more than 29.8 million people enslaved in 2016 worldwide. Generating $32 billion per year, most (78%) of these people are enslaved for their labor and the remaining 6.566 million are enslaved for sex. More than half of the total are women and girls. The Borgen Project estimates that in the United States alone 60,000 people are enslaved. Many are indigenous people.

Which countries have high rates of the slavery? Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan India, Nepal, Moldova, the Gambia and Gabon are the main countries producing and using slaves. I suspect that about 75% of the enslaved men and women, girls and boys are indigenous people since most are in India, Pakistan and the Gambia.

And then there is the matter of refugees and targeted killing of indigenous peoples. In Afghanistan there are more than 280,000 refugees and they are primarily indigenous people. In Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, more than 2 million refugees are internally or externally located. Mauritania, Pakistan, India, Nepal Moldova and the Gambia account for nearly 2 million more refugees. These latter countries are principal slavery states. There is a close relationship between refugee status, slavery and poverty (meaning here access to healthy food, clothing, shelter and freedom from violence), I suggest. Slavery, poverty and refugee status combine to exacerbate the vulnerability of indigenous peoples.

All of this causes me to ask the question: Where are the indigenous leaders working to protect their people and call attention to the killings of men, women, boys and girls? Where are the indigenous leaders calling out for the protection of indigenous peoples enslaved and forced into refugee status? Where are the indigenous leaders activating their own governments and resources to provide support, protection and nurture for the most vulnerable people in the world: Indigenous men, women, boys and girls? The leaders must step forward and take the necessary risks of time, comfort and prestige to call communities together to act to secure indigenous communities.

Yes, I know there are forces arrayed against indigenous communities such as state sponsored violence against indigenous communities that seem insurmountable, but I am afraid I am not seeing much courage in the leadership throughout the world to counter the violence. Yes there are a few courageous leaders working their hearts out, but they should be reaching out to other indigenous leaders to amass political as well as material support to take care “of our own.”

Too many leaders look to the very agents (states, gangs, organized non-state groups, churches, and international organizations) to protect and care for their people, when that responsibility falls first with the leadership of each community. Too many leaders look to symbols of importance and appreciation from the states and what appear to be centers of power giving them promises that “human rights” will be protected. I am sorry, but I don’t see any deliberate measures taken anywhere to protect indigenous peoples’ human rights. And if leaders must form coalitions with other indigenous nations to form greater security, then do that. The material, political and spiritual potential exists, but I am worried the will does not. We need new and forthright leaders willing to take the risk that they will be criticized for taking the lead to protect and ensure the security of their people. In the face of violence against indigenous peoples, leaders can do more.

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