Poverty is endemic to the native peoples of America.  Take this one small example.

South Dakota is home to the 3 poorest counties in the Nation. I am very familiar with these places because 3 of the largest American Indian reservations that National Relief Charities serves – Cheyenne River, Rosebud and Pine Ridge – are located in these counties.

I’ve been to Pine Ridge and it is not a happy place to be.  Remote, isolated and lacking in basic services, the people who live there are plagued by countless social problems.  The Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation have a long history of struggle and resistance to Federal control.  The 1890 battle of Wounded Knee was fought there, and Pine Ridge was the epicenter of AIM (The American Indian Movement), a radical organization that sought greater independence for native peoples in North America and a renewal of all treaty relationships between indigenous people and the Federal government.  In 1975 there was armed conflict between AIM members and the FBI that resulted in the death of two FBI agents and one AIM member.

An example closer to home?  The poorest county in Wisconsin is Menominee County.  Guess who lives in Menominee County?  That’s right, lots and lots of Menominee!

The racial makeup of the county was 11.57% White, 0.07% Black or African American, 87.26% Native American, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.33% from other races, and 0.75% from two or more races. 2.67% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. 5.0% were of German ancestry according to Census 2000.

Fast-forward to 2012.  Now, a United Nations human rights investigation into the conditions of indigenous peoples in the United States will be conducted by James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples.  His job will be to assess the treatment of all indigenous peoples in the United States and to make policy recommendations to the US government.

Anaya, a University of Arizona professor of human rights, said: “I will examine the situation of the American Indian/Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples against the background of the United States‘ endorsement of the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.”


Apart from social issues, US Native Americans are involved in near continuous disputes over sovereignty and land rights. Although they were given power over large areas, most of it in the west, their rights are repeatedly challenged by state governments.

Most Americans have little contact with those living in the 500-plus tribal areas, except as tourists on trips to casinos allowed on land outside federal jurisdiction or to view spectacular landscapes.

Having visited tribal reservations on countless occasions, all I can say is it’s about f’ing time the UN examined how native peoples in the US are treated.  I can only hope that the Obama administration acts upon the recommendations that are likely forthcoming.

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5 Responses to The UN Launches Human Rights Investigation in the United States

  1. PJ says:

    An interesting story, indeed. Are you familiar with Pine Ridge’s peaceful blockade of Keystone XL trucks last month? I’ve been finding it difficult to follow – not sure if they got the restraining order or not.

  2. Memory Man says:

    “I can only hope that the Obama administration acts upon the recommendations that are likely forthcoming.”

    Putting the burden on a President who has had more crises ever in the history of America dumped onto his desk, while simultaneously being starved for resources by Congress is a cop-out. All Americans have benefited in one way or another from the land that was taken from native Americans. What have you done to make things right?

    • Phil Scarr says:

      FWIW, the Executive branch is wholly responsible for the treatment of the indigenous populations in the United States. It’s part of the Department of the Interior (along with trees, parks and mines). In other words, indigenous peoples are like the rocks and the trees and part of the “natural” landscape. Unlike the rest of us Americans…

      • Memory Man says:

        Phil, that’s how the system was originally set up to work. But we can’t ignore the fact that Congress holds the purse strings, and therefore has total control over the Executive’s ability to function. As we well know, the 112th Congress isn’t fulfilling its role.

        Although we may not be directly responsible for certain injustices in our nation, we have benefited from them in one way or another.

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