ORONO, Maine — Indigenous people in Maine, the United States and the rest of the world are standing between two legal frameworks, a renowned Native American legal scholar, activist and author said Thursday night during a keynote address at the University of Maine.
From 1776 to 1970, the nation’s indigenous peoples — including Maine’s American Indian tribes — were governed by federal laws and treaties that referred to them as “imbeciles” and “savages” incapable of governing themselves, said Walter Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee Indian from Oklahoma who has been at the forefront of the Native American rights movement since 1973.
Echo-Hawk’s appearances in Indian Township on Wednesday and in Orono on Thursday afternoon and evening served as the launch of the Wabanaki Treaty Learning Series, a joint venture of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and UMaine’s Wabanaki Center, according to MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall.
Dieffenbacher-Krall said that representatives from the commission and the center wanted to kick-start the series with a dynamic, high-profile keynoter. MITSC Chairwoman Jamie Bissonnette Lewey, who had a professional relationship with Echo-Hawk, invited the elder to meet with Maine tribes and he accepted.
The federal government’s longtime approach to its indigenous people was the product of European colonialism, initially with the powers that be in England and later with the United States, said Echo-Hawk, who visited Maine for the first time this week.
More recently, Maine tribes have been subject to the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980. The settlement, which appropriated $81.5 million for tribes and provided for the reacquisition of native lands, also established a policy for the tribes to govern their own affairs, with some exceptions.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a comprehensive statement addressing the human rights of indigenous peoples, according to the United Nations’ website. It was crafted and formally debated for more than 20 years before it was adopted by the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2007.
The document emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to live in dignity, maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and pursue their self-determined development, in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.
Maine was the first state in the nation to voice its support for the declaration in 2008, Echo-Hawk said. The United States did not endorse the declaration until two years later, he said.
Despite the gesture, however, Echo-Hawk said little has changed.
“Since 2010, neither Maine nor the U.S. have taken any affirmative steps to implement it in partnership with the indigenous peoples according to the roadmap provided by that declaration,” he said.
“But there has been a [U.S.] Senate oversight hearing to begin looking at the policy implications of this new framework that was held in 2011,” Echo-Hawk said. In addition, he said James Anaya, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, toured the United States, met with federal agencies that work with Indian tribes and issued a report with his recommendations to the U.S. last year.
“Now Indian tribes from around the country are sitting down to read this document, consulting with their tribal attorneys and thinking. ‘What does this mean?’” he said. “And so [now] we are on the threshold of implementing this.”
Though he said he would have needed more time at the podium to go into the declaration’s details, Echo-Hawk did offer some highlights.
“At the heart of it is self-determination principles, equality principles, the cultural rights of indigenous peoples. Land, property and territorial rights. The rights to sustain hunting and fishing and indigenous habitats. It’s all in there,” he said.
“I just want to say that the the promise of this declaration — if it’s fully implemented — will change the world. It will change the way that the world views indigenous peoples around the world — 375 million people in 72 countries,” he said. “It ushers in a new era. It allows us here in Maine to define the rights of Maine’s Indian tribes that’s inherent, inalienable, indefeasible human rights.”
As Echo-Hawk sees it, implementing the declaration would “strip away the dark side of federal Indian law and it would reaffirm the very best of the American legal culture as it pertains to the people,” he said.
“[It would] reaffirm the self-determination approach and significantly strengthen our laws and policies [so they would be] more appropriate in a post-colonial world. It will afford an answer to the perplexing political problem about what is the best way to incorporate Indians into our mainstream culture.”
Echo-Hawk also said it is time to heal the wounds of the past.
“You can try to heal the wound from a past that has torn you apart or you cannot heal it,” he said. “You could take the low road of revenge, of hatred, of being mired in injustice. Or you can try to heal,” he said.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Walter Echo-Hawk as Echo-Wolf.