Friday, 20 April 2012

A Matter of Trust?

The relationship between the United States government and the indigenous peoples within its borders is a complex one. Questions over jurisdiction on lands, control over lands, and even the boundaries and borders of lands themselves have been persistent questions, and this does not look to change any time soon. In a denial of the sovereign status that the United States once recognised in indigenous peoples, it now maintains that it holds a plenary power over indigenous peoples who are its “domestic dependents.” Lands that were that of indigenous groups and not the United States by mutual agreement of both parties have been diminished by a resource and land-hungry US government. Ignoring and denial of indigenous sovereignty became an easy way to justify the taking of treaty lands without compensation. This pattern has repeated itself over and over, from the taking of the land of the “Five Civilized Tribes” in the southeast of the United States, to the present day issues over what rights are held by what parties over what parcels of land.

The latest chapter on this involves a one-billion dollar settlement between the United States government and forty one indigenous “tribes”, according to the Native News Network. At issue was the way in which the United States had dealt with “trust lands” belonging to the indigenous groups. According to the Washington Post, “The agreement resolves claims brought by 41 tribes from across the country to reclaim money lost in mismanaged accounts and from royalties for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights on tribal lands.”

That is to say, that the United States puts itself in charge of leases to extract natural resources from lands that belong to indigenous groups and for the grazing of animals belonging to non-indigenous peoples.

Accessing natural gas resources on tribal trust lands is part of a dispute detailed in a story at According to this news story, indigenous groups “were left out of federal efforts to pass rules on hydraulic fracturing.” One of the problems identified by indigenous leaders is that the United States “Bureau of Land Management...considers American-Indian tribal lands to be public lands.” Given the standards in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it is somewhat surprising that provisions on not only consultation but free, prior and informed consent are seemingly swept to the side. But then again, perhaps it is not so surprising.

The concept of trust can take on many meanings. In its ordinary usage, it infers a relationship of mutual respect and bonding. It could hardly be said that this describes the relationship between the United States and indigenous groups, and in the manner that the US government has dealt with indigenous lands. (See for example, the case of Mary and Carrie Dann at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ) Of course the term “trust” in law takes on a different meaning, but also implies the idea of fiduciary duties and responsibilities that in some sense are not so far apart from the idea of “trust” in its everyday usage. Whichever meaning is used, it would seem that the United States government consistently fails to live up to it.

This video provides some information about trust lands.

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