“Here’s to justice!”

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Walter Echo-Hawk speak at the Snoqualmie Casino. I have been working to process his thoughts, words and wisdom. I’m mostly interested in how his message contributes to the idea of a land ethic. My intent is to share his message with my audience, from a place of humility of heart and spirit. Not that I am anyone of any great importance, mind you. I have a voice, I have two hands, my Spirit is here on purpose, and if there is an opportunity to add to a knowledge base or create understanding, I will avail myself of that opportunity.

Mr. Echo-Hawk’s presentation was focused on his latest book, “In the Light of Justice”, where he digs into the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People. (UNDRIP) As a student of Tribal governance, from a public administration point of view, I was not extremely fond of UNDRIP. Like others I know, I doubted whether the document had been crafted in good faith. Who participated in creating this? What were their goals? Such questions I had about its veracity. I also doubted that this document, a creation of the United Nations, was enforceable in countries where legal precedent vociferously protects the sovereignty of the few while denying the sovereignty of others. I started to read “In the Light of Justice” a few months ago, but as you should know if you have read any of my posts, I momentarily lost my desire to read books about social justice. Hearing Echo-Hawk speak has renewed my interest and desire in applying actions AND words toward a movement for a just society.

Mr. Echo-Hawk engaged in some compelling arguments (as I guess a lawyer is keen to do) about the strength of UNDRIP as a powerful tool for sovereign nations and sovereign people. I will briefly review the notes that I took during this presentation. I am specifically encouraged by his ideas that the implementation of UNDRIP could be a especially effective in helping to redefine our relationship to the land and how we ethically approach resource development.

He stated, on multiple occasions, that he believes that sovereign nations are experiencing a historical moment in time, which he referred to as a jurisgenerative moment. We are finding ourselves in a time when social justice inequities are starting to become a societal norm. However, what is also happening is that more and more people are losing their appetite for those inequities. Many people seem to be asking themselves, what have we to show for over 40 years of civil rights activism? The same question applies to over 40 years of environmental activism? What have we to show? Clearly, we have more work to do. There can be no ‘resting on our laurels’ if we hope to continue as a healthy, well-balanced species living on planet Earth. Our children, their children and so on require us to continue to work.

The whole of UNDRIP is framed within the right to self-determination of Indigenous people. 150 nations, so far, have affirmed and endorsed the standards set forth in UNDRIP. Article 4 of the declaration specifically links self-governance as an aspect of self-determination. Self-governance is a human right. No law or policy crafted that violates human rights should be allowed to stand. Inherent human rights, according to Mr. Echo-Hawk, are the strongest legal right – inalienable, indefeasible, indivisible. He went on to posit that when human rights are viewed as a standard approach for implementing law and policy, UNDRIP has the potential to address and reset the darker side of federal Indian law.

Throughout his speech, I was taking as many notes as I could, trying to stay engaged with him as a speaker, but also capturing, by my own understanding, the words that he was sharing with the audience. Where he really got my attention was when he spoke of UNDRIP as a tool for developing what he called “an American land ethic”. Personally, I think that we should shy away from qualifying a land ethic as “American” and I have any number of reasons for that stance, but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, let’s simply accept that UNDRIP has the potential for helping define a land ethic as a foundation for a deeper conversation.

Having stated that, I realize that I’m already near 700 words on this post, and I’m keen on not boring whatever audience might be paying attention. There is a ton to say about a land ethic and how the UNDRIP can help in that social movement. Let’s be clear. Walter Echo-Hawk has called on all who care to view this as a social movement. It isn’t something that will be won overnight. We have 40 years of environmental/social justice activism behind us, but we clearly have more work to do. I’ll leave you with these words. I think they will be a great segue into my next blog post, and they should hopefully give you plenty to think about (and hopefully investigate further).

From “In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People”.

“Nations are naturally resistant to change, especially when it requires the government to stop doing things it has always done and entails new programs that may conflict with the interests of strong lobbying constituencies.” (Echo-Hawk, p. 221)

And here is what he said as part of his presentation, mostly paraphrased I believe.

‘Americans have a history of self-correcting and UNDRIP gives the framework for self-corrections of human rights violations based in law.’

When Mr. Echo-Hawk signed my book, he wrote “Here’s to justice”. Indeed.