First they wanted to ban literary classics from school curricula. Now the geniuses at the increasingly irrelevant United Nations have come up with the brilliant notion that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People requires the return of Mount Rushmore to the Native Americans. Reports the Associated Press:
A United Nations fact finder surveying the lives of Native Americans and Alaska Natives said Friday he’ll recommend in an upcoming report that some of the tribes’ lands be restored, including the Black Hills of South Dakota…
Anaya [the UN special rapporteur] … said restoring to indigenous people what they have a legitimate claim to can be done in a way that is not divisive “so that the Black Hills, for example, isn’t just a reminder of the subordination and domination of indigenous peoples in that country.”
The Black Hills, home to Mount Rushmore, are public land but are considered sacred by the Sioux tribes. The Sioux have refused to accept money awarded in a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision and have sought return of the land. The Black Hills and other lands were set aside for the Sioux in an 1868 treaty. But Congress passed a law in 1877 taking the land.
While not many Americans defend US Indian policy in the 19th century as either enlightened or fair, one somehow suspects that the United Nations is not the organization from which this country will seek advice about what to do next.
So what gives the UN a mandate to recommend that the United States return Mount Rushmore to the Sioux? It is a 2010 decision by President Obama, who reversed longstanding US policy and endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
Now that the US government has endorsed the declaration, bureaucrats claiming to uphold its principles can and will issue statements and recommendations as they see fit. These declarations, like most of what the UN does, have no legal standing or force. The US Congress would have to authorize any reopening of Indian claims.
The decision to endorse the declaration looks like one of those classic — and classically empty — goodwill gestures that liberal internationalists always hope will show ‘leadership’ and gain us ‘prestige’. Often, these gestures accomplish nothing and are soon forgotten; every now and then, however, they accomplish nothing positive but create minor but annoying trouble down the road.
This decision looks like one of the latter kind. President Obama’s decision will embarrass the United States over time as various claimants look for ways to use the UN system to give publicity to their claims. The US is not going to follow UN recommendations on dealing with Indian claims, but Obama’s empowerment of the commission puts the US into the awkward position of repudiating the conclusions of a body the current administration enthusiastically backed. And as often as the bureaucrats on the commission wish, they can embarrass the United States by calling on its government to do things that it will not and cannot do.
In announcing the policy shift in 2010, Obama declared “what matters far more than words, what matters far more than any resolution or declaration, are actions to match those words.” How ironic that those were among the emptiest words this president has ever uttered.
If anything, putting the UN behind these land claims makes it harder for Congress to take the action the Sioux would like. US diplomacy in this case has hurt the United States without helping the Sioux: it is a classic lose-lose situation and it is what diplomacy looks like when it has become untethered from the real world.