The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Amateur Hour at the UN: Mt. Rushmore Edition

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.

Published on May 13, 2012 2:36 pm
  • Anthony

    “…these declarations…have no legal standing or force…”

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “How ironic that those were among the emptiest words this president has ever uttered.”

    Empty words, for an empty suit.

  • John Richardson

    How about if we agree to add a bust of Elizabeth Warren, the self claimed part Cherokee woman running for Senate to the existing four Presidential heads?

  • dearieme

    “the increasingly irrelevant United Nations”: what a weak-kneed, lily-livered, spavined description of the UN. Sack those interns, my good sir.

  • Rhodium Heart

    Yeah, but if we give it to the Sioux, the Sioux are just going to have to turn around and give it back to the indigenous tribe they stole it from. It’s going to be the Dennis Moore skit on Monty Python, only with land and not lupins.

    PS: We going to press to give Rome back to the Etruscans? Or Egypt back to the Egyptians (instead of the occupying Arabs)? I don’t think the pre-Hellenic people would want Greece back, though.

  • Corlyss

    “the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People requires the return of Mount Rushmore to the Native Americans.”

    Amusing. I recall that in one of the obiligatory reflexive apologies PBS does about native peoples being subdued in the 19th Century – perhaps Ric Burns’ The Way West – a woman leader in the Indian political movement remarked to the effect that as long as the abomination of Mount Rushmore stared down on them, they would never forget and never stop pressing for full restoration of their lands and rights.

    You know the UN doesn’t think up these things on their own. Just another reason to send the institution packing to Brussels where it belongs, razing the edifice, and sowing the ground with salt. Better yet, put a Museum of Market Capitalism on the site.

  • Jim.

    THE RICH have more MONEY than they can ever put to productive use. Life in America would be better for the vast majority of people (including THE RICH) if most of their MONEY were taken by the government and redistributed to the rest of the population. The idea that “property rights” should stand in the way is unenlightened… THE RICH could be left with as much MONEY as the rest of us have per capita — more MONEY, even — and life in this country would be a lot more fair. The idea that MONEY that THE RICH inherited should belong to them at all is absurd, and blatantly unfair. THE RICH didn’t work for the MONEY they inherited, why should they (who are so few) enjoy the benefits of that MONEY when there are so many who have no MONEY at all?

    Bonus points to anyone who realizes that this does not resemble my usual political point of view.

    More bonus points to anyone who can figure out where I’m going with this.

  • Kris

    “Amateur Hour at the UN” indeed. Don’t they realize they are not supposed to embarrass the President of Peace, but rather wait mere months until he gets replaced by Romney?

  • JKB

    But enough this UN meddling and perhaps the American people will smarten up and demand funding of this anti-American organization be stopped and the whole lot tossed into the East River.

    In fact, a fine investigative piece remains to be done showing how much these fools earn and what percentage comes from the US taxpayer.

  • Corlyss

    “While not many Americans defend US Indian policy in the 19th century as either enlightened or fair,”

    Unfortunately, this is more an example of massive historical ignorance than anything fuzzily PC. The US government was about settling the land and making it safe for settlers. That meant freedom from annoying indigenous losers. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure out what a mess this country would have been in if gushy 20th Century liberal ideas of fair treatment and “resepct for native cultures” had been prominent then. If the French and Indian War is taught at all in public schools, the teachers don’t press home the lessons from savvy tribes soliciting European powers to play for their team, or the sly Europeans using the same savvy tribes to create mischief on the borders of English colonies. Neither party was doing it for the benefit of the other. Indian tribes were always a focus of Great Power Politics until after the civil war.

    From the comfort of advantages obtained by alleged past wrongs 20th Century twits can sit around and bemoan what a horrible things white settlers did to the poor untutored Indican. It’s presentism in full and fatuous display. The practitioners of presentism apparently never stop a second to think about the times in which the condemned lived, or the different imperatives that existed then. Nope. Everything has to be judged by the PC’s squishy standards, whether whites behaved nicely and respectfully to the natives, whether they dealt with them fairly. That’s not a useful analytical tool at all.

  • Corlyss

    “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.”

    Um, ah, is that any different from how he behaved toward his debt/deficit commission? I thought everyone understood that such commissions are set up to look like the government is doing something when it isn’t. Unless we’re talking presidential assassinations, such commission products are meant to be ignored.

  • t0r67foulvjjcfxte

    I agree we should give some land back to the Indians. After returning it to it’s natural state, we should give them the plot of land in Manhattan upon which the UN building is located.

  • Walter Sobchak

    The UN needs to be relocated to to Kinshasa or Dar-es-Salam. We could take its New York buildings and turn them into condos. We would make a lot of money on the deal.

  • lorien1973

    Isn’t the UN built on Indian land?

  • Ben

    Let’s give western Europe back to the Gauls and kick out everyone who isn’t descended from the Gauls. I think the world would be a better place for it.

  • Swamp Thing

    This looks like a win for the Bamster. Give Rushmore to Elizabet Warren to prove her street cred, er,native American bona fides. In exchange, I’m sure she’ll put his mug on the mountain, nose pointed to the sky.

  • TomB

    Before any of that, Turtle Bay needs to be returned to the Lenape tribe for reparations. Allow them to build a casino. The result will not only benefit the Lenape, but will be much needed revenue into NYC and a sharp reduction in crime.

  • BillH

    #7 Jim: To the loo? Too see if it floats or sinks? (Please send double bonus points to [profanity in email address removed])

  • vinny vidivici

    Any chance we’ll hear the ‘rights of indigenous peoples’ invoked by the UN on behalf of Tibetans or Turkomen Uyghers? I’m not holding my breath.

  • Rick Caird

    “the increasingly irrelevant United Nations”

    The UN has become so irrelevant, that it is time to put it to sleep. The US should announce we are withdrawing from the UN, stopping all contributions funding the UN, and request the UN remove itself from NYC, preferably to somewhere in Africa. Then give the UN one year to move and stop granting visas after that.

  • RJ

    I think we need to give Europe back to the Neanderthals. I realize nobody has seen any recently, but that’s probably because there’s just too many Europeans in the way. Empty out the continent just in case.

  • Oceanspray

    I’d be fine with giving back to the Indians the part of Manhattan between First Ave. and East River from 42nd to 48th St. I forget what’s there, but they could tear it down. Make a great location for a casino.

  • Paul from Hamburg

    #7 Jim: Could it be that your post is related to a question that I like to ask: If liberals are so much in favor of wealth redistibution, shouldn’t they be happy that the colonial powers and the US Government were able to take the vast land and resource holdings of a tiny number of native Americans and give it to a huge number of immigrants?

  • Pettifogger

    Righting historical wrongs can be a lot of fun. But there’s no reason to start with the U.S. Let’s start with Ceasar’s conquest of Gaul. I want to see that put right.

  • willis

    Spain goes back to the Basques? Turkey back to the Greek city-states? Latin America back to the Incas, Mayans, Aztecs, etc? England, Ireland back to the Druids? Northern Itlay back to the Etruscans? Canada back to the Indians? Australia, New Zealand back to the Aborigines? Vietnam back to the Montagnards, etc.? Paskistan back to the Hindi? Siberia back to the Inuit? The rest of Europe back to the Neanderthals?

  • Duke

    It follows that we must also return Manhattan to the Manhattoes tribe who at the time they ‘sold’ the island to the Dutch did not comprehend the concept of ownership of land itself. Restoring their ancient hunting grounds leads to the delicious irony of the UN needing to find another home.

  • Jim,MtnViewCA,USA

    Explain to me again why we fund the UN?
    Jeez.

  • Surellin

    Good question, Rhodium Heart. And I would like to add that I’m sure my wife (who honestly *is* 1/32 Cherokee) would like to take back Manhattan. She’s willing to start with Turtle Bay.

  • Mike McElravy

    The UN is an information bonanza for the US. That is why we put up with the baloney.

  • Mastro

    East Prussians should demand Kalingrand/Koernigsburg back.

    The Greeks Constantinople.

    See how those “indigenous” people advocates like that.

    Oh- that’s right- this is only something to attack the Caucasians with.

  • gringojay

    Noble Savage is a still a favorite ideal for many. After reassigning control to each group of territorial claimants make the newly disenfranchised run the gauntet. History shows the UN is perfect at getting people to bury the hatchet.

  • Alan

    Examples abound. I believe the Taj Mahal was built on the site of a conquered people’s temple… In principle, I have no problem with trying to make whole those who have been directly harmed by an act; their successors, not so much.

  • Jim.

    @18 — see comment #23, who caught what I was getting at.

    @WRM:

    Could you present my comment to your students one day as an essay prompt? Put together your best arguments for / against, along with a moral philosophy that supports your position.

    Then, AFTER you collect those papers, give them another essay prompt that replaces THE RICH in that prompt by NATIVE AMERICANS, and MONEY with LAND.

    Then watch them twist and turn, and see whether integrity, politically correct hypocrisy, or sophistry wins the day. :-)

    And let us know the results!

  • Richard

    It never occurred to the International Law types in our Foreign Policy establishment when our power was in the ascendency that these institutions and ideas would come back to haunt us later on. Here’s what to do about it: build a new General Assembly building in Nairobi, Kenya. Tell them after two years they are on their own. Keep the Security Council in New York. Gradually defund the U.N. Bureaucracy and operate our own aid and information organizations.

  • Mark

    willis says:
    May 14, 2012 at 12:01 pm
    Spain goes back to the Basques? Turkey back to the Greek city-states? Latin America back to the Incas, Mayans, Aztecs, etc? England, Ireland back to the Druids? Northern Itlay back to the Etruscans? Canada back to the Indians? Australia, New Zealand back to the Aborigines? Vietnam back to the Montagnards, etc.? Paskistan back to the Hindi? Siberia back to the Inuit? The rest of Europe back to the Neanderthals?

    Love it, Willis. But I don’t support the Neanderthals in Europe, no. My preference is equitable sharing by the Dacians, Vikings, Magyars, Celts, Gauls, Cossacks, and Scythians (Not that they could ever share, just like the Sioux.) – despite the fact that they were also invaders. Oh, but wait – that depends on which time period is our favorite one to return to, right?

  • B

    Umm . . . giving back the Black Hills (or at least the federally owned parts) isn’t entirely a liberal/internationalist idea. Senator Bob Dole (R-Kansas) cosponsored a bill to do exactly that . . . and he was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996.

    Also, the Black Hills cover a lot more than just Mount Rushmore. So it would be possible to give some of the Black Hills back without Mt. Rushmore changing hands. And it would probably save the taxpayers some money, as maintaining those lands would suddenly be the Sioux’s problem

  • JimC

    When I was a kid, each of the big TV networks had a full-time UN correspondent. That was a long time ago.

    If Obama really wanted to do something for “indigenous” or “marginalized” people of non-European cultural background, he would be leading a movement to transfer UN headquarters from NYC to Nairobi or a similar place. They could use the economic stimulus and it would be a much more real world environment for the employees and delegates than Manhattan could ever be.

    (Which of course is why they WON’T move!)