responsibilities of democracy in the US without many of the rights of democracy. A commonly known fact is that Native Americans in the US have fought in every major battle for the United States, but were not accorded U.S. citizenship until 1924. So that we had many WWI veterans who came back home after serving overseas but could not vote as U. S. citizens.
In my own home state, New Mexico, Native Americans could not vote until 1948; after a lawsuit was filed. Even after this right was granted, Native peoples were denied representative democracy by the practice of “gerrymandering” election districts, or forming districts that split indigenous populations so they could not gather votes necessary to elect them to state offices. Only after another law suit which resulted in reapportionment of , were Native Americans able to be elected to serve on the state legislature.
Even after the right to vote is recognized, there are subtle ways in which our people’s right to vote can be denied. In the mid 1990’s, I served as an attorney for the US Department of Justice, in the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division. The Department enforced, among other provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the Minority Languages Act, which requires that certain states and counties provide election information in so called “minority languages.” This included, eg. Chinese languages in New York and San Francisco, as well as Spanish in parts of Texas, and several Native American languages in the Southwestern part of the U. S. As we know, democracy is not only exercised in English. As in other parts of the Americas, many indigenous people in the U.S. do not use English as their main language and cannot understand election materials provided in English. Additionally, many indigenous languages are not written. That meant that these states and counties have to use such measures as using radio to make announcements in indigenous languages, training poll workers who are bi-lingual and translating the entire ballot into indigenous languages.
In State elections, many indigenous people must travel as far as 50 to 60 kilometers” to vote. To address this issue, which has discouraged participation in elections, Laguna Pueblo, my nation,. took leadership in pressing for legislation which would allow the creation of early voting sites, so that early voting sites could be established in indigenous communities. Under current New Mexico law, a tribe or Indian nation may request an early voting site if their polling place is located 15 miles or more from the county seat. In 2008 I ran as a candidate for the New Mexico state legislature; one of my concerns was the reluctance of some counties to work with indigenous communities to provide early voting sites. So there is still work to be done.
Indigenous peoples have some things to teach state actors about democracy. For example, many Indigenous peoples are matriarchal and thus women exercise leadership. Unfortunately the forms of government imposed on some indigenous peoples in the U.S. have not respected these systems and we still struggle today to maintain these systems which have served our people well for generations.
In fact, much guidance for inclusion of Indigenous Peoples can be found in the terms of the UN Declaration, as well as the draft OAS Declaration. Recall that Article 7 of the Inter American Democratic Charter says that “democracy is indispensable for the effective exercise of fundamental freedoms and human rights in their ,universality, indivisibility and interdependence.” It is important for us all to talk about implementation of the UN Declaration, and I agree with Margarita that we need to work on translating it into indigenous languages. After all, all of the OAS membership have expressed support for the UN Declaration—even though Canada and the U. S. were delayed in doing so.
Finally, a word about the importance of adopting an OAS Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Some have asked why we need an OAS Declaration if we already have a UN Declaration. Well I have maintained that the UN Declaration recognizes minimum standards, so there is nothing that prevents the OAS from adopting a declaration with higher standards. In fact the draft OAS Declaration contains an article regarding the right of peoples to remain in voluntary isolation. Furthermore, this a region in which there are a large percentage of indigenous peoples and it is important for us to elaborate a regional declaration. The Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court probably have the most developed body of international case law regarding the rights of indigenous peoples. So to complement this process and organization with a regional instrument on indigenous peoples would be important not only to indigenous peoples but to the Inter-American system as well as the rest of the world.