What I Learned About Indigenous Rights as a Young Native American in Aboriginal Australia
A Native American activist reflects on how the US and Australia can improve Indigenous rights.
Victor Anthony Lopez-Carmen is a young Native American and member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and the Yaqui Nation in Arizona and Mexico.
He is a passionate advocate for Indigenous people’s rights, and serves as co-chair of the United Nations Global Indigenous Youth Caucus. He has previously co-edited a compilation of young Indigenous people’s essays from all over the world, entitled Global Indigenous Youth: Through Their Eyes, which was launched by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
He is currently a student at the Harvard Medical School in Boston and holds a Masters in Public Health from the Western Sydney University in Australia. Here, he reflects on his time studying in Australia and what he thinks can be done to better protect Indigenous rights in the US.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
Three years ago, I sat in a Manhattan hotel during the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, listening intently to a respected Aboriginal Australian elder as he told me a story.
He spoke of his aunt, who escaped an assimilationist residential school and walked hundreds of miles through the desert back to her home community.
His story reminded me of those told to me about my own Dakota Sioux grandparents. As children, they were taken from their families and forced to attend US residential school programs, where speaking Dakota was punishable by force. Indeed, the US and Australia used similar tactics to assimilate Indigenous communities. Despite it all, Indigenous Nations in our respective countries have fought hard to protect our cultures, sovereignty, and national freedoms such as the right to vote.
These shared histories motivated me, a Dakota and Yaqui student, to venture “down under” on a Fulbright Scholarship. My Fulbright research focused on understanding the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth attending boarding schools in inner cities like Sydney. While venturing into a topic riddled with historical similarities, I became aware of modern differences in the way Indigenous rights to education, health, justice, culture, identity, and sovereignty are addressed.
In both the US and Australia, Indigenous Peoples are among the highest represented when it comes to incarceration, police-related deaths, youth suicide, school dropouts, poverty, those with the lowest life spans,foster care, and chronic disease. Although social indicators are similar, the way both countries recognize Indigenous sovereignty is very different.
In the United States, Tribes operate and identify as Nations unto themselves. US law maintains that Tribes are sovereign groups with treaties granting rights to reservations, self-governance, self-determination, and to certain services provided by the US government such as education and health care.
It is important to note that while treaties, considered “the supreme law of the land,” give us a tool to protect our rights in the courts, almost every single one of them has been broken. For instance, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 between my Indigenous Nation, the Oceti Sakowin, and the US, promised us half of modern-day South Dakota, including a sacred mountain range called the Black Hills.
When gold was discovered in these sacred mountains, miners moved in and the Black Hills were stolen by force. In 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were wrongfully taken from our people, and that instead of returning them to us, we were to be compensated monetarily. To this day, the Oceti Sakowin have refused to accept the money, and maintain that the Black Hills be returned to our people as was agreed in the original treaty.
In comparison, Australia is the only country among its Britain-rooted peers without treaties enshrining the inherent sovereignty, self-determination, and continuity of Indigenous Peoples on their traditional territories. The limited land rights Aboriginal Peoples receive are won through Native Title, granting land usage on a family-group basis, only after such groups are able to prove substantially uninterrupted connection to land and waters.
Instead of recognition through formalized treaties, Aboriginal historical ties to the land are acknowledged in Australia in the public sphere. Acknowledgements of Aboriginal Peoples in parliament, national apologies from prime ministers, and National NAIDOC Week, which celebrates the culture and history of Aboriginal Peoples, all take place regularly.
When I witnessed the open recognition of Aboriginal Peoples at luxurious ceremonies, national conferences, major meetings in parliament, and by professors before starting classes, I was pleasantly surprised.
Native Americans are the most invisible racial group in the US when it comes to media, film, and politics. It felt good to know that Indigenous youth in Australia could turn on a television and see their heroes honored.
However, after working with Aboriginal Peoples across the country, I quickly realized that this sort of recognition was often betrayed by actions inconsistent with what true recognition requires. Words and gestures without recognition of the rights of Aboriginal Peoples in treaties has created a false sense of effort.
The basis for improvements in health, education, justice, and cultural vitality, or “closing the gap,” is and always will be Indigenous self-determination. In the long-term, Indigenous independence is both economically healthy and morally just. Because of the horrible atrocities the US and Australia inflicted on Indigenous Peoples, there is an obligation to go beyond words and tangibly reverse the conditions that have manifested from them.
In the end, the US can do a much better job accurately and meaningfully recognizing Native American sovereignty in the public sphere, while backing up acknowledgements by honoring nation-to-nation treaties that the House, Senate, and previous presidents ratified. Australia, too, can learn from mistakes made in the US and commit themselves to the legal realization of Aboriginal autonomy that goes beyond words and public gestures.
As an Indigenous youth, I want governments across the world to fulfill the promises they made to Indigenous Peoples. I envision a world where the US and Australia take responsibility for policies that still affect our well-being, such as the fact that Native Americans did not get the right to vote in all 50 states until the 1960s, which means we did not get an equal say in matters that impacted us.
In the end, I want our people to have access to all the freedoms granted to non-Indigenous citizens, such as the right to vote, as well as the rights that have belonged to us since time immemorial — such as the right to hunt, speak our languages, and manage our traditional territories. I want our sacred places to be returned to us and protected in the law, so my great-grandchildren can practice our traditions on them.
Until this happens, public forms of acknowledgement will remain disingenuous and the intergenerational impacts of colonization will continue to stain our respective nations.
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