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2010 Justice Prize

Indian Law Resource Center

Established and directed by American Indians, the Indian Law Resource Center is a nonprofit law and advocacy organization that since 1978, has championed the interests of indigenous peoples in the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America. The Center provides legal assistance to Indian and Alaska Native nations that seek to protect their lands, resources, human rights, environment and cultural heritage. In the late sixties, there were no public interest organizations providing legal representation to the Indian nations. The Indian Law Resource Center was established specifically to get at the underlying problems that were causing the suffering. As a matter of principle, the Center does not accept federal funds due to the potential conflict of interest. Robert Coulter, the Center’s executive director, describes disbelief as the biggest problem he faces, explaining that judges and members of Congress sometimes don’t believe him when he argues that, according to federal law, the US government is free to violate the treaties it makes with Indian reservations – even to take land and resources without compensating the Indian owner. Mr. Coulter likens the present state of law concerning Indian nations in the United States to the law that existed under the separate-but-equal doctrine, when it was legally acceptable to segregate the races, provided the facilities were comparable. What the Center has sought is a Supreme Court ruling that will change the law for the Indian nations as Brown vs. Board of Education did when it struck down the discriminatory “separate but equal” doctrine because it violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. No such ruling has ever been handed down with regard to the rights of Native Americans and no precedent exists that Congress must abide by the Fifth Amendment when it deals with the property of Indian nations. For this reason, the Center looked for another forum in which to assert the rights of indigenous peoples. In 1979 the Center brought the first indigenous rights case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for demarcation of Yanomami land, and in 1980 it submitted the first indigenous human rights complaint against the United States to the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Center was a leading participant in a long and difficult but ultimately successful struggle to secure the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, arguing that racial discrimination and the violation of human rights was leading to the disappearance of whole societies and cultures. The Declaration provides a framework for the protection and advancement of collective and individual rights of indigenous peoples, including their languages, religious and cultural rights, rights to land and natural resources, and protection against forced assimilation and forced population transfer, and this has benefited indigenous peoples throughout the world.

The Indian Law Resource Center seeks to overcome the problems facing Native peoples by advancing the rule of law, establishing national and international legal standards to preserve their human rights and dignity, and challenging governments to accord justice and equality before the law to all indigenous peoples of the Americas. The difficulty that Indian tribes and Alaskan Native nations face in solving the problems that confront them stems from the legal structure with which they must work. A case currently being handled by the Center is on behalf of one of nine Shoshone tribes that received less than one dollar per acre for land that they still owned and preferred to retain. The Indian Claims Commission – set up by Congress in 1946 ostensibly as a means of redressing grievances – had awarded a judgment to pay for the land, even if the tribes preferred the return of their land. In this case, the $26 million that was awarded and that has been sitting in the US Treasury for many years is, because of a bill passed by Congress, being confiscated and distributed to individuals, but not necessarily to members of the tribes. Under this law, anyone who shared in a previous award is prohibited from receiving payment under this award. Some would receive payments even though they are not members of any Western Shoshone tribe. As Mr. Coulter notes, violation of the rights of American Indians, particularly in their efforts to enforce contracts with the US government, has led, in many instances, to an undesirable business climate in which parties are hesitant to invest in the face of such unpredictability. Although the media often portray casinos operated by Indian nations as thriving enterprises, Mr. Coulter notes that many tribes have no casino, and the majority of casinos that are in operation are struggling businesses that are only moderately successful. The fact that a few people do get rich has, according to Mr. Coulter, obscured the underlying problems that continue to plague Indian communities all over the country, especially, for example, in small villages in Alaska, where there is no opportunity for a casino and the salmon population they rely on is being destroyed by pollution and sport fishing, as well as the destruction of habitats elsewhere.