Imagining Global Indigenous Identity and Alliances with the Mellon Social Justice Initiative

How do we imagine global indigenous identity that spans roughly 350 million indigenous people living in 72 countries? How do we conceptualize social justice at the crossroads of failed Indian Laws and the promise of inherent human rights?

The Mellon Social Justice Initiative at UC Davis launched its second year of programming with a thoughtful reckoning of what social justice in the twenty-first century looks like for indigenous people across the world and how we might engage the law to achieve it. Led by Inés Hernández-Avila in the Native American Studies Department, the Mellon Social Justice Initiative will explore “Global Indigenous Identities & Alliances” in a series of events through 2014-2015.

The Social Justice Initiative launch event on October 23 began with an opening prayer by Patwin Elder Bill Wright, who encouraged the crowd assembled in the Art Annex to appreciate their education and keep one another safe. Thanking Wright for his blessing, Hernández-Avila reminded the audience that UC Davis is on Patwin land before introducing Susan Kaiser, Interim Dean of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, to deliver a welcome address. Kaiser recognized the “truly collaborative” and “mutually supportive” nature of the Social Justice Initiative, which draws from the Women and Gender Studies Program, Native American Studies and Chicana/o Studies Departments in Hart Hall.

A Human Rights Framework for Global Indigenous Identities


image courtesy of UC Davis Native American Studies

The launch event featured keynote speaker Walter Echo-Hawk, a Native American (Pawnee) scholar, author, and attorney who worked throughout his distinguished legal career to protect the legal, political, property, cultural, and human rights of Indian tribes and native peoples. An articulate and versed indigenous rights activist, Echo-Hawk is the author of In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided (2010) and In The Light of Justice: the Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2013).

Echo-Hawk discussed how we might create an “international frame of reference” for understanding indigenous peoples’ social justice issues across the world. The world-wide phenomenon of almost 500 years of European colonialism forced a “division in the human family” that resulted in a social and political marginalization of native, Aboriginal, and indigenous peoples.

Echo-Hawk spoke specifically about potential repercussions of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which he believes provides a new human rights framework to supplant the current unjust legal framework of federal Indian law.

“Federal Indian policies are simply not well understood by most Americans” Echo-Hawk said, “they see Native American lives as anomalies from the past that have no place in modern day America.”

The current social inequities experienced by indigenous people around the world have a long, shared history of colonialism and marginalization. This historical marginalization produces a significant knowledge gap about the lives of native people, and Echo-Hawk argued that this lack of knowledge is “the most pressing problem that our native people are confronted with in America.”

Echo-Hawk argued that we must face the “brutality of the twentieth century,” and the challenges left by a rapacious settler state culture that included forced assimilation of native people, habitat destruction, and anti-indigenous laws. This requires finding a balance between the rights and responsibilities of indigenous and non-indigenous people, especially where the law is concerned with “protecting indigenous aspirations and survival.”

“We stand at a crossroads,” Echo-Hawk observed, “to preserve the best from an old framework, discard the anti-indigenous functions of our current law, and merge it with the new human rights framework to define the fundamental rights of Native Americans.”

To that end, the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has the potential to move us towards this future, according to Echo-Hawk. The Declaration contains standards for protecting the survival, dignity, and well-being of indigenous people, developed with the authentic aspirations of native people including the inherent human right to self-determination.

Following Echo-Hawk’s keynote, Professor Amina Mama of Women and Gender Studies moderated a panel featuring Keith David Watenpaugh, Director of the UC Davis Human Rights Initiative, and UC Davis Native American Studies alumna Darcie Houck JD, now a tribal lawyer and partner at Fredericks, Peebles, and Morgan in Sacramento. Watenpaugh began by thanking Echo-Hawk for his positive appraisal and hope for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, because – as a historian of human rights – he admits to having developed “a jaundiced eye” towards the efforts of the United Nations.

Reiterating Echo-Hawk’s call to address the “knowledge gap,” Watenpaugh said that we “must recognize the historical injustice to indigenous people” and make cultural genocide “part of our conversations of indigenous rights in the US.”

Darcie Houck described her efforts to encourage indigenous people to educate lawmakers at the national and international levels, and her work on “prior informed consent” with state governments. Houck pointedly notes that the failures of incorporating native rights law into practice are not the fault of native people, but are the result of uninformed and disinterested legislators and policy makers at the state and federal level. Faced with this reality, Houck says that Native lawyers will need to “take on the task of integrating the UN resolution ideas into their legal work.”


image courtesy of UC Davis Native American Studies

The Social Justice Initiative launch event reconvened after lunch with a roundtable discussion on “The Politics of Being Recognized as Indigenous” with the following UC Davis faculty and staff:  Bettina Ng’weno, African and African American Studies; Susy Zepeda, Chicana/o Studies; Wendy Ho, Asian American/Women & Gender Studies; Jessica Bisset Perea, Native American Studies; Magid Shihade, ME/SA; V. Leilani Kupo, Director of the Women’s Resource and Research Center; and Yvette Flores, Chicana/o Studies.

For those who missed the event, a list of resources is available:

Directed in its second year by the Native American Studies Department, the Mellon Social Justice Initiative continues to develop innovative and engaging events that bring indigenous issues to the front of campus dialogues about social justice. Keep up to date on the Social Justice Initiative website and blog.


Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies