Kennedy’s Commitment to Justice for Natives Could Be a Game Changer for Generations to Come

On March 8, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made an unusual campaign stop. Without the fanfare that accompanies him these days, Kennedy met with more than 50 leaders from Indian Country at a gathering of the Coalition of Large Tribes in Nevada. His purpose for being there: to communicate directly to Native Americans on why they should back his candidacy.

Historic Meeting

During this historic meeting, Kennedy shared the generational support his family has demonstrated for Native Americans, beginning with his father’s visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1968, recounting how when his father witnessed the poverty there, he wept. “That’s something I never saw in my lifetime,” he said, “even when my uncle passed away. And that was crushing to him.”

Among the issues discussed, including treaty rights, was a vow, as president, to maintain an open-door policy with the tribes and to increase their federal funding. But the fact that Kennedy is stepping up and out with his Native platform is something to take notice of and applaud. It’s as though Kennedy is seeing into the guts of the nation’s history and is willing and able to untangle some of its oldest knots of injustice.

Granted, Joe Biden improved upon Native representation when he appointed the first-ever Native American cabinet member, Deb Haaland, as Secretary of the Interior. It may have seemed cosmetic, but Haaland has taken unprecedented steps by making previously ignored forced assimilation of Native children in boarding schools central to her work. In a perfect world, when Kennedy is elected, he will ask Secretary Haaland to stay on and help him enact the profound and fundamental changes he is planning. That’s a lobbying effort to initiate on November 6.’

The Two Promises

But two promises Kennedy made during his meeting in Nevada have national and international consequences. One is the release of Leonard Peltier; the other is making the US a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Wounded Knee

The Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973

Leonard Peltier, a Chippewa man and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), has been incarcerated for 49 years, serving two consecutive life terms for the murder of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. Both were shot at close range during a shootout at Pine Ridge that also left Coeur d’Alene tribal member Joe Stuntz dead. Peltier admitted to being part of the firefight, but has always denied the execution-style killings of the agents.

Many people then and now believe Peltier is a wrongfully convicted political prisoner. And while calls for his release began immediately after he was sentenced, he has been denied clemency since the Carter administration. The nearly 50 year long “Free Peltier” movement has inspired fiction and nonfiction films, music, articles, books, and decades of political art including murals, posters, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and buttons dating back to when John Lennon was still alive.

The long list of notable advocates for Peltier’s release includes the National Lawyers Guild, the American Association of Jurists, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, the late Coretta Scott-King, Dr. Helen Caldicott, and Nobel laureates such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But Kennedy’s commitment to Peltier’s release should not be construed as merely a play for Native support. Although couched as a case of compassionate release (Peltier is 79 years old), it is noteworthy because the FBI remains absolutely opposed to Peltier ever living one day as a free man. Which means that in advance of the election, Kennedy is quietly signaling something about how that agency will be run in the future.

Should Kennedy find himself in the position to unlock the prison door and “Free Peltier,” that would illustrate a significant shift in how the federal government treats Native Americans. As portrayed in the recent film Killers of the Flower Moon, the relationship between the FBI and Natives goes back to the formation of that agency. And at times – like during the “reign of terror” and the siege at Wounded Knee that precipitated the tensions leading to the shootout that left three men dead – it has been extremely violent.

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

The second matter Kennedy promised to take action on is the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Decades in the making, it is a 21st-century human rights declaration, the first ever for the world’s first peoples. When the UN General Assembly adopted it in 2007, the English-speaking member states that experience frequent Indigenous movements for sovereignty within their borders – often involving protests over land, water, and other natural resources – refused to sign it. Those nations are the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and their main sticking points are Articles 3–5, regarding Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, and Article 10, relating to “free, prior and informed consent,” particularly as it relates to forced removal from their territories and the right of return.

Although, in 2011, the Obama administration decided to “lend its support” to the UNDRIP, the US has never signed on and is often criticized for intentionally conflating consultation and consent when it comes to US policies that impact Natives.

Kennedy’s signature would further the rights of all Native peoples under US control and provide them the ideological and political cover enjoyed by the 350 million Indigenous people throughout the world who live in countries that have signed the declaration. It could have seismic implications for Native Americans going forward.

When the Oglala Sioux Tribe honored Kennedy with a traditional star quilt at the Nevada meeting, they were acknowledging his past and the potential of a future with a president who considers justice for Native Americans worthy and necessary.

If elected, Kennedy could be the kind of leader Native people will look back on for generations to come – as the one who changed the game.

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