Published: Aug. 3, 2023

The University of Colorado American Indian Law Program (AILP) attended the 16th Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, from July 17 to July 23. Indigenous Peoples, national representatives, and civil society gathered to engage in dialogue regarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples. EMRIP advises the United Nations Human Rights Council and helps States and Indigenous Peoples achieve the aims of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration).  

 The AILP attended the UN session in conjunction with The Implementation Project (TIP), a joint initiative of Colorado Law and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) to advance education and advocacy regarding the Declaration in the United States.  TIP was represented by Kristen Carpenter, Council Tree Professor of Law and director of the AILP; S. James Anaya, Distinguished University Professor and Nicholas Doman Professor of International Law; Emiliano Salazar ‘23, AILP Fellow; and Sue Noe, Senior Staff Attorney at NARF.  

 “I graduated from Colorado Law in May, and as AILP Fellow, I have already taken a trip to Oklahoma to work with the Southern Arapaho, Shawnee Tribe, and Cherokee Nation, and to Geneva to take part in the UN Session.” Salazar said. “The experiential and community-focused aspects of Colorado Law’s approach to American Indian and Indigenous Peoples Law have been important parts of my experience as both a student and fellow.” 

A highlight for the AILP was supporting the Coalition of Large Tribes (COLT) at the UN. COLT represents over one million American Indian people and 50 Indian tribes, collectively holding over 50 million acres of land in the U.S. Led by Councilwoman Lisa White Pipe of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who also serves as COLT Treasurer, the delegation made official interventions from the floor, met with U.S. State Department representatives, and engaged with Indigenous leaders from around the world. COLT called for an EMRIP country engagement to acknowledge the losses of life, culture, and language caused by federal Indian boarding schools during their 100-year history in the U.S., and to begin to develop approaches to healing and recovery. COLT is represented by attorney Jennifer Weddle, who is an Adjunct Professor at Colorado Law. 

The AILP, NARF, and COLT co-sponsored a side event on “Sacred Sites and Human Rights” featuring Indigenous leaders from Norway, Australia, and the U.S. The event addressed challenges both globally and close to home, including a copper mining proposal that threatens to destroy the site of Apache coming-of-age ceremonies at Oak Flat, Arizona. Panelists noted that Indigenous peoples’ sacred sites are being destroyed not only by traditional extractive industries but also activities associated with “green energy,” such as lithium mining for rechargeable car batteries or placement of windmills over tribal objections on traditional lands. Panelists, led by Professor Anaya, himself a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, discussed ways to use the Declaration’s articles in these cases. 

“The EMRIP session follows on the AILP’s attendance at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April. Prof. Christina Stanton brought a group of American Indian Law Clinic students - including Michele Manceaux ‘24, Chandler Spoon ‘23, and Spencer Garcia ‘24 -- who worked to help prepare tribes and Permanent Forum members for the session,” Carpenter said. “Representatives from the Shawnee, San Carlos Apache, Blackfeet, and Euchee tribal governments, as well as the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, attended the Permanent Forum Session. The AILC students were instrumental in helping to ensure tribal leaders’ access to UN, from reviewing draft reports to navigating the badge office.” 

This summer, Colorado Law students Taylor Courchaine ’25, Research Assistant at the AILP; and Charlotte Collingwood ’24, a clerk at NARF, are assisting with TIP’s research needs. 

Language rights were a strong theme of the session, and Carpenter made an intervention on behalf of the AILP during “Item 7: International Decade of Indigenous Languages.” She highlighted Visions for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032, a special issue of the Colorado Environmental Law Journal edited by Ariel Barbieri-Aghib ‘23 and a team of students.  The publication features tribal leaders, lawyers, linguists, and teachers assessing language revitalization as a matter of human rights. Carpenter noted the opportunity for the U.S. to prioritize Indigenous peoples’ language rights, sacred sites protection, and international repatriation as it rejoins the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) this year. 

Prof. Carpenter, who served on EMRIP from 2017-2021, was recognized at the Session for contributions to Indigenous Peoples’ struggles for international repatriation of cultural objects. Over several years, EMRIP assisted the Yaqui People, a cross-border Indigenous nation from the U.S. and Mexico, in their claim to repatriate a ceremonial deer head known as the Maaso Kova from Sweden. As EMRIP’s Chair, Carpenter facilitated dialogue among Sweden and the Yaqui leading to a 2020 agreement and the ultimate repatriation in 2023. The Yaqui-Sweden matter was hailed as a standard for EMRIP country engagements, which aim to give practical effect to the Declaration. 

Recourse to international diplomacy is often vital, especially when the U.S. and other countries violate tribal rights. As AILP faculty and students support Indigenous leaders’ access to international laws and venues, they help facilitate real world solutions to human rights challenges.