ANA Commissioner Sparks Reflects on Global Tribal Issues

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Native Americans

Collage of photos showing ANA Commissioner Lillian Sparks meeting with people from Suriname.Sept. 13, 2013, marked the six year anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).   In 2002, fresh out of law school, the organization I was working for sent me to Geneva, Switzerland, to participate in discussions about the draft declaration during the middle stages of the negotiations. We had a little under a decade before the member states of the United Nations were to sign the document and at that time it seemed as though that was plenty of time to negotiate a document that met the human rights needs of the Indigenous Peoples of the world and the countries that would be the signatories. 

However, we later learned that it would take much longer before all member states, including the United States, would adopt a policy to support the UNDRIP.  I could not have predicted at that time that my experience working on behalf of tribes in the United States on an international level would later enable me to provide guidance to tribes and indigenous peoples in other countries.

On Aug. 4, I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Paramaribo, Suriname, to discuss indigenous issues in the United States. Suriname is located on the northern coast of South America, north of Brazil and in between Guyana and French Guyana. My trip there was to coincide with the preparations for the Suriname’s Indigenous Persons Day, August 10th, and I was specifically requested to share the U.S.’s experience on Indigenous Peoples, for better or worse, with Surname’s Indigenous leaders and offer strategies or ideas for negotiating rights and status with the Suriname government to ensure that they are full partners in Suriname.  Similar to my experience at the UN, the conversation was at an impasse between the Indigenous People of Suriname and the Republic of Suriname.

In 2000 the Association of Saramaka Authorities representing the Saramaka people of the Upper Suriname River region appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for help in addressing adverse actions by the government of Suriname and failure of the government to protect their access to ancestral lands. The case was heard in 2007, (Saramaka People v Suriname, Nov. 28, 2007) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that while not indigenous to Suriname, the Saramaka were a tribal people and thus were afforded special rights under Article 21 of the American Convention.

The Saramaka, a maroon community originally from Africa, escaped slavery by fleeing into the forest. They lived and continue to live under separate cultural norms in clan systems and hold their territory communally with control afforded to the clans. The Saramaka depended upon the land for material subsistence, as well as medicinal, spiritual, and cultural practices.  

Furthermore the Court ruled that three conditions must be met in before resource development or natural resource extraction and development plans are executed by the state:

  • Free prior and informed consent must take place in accordance with the traditions and customs of the Saramakas, including an independent assessment of social and environmental impact 
  • There must be benefit-sharing
  • Lastly there must be a way to redress or mitigate any adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact of the development 

The court found that Suriname issued both logging and gold-mining concessions in the Saramaka territory without complying with these safeguards, violating Article 21 of the American Convention. Reparations for this violation consist of remedies at the legal, procedural and administrative levels, to protect the Saramaka people and their rights, as well as financial penalties to redress material and immaterial expenses.  Six years later, the tribes of Suriname and their federal government have not come to agreement regarding the three conditions. 

My role during this trip was to discuss with leaders of indigenous groups and leaders of the government the role of Administration for Native Americans and how the U.S. federal government manages relations with Native Americans as well as land rights, engaging the government, language preservation and other general issues related to cultural preservation.  I was able to discuss at length how Executive Order 13175 on Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments and President Obama’s 2009 Memorandum on Tribal Consultation have strengthened the U.S. government's relationship with the Tribal governments by requiring the federal government engage in “regular and meaningful” dialogue with Tribal officials in the “development of Federal policies.” 

While consultation may not resolve every issue, it certainly provides a process that allows for both parties to partner on the development of new policies and a forum to present tribal priorities. I am proud that ACF has recently completed its third consultation under its new ACF Tribal Consultation Policy, an effort that will yield better results for Native American children and families served by ACF programs.

My trip to Suriname was awakening in that it broadened my understanding of Tribal people, land rights issues, economic development, and natural resources.  Through my talks with both Tribal leaders and government leaders, it was apparent that everyone valued the land and recognized the role the Tribal communities have played in protecting and preserving the many resources offered.  While I acknowledge that these issues take time to resolve, I am thankful that all Tribal groups now have the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to use as a guide for these difficult but necessary negotiations.


Lillian Sparks, a Lakota woman of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux Tribes, is the commissioner of the Administration of Native Americans.  Sparks was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the commissioner on March 3, 2010, and was sworn in on March 5, 2010.  She has devoted her career to supporting the educational pursuits of Native American students, protecting the rights of indigenous people, and empowering tribal communities.

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