Putting Civility at the Core of a New Federal Process for Consultation with Native American Communities

Link : https://www.americanbar.org/groups/dispute_resolution/publications/JustResolutions/september-2022/civility-at-the-core-of-federal-process-for-consultation-with-native-american-communities/

As Published in the September 2022 Issue of the American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section’s Just Resolutions Newsletter

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe

ABA House of Delegates Resolution 108 affirms that civility is a foundation for democracy and the rule of law and calls upon “all government officials and employees… to strive toward a more civil public discourse in…the administration of the affairs of government.” The Report supporting passage of Resolution 108 defines civil public discourse as an engagement that encourages people to vigorously, but responsibly, debate the choices facing a community through deliberative dialogue, respectful communication, and informed public decision-making.

The frequent failure by the federal government to conduct adequate consultations with Native American communities before undertaking decisions or embarking on actions that may impact them has contributed to irreparable human rights violations, grave economic injustice, and violent social conflicts. In response to this tragic history, President Joe Biden issued a Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships within days of taking office.1 The Memorandum reaffirms Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13175 requiring that all executive departments and agencies engage in regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with tribal officials in the development of federal policies that have tribal implications2 as well as Barack Obama’s Memorandum of 2009 that requires each federal agency to prepare and periodically update a detailed plan of action to implement Executive Order 13175.3


Unlike the earlier Clinton and Obama consultation initiatives, Biden’s effort is noteworthy for categorically acknowledging that “American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations are sovereign governments”. Otherwise, it shares its predecessors’ deficiency in limiting consultations to federally recognized tribes and completely excluding Native Hawaiians. Similarly, it ignores the fact that consultation is a collective right of Indigenous peoples that should be inclusive of a wide cross section of the community and not narrowly restricted to elected or duly appointed officials of Indian tribal governments or authorized intertribal organizations.4 It also provides no means for compelling federal agencies to engage in meaningful consultations. The latter omission can be easily remedied by adopting the provision found in the Requirements, Expectations, and Standard Procedures for Effective Consultations with Tribes, or “RESPECT” Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2021 that allows tribal governments to seek judicial review of a determination made by any federal government agency.

The Biden administration should also consider international legal principles when devising a new federal consultation process. International Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples requires that governments engage in “prior consultations” with Indigenous and tribal peoples in any endeavor that may impact their lives and the lands they occupy or otherwise utilize.5

For its part, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) requires the “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples whenever any activity or project has a significant impact on them and/or their way of life.6 This means “that the relevant consultations should not be a mere formality, but, rather, should be conducted in good faith and with the objective of finding a common agreement.”7 The term free “implies that the process of consultation should be conducted in the absence of any type of coercion and pressure”; prior suggests “that consultations should take place before undertaking an action or implementing a project”; and, informed “means that Indigenous peoples should receive satisfactory information in relation to the relevant measure or project.” 8 Free “also implies allowing sufficient time for the engagement process to occur, so that Indigenous communities do not feel rushed, or believe that the process was mere window-dressing.”9

The inter-American human rights system monitors, promotes, and protects human rights in all 35 member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS), including the United States. Although the U.S. has never accepted the jurisdiction of the American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, nevertheless it is significant that the most authoritative body within the inter-American human rights system has “held that the duty of States to consult Indigenous peoples must now be regarded as a general principle of international law” and, in the case of large-scale development or investment projects, governments “have a duty to not only consult with Indigenous peoples, but also to obtain their free, prior, and informed consent.”10

A 2010 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights provides guidance for ensuring that the collective interest of an Indigenous community does not prevail to the detriment or exclusion of individual members.11 The report recommends that all members of a community should be fully and accurately informed of the nature and consequences of the process and provided with an effective opportunity to participate individually or collectively.12

For a new Federal consultation process to have any hope of facilitating genuine consensus building, all federal government officials and employees involved in such dialogue must acknowledge and respect the sovereignty and self-governance of the American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations. Equally as important, the entire process must be adequately funded by the federal government, including providing sufficient training for all participating federal government officials and employees in the body of U.S. law collectively known as “Federal Indian Law” that includes treaties, statutes, executive orders, administrative decisions, and court cases. Undoubtedly, the most critical factor for any consultation to be effective, however, is for the process be conducted in a spirit of mutual civility that encourages deliberative dialogue, respectful communication, and informed decision-making.


1 Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships (The White House, January 26, 2021). Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/26/memorandum-on-tribal-consultation-and-strengthening-nation-to-nation-relationships/

2 Executive Order No. 13175, Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments, 65 Fed. Reg. 67,249 (November 6, 2000). Available at: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2001-title3-vol1/pdf/CFR-2001-title3-vol1-eo13175.pdf Such policies include regulations, legislative comments or proposed legislation, and other policy statements or actions that have substantial direct effects on one or more Indian tribes. (Section 1(a))

3 Presidential Memorandum on Tribal Consultation (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, November 5, 2009). Available at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/memorandum-tribal-consultation-signed-president

4 Martin Scheinin & Mattias Àhrén, Relationship to Human Rights, and Related International Instruments, in JESSIE HOHMANN & MARC WELLER, EDS., THE UN DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: A COMMENTARY 67 (Oxford University Press 2018).

5 International Labour Organization, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169, 27 June 1989, available at: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C169

6 UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007, A/RES 61/295, available at: https://undocs.org/A/RES/61/295

7 Mauro Barelli, Free, Prior, and Informed Consent in the UNDRIP, in JESSIE HOHMANN & MARC WELLER, EDS., THE UN DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: A COMMENTARY, supra note 4, at 248.

8 Id. at 250.


10 Mauro Barelli, Free, Prior, and Informed Consent in the UNDRIP, in THE UN DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: A COMMENTARY, supra note 4, at 257-258.


12 Id. at 107. The requirement of full participation is not met whenever: members of a community have not been afforded a full and effective role in the selection, authorization or mandate of those who act on behalf of the community; the corresponding claims are promoted by a particular band, clan or segment of the community; or appropriate consultations among the members of the entire community are not carried out at the moment of adopting substantial decisions affecting the rights or interests of the community. Id. Note 76, at 107.

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