Archive for Indigenous rights

Complicating Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy Through the Lens of White Feminism, Race, and Indigenous Rights

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews and student at Columbia’s School of General Studies majoring in Human Rights with a Concentration in Gender & Sexuality Studies.

On September 18, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87, after serving on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for 27 years. Ginsburg, popularly known as RBG, and in her most recent fame “The Notorious RBG,” is a feminist icon. This is for good reason—she accomplished a number of “firsts” in her lifetime and her work contributed to groundbreaking progressive legal changes, particularly regarding gender. 

Flowers on the steps of the Supreme Court following Ginsburg’s death. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg graduated top of her Columbia class and became the first woman to be appointed as full professor at Columbia Law. As Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she litigated over 300 sex discrimination cases before working on the D.C Court of Appeals for 13 years. Ginsburg joined SCOTUS in 1993, where she served until her death. During this time, Ginsburg rose to mainstream fame, becoming well known for her blistering dissents and constant advocacy as one of the vital liberal justices on an increasingly conservative court.

Following Ginsburg’s death, the media blew up with condolences, concerns about political implications, and articles commending Ginsburg on the successes of her career. Yet in this barrage of (justifiable) abounding praise, I couldn’t help but think about what happens when a person, a human, becomes an icon so coopted by a movement that her humanity becomes erased. In truth, Ginsburg was a person, and people are not perfect. What do we lose in this black and white thinking about legacy?

A caveat: in this article, I will offer a critical overview of Ginsburg’s legacy. In doing so, I do not intend to discredit or ignore the vastly important implications of the decisions that she made over the course of her career, particularly for women. Rather, I hope that this article presents the opportunity to, amongst our mourning and praise, also think deeply about who benefits from RBG’s legacy, and more importantly who falls to the wayside: namely poor, queer, Black and Indigenous People.

 

Ginsburg’s Feminism was for White Women

In 2013, a NYC student started a Tumblr account entitled “The Notorious RBG,” beginning the memeification of Justice Ginsburg as a white feminist icon. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg was director of the Women’s Rights Project during the height of second wave feminism, a time characterized by calls for women’s equality to men. Also known as “sameness feminism”, this camp challenges anything that could be perceived as treating women as the “lesser sex.” Ginsburg based her entire legal career on reasoning that adhered to this model. Her cases on sex discrimination followed a formula: anything that appeared to be treating a member of one sex differently from a member of the other sex was either sex discrimination, or in the case of her 1 in 4 male plaintiffs, reverse sex discrimination. 

Although on face value, this version of feminism intuitively makes sense, its historical context and practical application mean that in practice, it only really benefits one group: white women. Of which, of course, Ginsburg herself was a member.

As Muqing Zhang points out in a 2019 article in The Establishment, equality to men is an easy point of view for an upper-middle class white woman to have because sexism is often the only form of discrimination that white women face. Yet, maintaining a sameness-based sex equality argument obscures, and even worsens, the experiences of, for instance, poor, Black, queer women, whose marginalizations are plural. In fact, it was the very prominence of the consistent exclusions resulting from a sameness feminist model that led to the development of Critical Race Theory.

Ginsburg’s appeal to white feminism is clear and with this in mind, Ginsburg’s popularized successes in court take on a different tone. Zhang argues that Ginsburg’s formulaic equality framework resulted in the consistent and lasting elimination of any preferential policies towards women—results that were successes for only white women. Cases such as Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975) and Califano v Goldfarb (1977), ended policies on federal aid that benefited women specifically. Although aligned with a white feminist model of success, eliminating preferential policies leaves the poor, queer, non-white women who rely on these programs stranded. The results of these decisions are not racist in intent, but they do say something about the challenges of her positionality as a wealthy white woman. Zhang writes, “Although it may not have been Ginsburg’s explicit intent to harm the most marginalized of women, part of the insidiousness of white feminism is that it convinces its believers that the white woman’s experience is the universal experience for all women…in the end, it is not the intent, but the devastating impact that matters.”

On Race:

Ginsburg was not entirely oblivious about the challenges that she did not herself face. At her swearing-in ceremony in 1993, Ginsburg said: “A system of justice will be the richer for diversity of background and experience.” In 1994, Jerome McCristal Culp Jr. wrote and published “An Open Letter From One Black Scholar to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in which he reminded Ginsburg that diversity on the court does not automatically ensure that diverse voices are heard before the court. Further, understanding one form of oppression (gender) does not mean that one can or will understand another (race), or their intersections. “Privilege does not mean that the holder cannot hear the voices of the oppressed,” writes Culp Jr., “but it does suggest that one possessing such privilege ought to take care to examine where she is in relation to others and where she and others are going.” As with Crenshaw, Culp Jr. cites the challenges of applying an equality model to racial settings. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is a model that at best maintains the status quo, and at worst reinforces existing racialized inequalities.

When Ginsburg engaged with issues of race directly, it came across with mixed messages. One such example is her hiring record. At her confirmation hearing, Senator Hatch questioned Ginsburg about the fact that over her 13 years at the DC District Court, out of 57 employees, not a single one was Black. Ginsburg replied by saying, “I am going to try harder, and if you confirm me for this job, my attractiveness to Black candidates is going to improve.” Yet, over her 27 years on SCOTUS, she only hired one Black law clerk. Granted, law clerks for SCOTUS justices are notoriously white across the board—85% since 2005. However, a systemic problem is not an excuse for a lack of revision of hiring practices, and it is still disappointing to read of Ginsburg’s poor record.

Ginsburg made headlines again in 2016 for her insensitive response to Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem as a protest to police violence and in support of Black Lives Matter. In the original interview, Ginsburg calls the protest “dumb and disrespectful” and compares it to flag burning. Ginsburg quickly apologized after massive media blowback. Although it appears that Ginsburg was taking issue more with the action of political speech that Kaepernick chose to take than with the cause he was protesting for, it’s frankly surprising that she was “unaware” of the nature of these protests and further, demonstrates a tendency in the legal world to interpret political actions along a hierarchy of value. Progressive values are structured to favor some political spaces (like campaigns) over others (like sports). And the very spaces that are favored are the spaces that are already structurally exclusionary to BIPOC.  Where is the space for voices against racism when the easily accessible platforms to denounce it are valued less than the institutions that gatekeep? 

In her world in the courtroom, Ginsburg didn’t stand out on cases related to race but generally sided with the other liberal justices in condemning white supremacy & racial discrimination. After all, the civil rights framework that challenges racism is the same as her well-worn equality framework for gender discrimination. For example, as an attorney, Ginsburg credited the work of Black queer civil rights attorney Pauli Murray in Reed v Reed. She authored an amicus brief for Coker v Georgia writing, “the death penalty for rape is an outgrowth of both male patriarchal views of women…and gross racial injustice created in part out of that patriarchal foundation.” Ginsburg also clearly addressed the intersections of voter suppression and race in her famous dissent, Shelby County v Holder.

She ruled in favor of several important cases regarding the rights of the incarcerated, although it is not clear that these decisions were based on her awareness of mass incarceration as an issue with disproportionate effect on BIPOC. Yet Ginsburg also supported increased barriers for prisoners seeking rights in federal courts and joined the majority in Overton v Bazzetta, upholding draconian visiting restrictions. Definitely a mixed record.

One interesting case study of Ginsburg’s lack of engagement with race is her Utah v Strieff (2016) dissent. An equal protection 4th amendment case about warrants and unlawful stops, Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote a harsh dissent critiquing the ruling, which included what is now colloquially referred to as Sotomayor’s “Black Lives Matter Manifesto.” In this condemnation that also cited Black scholars and activists Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sotomayor wrote “[the decision] implies that you are not a citizen of democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.” Ginsburg signed onto all of Sotomayor’s dissent except this section. Ginsburg ruled on the liberal side, and yet stopped herself at Sotomayor’s explicit discussion of race. Why did she pass up an opportunity to use her platform as a prominent white woman in power to express solidarity with BIPOC?

Indigenous Rights: RBG’s Biggest Regret

Ginsburg accepting her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton. // Creative Commons

When it comes to Indigenous Rights, Ginsburg likewise does not have a strong record of support. The legal field itself contributes to this. US law is based primarily on individual rights, a reflection of Western neoliberalism. This comes in conflict when dealing with Indigenous Peoples, whose rights are collective. Further, education about Indian Law is poor across law schools; only a few states include it on their Bar examinations. As a whole, the American legal system is rooted in the history of systemic genocide, exclusion, and erasure of American Indians. Given this, it is upsetting but not surprising that in her confirmation hearing, Ginsburg stated that “I cannot pretend to any special knowledge in this area of the law.” The Marshall Project does note that Ginsburg’s decisions on cases regarding Indian Law improved over the course of her time on the court. For example, her very last Indian Law case, McGirt v Oklahoma (2020), importantly ruled that a majority of Eastern Oklahoma is Indian Country—a landmark recognition of tribal sovereignty. However, backtracking to some of her earlier decisions, we see a number of cases where Ginsburg restricted Indian rights, such as US v Navajo Nation (2002) and Strate v A-1 Contractors (1997). Perhaps the most notorious, however, is City of Sherrill v Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

Ginsburg authored the 8-1 2005 Sherrill decision, ruling against the Oneida Indian Nation regarding their claim to tax-exempt status on traditional Oneida land which NY had acquired as the result of an illegal transaction in the 19th century, and then was repurchased by the Oneida Nation in 1997-98. Ginsburg’s reasoning rested on longstanding racist legal doctrines such as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Ginsburg argued that the “longstanding Non-Indian character” of the land and the Oneida’s delay in seeking relief kept the tribe from “rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.” This decision was heavily and rightfully critiqued.

It is clear that Ginsburg took these critiques to heart. In May of 2020 she confided in some of her clerks and peers that Sherrill was the single decision in her time at the court that she regretted the most. She paired this with a declaration of hope that the next SCOTUS nominee be a Native American woman.

What does all of this tell us? It tells us that Ginsburg made countless valuable progressive, life changing decisions that benefitted hundreds of thousands of Americans. It tells us she has the capacity for growth and critical thought and the humility to apologize. It also tells us that she made some really bad decisions, too. In other words, she wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. Legacies are complicated, and the legacy of a judge on SCOTUS even more so. 

We experience a general failure to recognize Ginsburg’s complicated history because she has been elevated to icon status in the pervasive white feminist narrative. As Si’iyda Shabazz writes, “painting her as a superhero on a pedestal” by the ever-impervious white feminist umbrella means we forget (or are prevented from realizing) that at the end of the day, RBG made mistakes. Just as her successes deserve to be shouted from the rooftops, the less rosy side of her record ought to be available for critique. We can only become better citizens, better feminists, and better advocates by knowing that mourning and critical analysis are not mutually exclusive, and in fact can strengthen each other and provoke us to turn Ginsburg’s legacy into justice-oriented action.

Indigenous Environmental Justice: A Need for Substantial Recognition of Indigenous Voices

 By Guest Contributor Sakshi Aravind, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She works on Indigenous environmental justice in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. 

In the last week of May, the mining colossus Rio Tinto blasted the 46,000 years old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia (WA) during its operations in Brockman 4 mines. The caves were of profound cultural and spiritual significance to the traditional owners, the Indigenous Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) peoples, while also carrying immense historical and archaeological value. Rio Tinto had obtained ministerial consent from the state Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to carry out the blasts under Section 18 of the obsolete WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, 1972 (‘Heritage Act’). In response, the destruction of these culturally significant sites evoked shock and anger around the world. There were calls for addressing the deficiencies in the law, which does not make provisions for consultation with traditional owners or review of the ministerial consent in light of subsequent discoveries. Following this PR backlash, Rio Tinto attempted to recover with apologies and clarifications, although these went in vain. Rio Tinto’s specious regrets were as wicked as its attempts to attribute the blasts to certain ‘misunderstandings’.

Overhead view of the Rio Tinto mining at the Juukan Gorge rock shelters. // Source: Venture magazine

As I have argued elsewhere, these blasts are not a single event of destruction. They are an ongoing process of festering the wounds of settler colonial capitalism, which have never been allowed to heal. The destruction of Juukan Gorge is irreversible damage and an incommensurable loss to the traditional owners of western Pilbara. Further, they reveal a pattern of systemic erosion of Indigenous rights and identities. Rather than an exception, Rio Tinto is only emblematic of the noxious extractivism that has been foundational to the expansion and sustenance of capitalism and colonialism around the world. 

Elsewhere, First Nations in Canada have suffered repeated setbacks in their fight for rights over land and sovereignty against mining companies. While treaty rights and Constitutional rights have guaranteed a certain degree of Indigenous participation in decision making, categorically, often Indigenous sovereignty must concede to economic benefits. The recent blockade by Wet’ suwet’ en people in British Columbia against the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline illuminates the challenges of fighting for traditional territories against the combined forces of the State and private corporations. 

Brazil has also witnessed relentless destruction of forests and Indigenous territories by mining companies under the aegis of the Federal government, with little or no recourse to legal remedies. To put it plainly, the status of Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and environmental justice have been continually eroding in settler nations.  

The ‘duty of consult’, i.e. the obligation to consult and accommodate Indigenous interests in policies and decisions that affect them, has often been conflated with Indigenous environmental justice. It is said to embody aspects of participation and recognition within Indigenous rights framework. Jurisdictions like Canada, with an advanced constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights, have contributed significantly to the jurisprudence around duty to consult. Australia trails far behind in this respect. However, the legal frameworks of settler-colonial nations have only allowed for ‘consultation’ and not unequivocal consent. This approach blatantly fails to address the question of Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty over land and territory, some of which have been better articulated in international rights instruments such as The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”). 

The UNDRIP in 2007 was a notable political gesture from the state bodies in coming together and recognising the questions of indigenous differences and vulnerabilities. Despite criticisms for its inadequacy or watered-down provisions, the UN Declaration made substantial provisions for adhering to the ‘distribution-recognition-participation’ paradigm of environmental justice amongst other measures for political empowerment.The UN declaration: recognises obligation towards indigenous rights as an extension of the existing Human Rights obligations (Art 1); protects the First Nations from all forms of discrimination based on identities (Art 2); re-asserts the need for indigenous self-determination (Art 3); protects the communities from forceful dispossession from Indigenous land (Art.8 and Art.10); right to free and prior informed consent in any economic/military activities on indigenous lands (Art. 29, 30, and 32). Hardly any of them have made their way into domestic legislation in either Australia or Canada. 

As a consequence, Indigenous communities may be heard, but only as a matter of procedural necessity. First Nations continue to be denied the power to veto extractivist projects over their land and resources. Such denial has grave implications for the idea of Indigenous environmental justice. Achieving justice in settler colonial contexts demands truth and reconciliation. These values can only be accomplished by providing an apparatus for substantive Indigenous voices and representation in the social, political, and economic process. In Australia, the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the proposal to amend the Australian constitution to enshrine Indigenous voices in the Parliament is a significant step towards reformulating the idea of justice within a settler State.

Courts have attempted to achieve Indigenous environmental justice through means available to them. For instance, I have argued that in Gloucester Resources v Minister for Planning (Gloucester Resources), the New South Wales Land and Environment Court focussed on the testimony of Aboriginal elders, their connection to the land, and cultural heritage. Although Gloucester Resources was primarily articulated as a climate change litigation launched against the commencement of a coal mine, it had vital contributions to Indigenous environmental justice. While specific case laws cannot realise the idea of Indigenous environmental justice, they demonstrate the significance of ‘listening’ to Indigenous communities to achieve it. The blasts in WA have now provoked us to revisit what justice means. And we must revisit it in settler nations, mindful of the fact that they are established on the dispossession, displacement, and erasure of Indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous environmental justice cannot reconcile with extractivism and capitalism, which operate in cahoots with the State and perpetuate the erasure of Indigenous identities. Extractive economies thrive on the severing of Indigenous ties with land and environment. These exploitative idioms of capitalism cannot be remedied with mere ‘duty to consult’, just as the incommensurable loss of Juukan Gorge cannot be restored with trifling apologies or paltry compensations. Australia at this hour needs more than a review of heritage laws. It needs to acknowledge that the nation’s past and present are caught in toxic tangles of settler colonialism and capitalism. The redemption lies in accepting and acting on constitutional reform enshrined in Voice, Treaty, and Truth.

Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Inuit Culture and Pedagogies in Greenland’s Schools

By Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

___________________________________________________________________________

On November 20th Aviaja E. Lynge, HRAP Fellow at Columbia University, gave a presentation titled: “Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Implementing a Culturally Appropriate Education System in Greenland.” Lynge holds an M.S. in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh and currently works at the University of Greenland, where she is Head of Department for Further Education. Lynge began the presentation by thanking her mentor Elsa Stamatopoulou, Director of the Indigenous Studies Program at Columbia.

Lynge contextualized her presentation by starting with a description of her own childhood in Greenland and her Inuit family, because, she said, “I am part of the story I am going to tell you.” She recounted the influence of her grandparents and parents, who helped to foster her interest in equality and human rights from an early age. Her parents were involved in the decolonizing movement in Greenland, and her grandparents closely followed international rights developments, including the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, even naming their beloved dog after Martin Luther King, Jr. Lynge shared photos of herself as a young child and the stunning landscape of Greenland, calling the rivers and the mountains her “first university.” When she was leaving Greenland to go to college in Scotland, her father told her: “You’re Inuit, you’re short, and you’re woman. People will always make you feel smaller because of that, but you’re big inside and I believe in you.”

IMG_0407

Lynge, second from left, with attendees of her presentation.” Photo by Elsa Stamatopoulou.

After earning her degrees abroad, Lynge returned home and became involved in reforming the Greenlandic education system. The driving impetus behind her work is the promotion of the right to education for Inuit children. Inuit peoples make up approximately 89% of the population of Greenland, but have been colonized by Denmark for over two hundred years. Although they became self-governing in 2008, the country is still working to transform deeply entrenched social, cultural, and political norms that have imposed European standards on the Inuit peoples. The westernized education system that was established by the Danes has exclusively rewarded students who excelled in learning the Danish language. Students who can’t speak Danish aren’t even able to enter high school, which unsurprisingly has resulted in a lack of opportunities, the loss of socializing skills and low self-esteem. In many children, the internalization of shame has caused a paralyzing sense of being unable to learn and worthlessness. It is clear that in the historical discourse of Greenland’s school system, those who have succeeded have had to assimilate, creating a strong polarization between those who “make it” and those who do not. Moreover, this discourse has created an equivalency of Inuit culture and language with failure. As it turns out, the majority of young people don’t make it in the system; 62% of all children can’t enter further education, and half of those who enter high school drop out. Lynge posed the question: How it is that indigenous populations, in general, are the least educated in the world? Avoiding our tendency to blame the parents, how can we turn it around and ask, what are we, as educators, doing wrong?

Lynge works to redefine and restructure the national education system to utilize Inuit pedagogies. The country’s goal, supported by all political parties, is to create the “world’s best school”for the Inuit children that implement the ways they learn best. The hope is that they will not only have equal access to education, but equal access to success within it. Some of the pedagogical principles she is working to develop in the Greenlandic schools include: to respect and utilize silence in the classroom, as most Inuit children are raised to not interrupt elders and struggle with vocal participation; to make learning more of a collective process, rather than focusing on and rewarding individuals; to contextualize learning with concrete, visual examples and participatory, active learning; to encourage children to be their own evaluators and goal-setters, and be their own agents of change; and to emphasize a holistic approach to education that simultaneously nourishes children’s emotional, physical and intellectual selves.

The most challenging aspect of Lynge’s initiative regards the controversy of including “culture” in the curriculum. The most common accusation she faces is that by emphasizing the importance of Inuit culture, she will be taking the students “back in time,” obstructing their ability to be part of a modern world. However, Lynge stresses that her goal is to employ existing Inuit pedagogies, skills that have been taught and learned throughout the past, and then meld these practices with new research and methods. Part of her project is actively working to try to change the common perception of culture as material. She noted that people tend to think of “teaching culture” as the creation of objects, such as clothing or art, whereas she considers it in an immaterial light, in terms of norms and values that can enhance the learning process. Lynge insists that culture must be understood in its intangible form and that it is compatible with the “modern” world.

Crucially, Lynge noted that teachers also have to go through the decolonization processes, as most Inuit instructors continue to function within the Danish framework they inherited. “You have to remember, we haven’t had this mental decolonization yet,” she said. Unlike most other nations, when Greenland “decolonized” in 1953, they assimilated with Denmark. “No one really asked, equality on whose terms? On what conditions will we create Greenland?”Now that she and other educators are working to ask these questions and return the emphasis to the validation and utilization of Inuit pedagogies, she underscores the importance of breaking the cycle and not requiring the children to assimilate to a European standard: ”It’s a human right to be who you are.”

Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. Her main areas of interest concern sexual violence against indigenous women and girls in the US and Canada, as well as the collective rights to culture and education.