Margo Tamez will examine history of Indigenous Treaties, Land Claims and Dispossession in South Texas–Mexico border and relations to current human rights violation
Under what conditions can truth commissions make a positive contribution to gender justice? How can they put in place a friendly process for children? Can they contribute to the rights of indigenous peoples? What are the practical and conceptual considerations facing mediators, donors, and international and national actors as they engage with truth commissions?
This course is intended to provide practitioners with an opportunity to reflect on these and related questions under the guidance of leading experts in the field of transitional justice.
Margo Tamez, an Nde’ (‘Lipan Apache’) human rights defender, educator, researcher, poet, critic, and advocate for Indigenous peoples, emphasizes the significance of organizing a Truth Commission alongside Indigenous peoples in the Texas-Mexico region as a collective and community-based process based upon traditional and academic knowledge systems. “This process is based on a research partnership created between Nde’ knowledge experts and myself over many years.”
In 2007, a significant number of Indigenous peoples were violently dispossessed of their traditional lands when the U.S. government and a number of powerful corporations and independent military contractors coordinated the construction of the border wall. Since 2009, many families and communities lives have been shattered by the destructive process which unfolded, often in secrecy, and which denied them the right to Free Prior and Informed Consent, the right to meaningful consultation, and opened the path for the escalation of militarization, severance and containment into militarized and policed zones, and further deterioration of Indigenous livelihoods, ownership of lands, access and decision-making relative to traditional food and water sources, and the rights to self-determination as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed on December 15, 2010 by the United States.
Tamez is enthusiastic about the opportunity to learn among an international group of high-level human rights advocates and experts, and is looking forward to infuse her process with Indigenous research perspectives and the first-hand knowledge and experiences of Nde’ and related Texas-Mexico indigenous peoples. “It is a great honor to be selected by ICTJ to participate in this work session and training, as there are many qualified individuals who apply from around the world, and only a few are selected to participate. This course is a logical ‘next step’ in an organized process to expose truth, memory, and experience from the perspective of Indigenous Peoples in the Texas-Mexico region at the international level. At the same time, it affords me the chance to learn about organizing and implementing a Truth Commission on the ‘ground’ in the United States in order to transform normative practices which naturalize discrimination and violence against Indigenous peoples.”
A recent study submitted to the United Nations conducted by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic, the Human Rights Clinic Director, Ariel Dulitzky, and Tamez has demonstrated that Indigenous peoples’ realities of this large region have been instrumentally marginalized, and systematically obscured in the every day legal, social, economic and political institutions of Texas and the U.S. As evidenced by the2008 study on the human rights violations of the Texas-Mexico border wall submitted to the Organization of American States by faculty of the University of Texas School of Law more critical tools and methods have been required to interrogate the states’ practices which demand closer scrutiny. Truth Commissions have contributed significantly to exposing root problems and structuring the transformation in the everyday practices of the state and society. For Tamez, Texas, the U.S. and Mexico are equally culpable in obstructing Indigenous people’s inherent rights to a traditional land-base and to self-determination. According to Tamez, this includes the rights to Free Prior and Informed Consent, consultation, participation in decision-making, benefits sharing, and redress for historical dispossession from the spiritual, cultural, social and economic benefits of their traditional land-base.
“Indigenous peoples’ sovereign status in our home lands and inherent rights to self-determination in our home lands predated the occupation and colonization of our spirits, minds, bodies, lands and resources by foreign Crowns. Our inherent rights to all of these were never extinguished by full consent; tactics of coercion, force, deceit and manipulation underlie the colonial system called ‘democracy’ and ‘rights’. Unfortunately, within those systems is very little room for Indigenous law principles: Respect, Reciprocity, Responsibility and Redress. Today, the fact still remains, regardless of the colonial court opinions and rulings and that is that Nde’ peoples never ceded inherent rights to Aboriginal lands title, nor to self-determination. The investigation into human rights violations related to the issues of the border wall– being myriad and wide-scale– require more in-depth attention and study into Indigenous people’s memory, knowledge, and dispossession with regard to treaties, other constructive arrangements, and 3rd party treaties.”
For Tamez, who comes from a traditional background, and who is working to revitalize Indigenous knowledge systems in everyday life, the Truth Commission is an opportunity to interweave traditional Indigenous knowledge with critical human rights analysis. “I am seeking to learn how the Doctrine of Discovery, and subsequent systems of dispossession and genocide denial laid the ground for state and nation impunity and how this area is known and defined by Indigenous peoples across the inter-generational memory and as evidenced in the primary sources existing in Indigenous communities, in oral history and oral testimony studies. The official obfuscation of these forms of evidence in settler institutions have created, in my mind, a fertile environment for the escalation of extreme violence and impunity exercised by powerful interest groups throughout the region. Documented genocide and current-day human rights violations in the Texas-Mexico border region will continue to be trivialized if a Truth Commission is not developed. This effort to become formally educated in this legal instrument deserves the serious attention of a collective and I seek to be a path breaker alongside Indigenous knowledge keepers to hold responsible parties and entities to account. The truth is in the public’s and greater society’s best interest.”
Since the U.S. government constructed the border wall on the Texas-Mexico border in 2009, Tamez’ research has shed light on the severity of impacts suffered by Indigenous Peoples. Her journey has opened up much obscured documents, archives, and collected facts related to a very large Indigenous population residing in many counties along the Texas-Mexico border. Tamez has sought to educate the public about Indigenous peoples’ struggles, challenges, aspirations, knowledge systems, and to “unpack” how Indigenous peoples’ identities have been severely distorted and “mangled” through the state’s administrative procedures to assimilate Native Americans, seeking to terminate Indigenous culture and world view systems hand-in-glove with stealing Indigenous property. “The average person in U.S. and Mexico society is bombarded with biased misinformation about Indigenous peoples that is highly suspect, in other words, full of ideology, fantasy, and fiction, not the diverse and complex reality. Unfortunately, less-than-critical thinking abounds in U.S. and Mexico society, as a direct result of discriminatory education systems and false media portrayals which tied to corporate development interests. This behavior pattern is deeply ingrained in the dominant culture, and fuels each generations’ learned ignorance and biases against Indigenous peoples’ and society’s best interests. In turn, this serves to deny Indigenous peoples the rights to practice our cultures–which are interdependent with our traditional lands, territories and resources. The ongoing denial of these fundamental needs persists as a colonial form of domination, and Indigenous peoples’ resistances against genocidal violence–at every institutional level–is largely framed as ‘domestic terrorism’ and ‘illegal’ rather than anti-oppression and in the society’s best interest. There is a huge communication divide and violence permeates this space and fills it to such an extent that many people have difficulty ‘reading’ the root of the problem without significant processes of re-education. A Truth Commission serves the broader public need for diverse and alternative versions of a profound truth being repressed in an organized manner.”
“A Truth Commission could serve an instrumental purpose in the United States and Mexico border region in light of the militarization programs and unresolved jury trials related to forced and armed dispossession exercised by the Department of Homeland Security against certain communities. These issues obviously were repressed by the Bush administration, and have been severely peripheralized by the Obama administration, costing the affected Indigenous peoples and taxpayers enormous resources better applied toward improving social relations and systems with the consent of the peoples. Unfortunately, the border wall–and each preceding system which worked to obstruct Indigenous self-determination in Texas–has been built on historical patterns of ignorance and genocide denial. The border wall fed societies’ frenzied zeal to build a physical barricade across Indigenous-owned lands, as Chertoff said, “by any means possible.” This battle cry against vulnerable peoples on the Texas border–considered a severely structured poverty zone on global scale–fed a negation of an major reality. That reality is this–the Indigenous peoples’ presence and social movements for recognition at all levels are decolonizing North America. This reality is unsettling (calling into question) the settler society’s and elites’ domination and supremacy over knowledge, truth, land, and resources.”
Tamez emphasizes the importance of historical and social contexts of a shared history between colonizers and colonized, and the crucial role of state, private, and powerful interest groups who constructed “edited versions” of history. Tamez argues that a state’s education “disciplines” the state’s subjects into ingesting a dominant version of “one and only one truth.”
“The history of history writing in Texas, Mexico and the U.S. about Lipan Apaches is a sad example of anti-Indigenous racism as core to the project of colonization of the land’s resources for and by the few; the region is a complex one, and involves many shared histories between sovereigns, settlers, colonizers and the colonized Indigenous peoples–over many complicated and detrimental processes which have continued to be an open wound for the current generation who live out this violent power relationship every day.”
One major significance of a Truth Commission is that it can enable and empower vulnerable peoples to frame collective rights and to be deeply involved in the creation of alternative justice and tribunal spaces. This is key to raising participation and decision-making in geopolitical areas where the states’ juridical system fails to redress and to restitute the rights of Indigenous peoples in its everyday procedures. “The reality we must confront in the Texas-Mexico border is that it is a site of severe human rights violations, a zone of normalized impunity, a ‘no constitution’ zone, where the State and nation have protected perpetrators and not protected the rights of vulnerable Indigenous peoples. This is an embedded pattern that has failed to serve the rights of Indigenous peoples for many generations and must be disrupted.”
According to ICTJ, the program examines truth-seeking as part of a comprehensive approach to deal with massive human rights violations, with the aim of building sustainable peace, strengthening the rule of law, and contributing to reconciliation in divided societies.
For Tamez, the road to a Truth Commission has been without question one indebted to recovering Nde’ knowledge and relationships which require the enactment of the “4 R’s” of Indigenous principles, laws and protocols: Respect, Reciprocity, Responsibility and Relevance. “I am deeply grateful to the Nde’ Elders, Traditional Chiefs, Council Members, and the many Nde’ Clan leaders, family heads, and traditional leaders, as well as our Nde’ families, youth, and workers who have been my teachers. As an Nde’ researcher and advocate for the human rights of Indigenous peoples, I have been most impacted by the severe barriers and obstructions to justice that Nde’ and numerous related Indigenous groups experience in their daily struggle in Texas and the U.S. for their most elemental, fundamental rights to be recognized: as Indigenous Peoples and title holders of the traditional territory of Konitsaii Gokiyaa–and as core decision-makers on all aspects affecting them in the Lipan home lands. My education is for the Peoples.”
Since 2008, Tamez and Elders of El Calaboz Rancheria with their many partners across civil society have worked diligently to educate the broader public in Texas, Mexico, the United States, and the international community about the serious human rights violations which occurred at each stage of the process of the U.S. border wall construction. However, for Tamez, what has been most disturbing is the Indigenous peoples’ revelations through oral testimony and oral history of a penetrating pattern of a grim situation between the state of Texas, its founding families and the broader settler society–and Indigenous Nde’ peoples affiliated with many treaties, Crown land grants, and other sovereign to sovereign agreements made with European colonizers. The ongoing denial of Lipan Apache formal and constitutional recognition by Texas, Mexico, and the United States is an open wound that will not heal until formally redressed, according to Tamez. A key flash point requiring immediate attention is Indigenous peoples’ documented challenges to Mexico, Texas and the U.S. treaties which constructed a border and a wall through the middle of Lipan Apache traditional homeland and territory. This barrier to Nde’ self-determination and international recognition underlies Nde’ peoples’ calls for a Truth Commission.
“I will be responding closely to the official mandate of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas, the traditional authorities of Hereditary Chiefs and Elders, as well as the Traditional Societies who in 2011 at the El Calaboz Gathering on Nde’ Knowledge, Lands, Territories and Human Rights called for the development of a Truth Commission and an alternative justice space through which truth, memory and justice could be advanced on the many human rights violations associated with the U.S. border wall, militarization, land dispossession, structured poverty, and non-recognition that is endemic to administrative genocide to Lipan Apache peoples and cultural survival. At the very root of all these issues is a most disturbing history and pattern of genocidal violence, dispossession, and extreme marginalization of Nde’ peoples by the Texas settler society, Mexico, and the U.S. federal government which positions Nde’ title holders as ‘in-betweens’ in terms of political status. Recognized as an ‘enemy Nation’ by all three governments in their historical documentation of their treaties with Lipan Apaches, none of them officially resolved their obligations and duties to Nde’ sovereigns after 1848. Rather, each constructed legal practices –formal and informal — that normalized extermination policies. By 1872, after the Remolino Massacre on the Texas-Mexico border, extermination became the institutionalized form of dominating Nde’ into submission and assimilation. Lynching, murdering, starving, and imprisonment became institutionalized norms to repress uprisings and rebellion. State and Catholic education were used to institutionalize physical, spiritual, and psychological abuse which disciplined generations of Nde’.
A key element which is extremely relevant and consistent is the depth of organized violence across Nde’ generations in South Texas and along both sides of the Rio Grande. Nde’ peoples’ documented resistances and defenses of Lipan Apache home lands and objections to being assimilated as a ‘minority group’ or ‘ethnic group’ of Mexico, Texas or U.S. demands re-thinking. ” The fictive narrative of the ‘extinction’ or ‘disappearance’ of the anthropological construction of ‘Lipan Apaches’ is a total construct of the colonizer and its key functionaries–militarized anthropologists, archaeologists and geologists. These paved the way very early for the lands to be occupied and put into so-called ‘private property’. In my mind, the national parks systems are killing fields, emptied of the ‘house owners’ for the benefit of the burglars. Studying the primary sources from an Indigenous viewpoint helps us grapple in a serious way, using more refined tools, with a research program on Nde’ memory and knowledge systems.”
Beneath the border wall are layers of dispossession issues and issues of incarceration of Nde’ that are unresolved and enduring. The situation of the illegal obstructions by Texas, the United States, and Mexico, of the reality of Nde’ Aboriginal Title– to more than 6.5 million acres is at stake. “We are fundamentally talking about a Lipan Apache home land and self-determination understood in a radically different model than the normative U.S. paradigm of so-called ‘recognized Tribes’ as demi-sovereign wards with diminished ‘minority’ rights.”
According to Tamez, the mandate which arose from the El Calaboz 2011 summit is a significant assertion by Indigenous Peoples of the Texas-Mexico border region to establish an alternative justice space which can coordinate an international effort to interrogate historical truth and memory from the unique perspectives of Indigenous Peoples in the Texas-Mexico region. Tamez will be researching the Truth Commission as a legal instrument to implement the rights of victims of wide-scale human rights violations. In Barcelona, Spain, Tamez will learn how and why truth commissions have emerged as accountability mechanisms, and assess their potentials and limitations. The course balances academic reflection with concrete considerations relevant to practitioners. On the practical side, Tamez will be learning political and practical challenges around the design, implementation, and follow-up of a truth commission.
Tamez feels very certain that if a Truth Commission is coordinated from its earliest initiatives by, with, for, and alongside Indigenous Peoples there is a greater chance for it to be effective at infusing each step of the process with and through Indigenous methodologies and the 4Rs. “A Truth Commission on the Texas-Mexico border will contribute substantially to being a mechanism of lasting peace and empowerment for the region’s Indigenous peoples and broader implications for improving society. It could lay down foundations for building capacity to transform normative institutions for the betterment of all humanity, biodiversity, and the Earth.