Culture is a complex entity of political, economic and spiritual dimensions. The language, beliefs and values of a culture find expression in such things as music, song and dance, as well as in arts and crafts, fashion and style. As cultural properties, these attributes join governance and religion in distinguishing one particular culture from another. In the case of indigenous cultures, traditional food and medicine are included in the list of properties, all of which combined are celebrated in Fourth World media, literature and philosophy.
In the United States, the trust responsibility between the state and the tribal nations is defined as the obligation of the US Government to preserve, protect and guarantee the property of American Indians. Environmental protection and restoration are part of that obligation, as is self-governance and religious freedom. Respecting tribal laws, rules and regulations on Indian lands is also part of honoring the trust responsibility.
Beyond the borders of reservations, though, tribal properties such as sacred sites, fish and wildlife also come under the obligation of trust responsibility. Allowing the desecration of holy areas, or the extinction of species, is a breach of this trust. Likewise the intrusion of US agencies on Indian territory for purposes of property confiscation or taxation.
Under international human rights law, these properties are sacrosanct, and states that fail to protect them transgress established norms by which states and nations are obligated to relate. Neglecting these obligations of trust and mutual respect is what leads to most of the conflicts in the world.
As a reluctant supporter of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United States nevertheless has obligated itself to not only protect tribal properties, but to implement the principles of this international accord. As such, the US Government habit of allowing the desecration and confiscation of some tribal properties by corporations, and colluding with them in the theft of many others, must come to an end. Put simply, it’s a matter of trust.