Consultation with Indian Nations

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Consultation or Consent: The United States Duty to Confer with American Indian Governments

Robert J. Miller

Arizona State University (ASU) – Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law


This article explores the current international law movement to require nation/states to consult with Indigenous peoples before undertaking actions that impact Indigenous nations and communities. The United Nations took a significant step in this area of law in September 2007 when the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration contains many provisions requiring states to confer and consult with Indigenous peoples, and in many instances to obtain their “free, prior and informed consent.” This article undertakes an original and detailed investigation into how the free, prior and informed consent standard emerged in the drafting of the Declaration.

But the article also points out that consultations and obtaining the consent of Indigenous peoples is nothing new in the political and diplomatic relations between American Indian nations and the United States. From the very founding of the U.S., it has maintained a government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes. This relationship is expressly recognized in the U.S. Constitution, and is reflected in hundreds of U.S./Indian treaties and in the history of the interactions between these governments. A nearly constant stream of formal and informal consultations and diplomatic dealings has marked this relationship.

In recent decades, though, the international community has begun focusing on consultations with Indigenous peoples and has increased the international law obligation on states to consult. The international regime is also moving far beyond mere consultations and is requiring states to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples. On the surface, requiring the United States to obtain the informed consent of Indian nations and peoples, before undertaking actions that affect them, might be more onerous than just consulting with tribal governments.

This article examines the history and modern-day processes for United States consultations with Indian nations and the emerging international law standard of free, prior and informed consent. The article argues that the United States should continue and even enhance the consent paradigm that has always been the goal of federal/tribal relations. And, the article also argues that the United States should have little trouble adapting to the new international law consent movement.

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