Keith Harper on Indigenous Rights, Redskins and the Israel/Hamas Conflict

Courtesy U.S. Mission to the United Nations in GenevaKeith Harper, Cherokee Nation, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council
Courtesy U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva
Keith Harper, Cherokee Nation, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council


Gale Courey Toensing, 8/11/14, Indian Country Today


Keith Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen, was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as the United State ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 3, 2014. Harper is the first citizen of a federally recognized tribe to reach the rank of U.S. ambassador. He arrived in Geneva a week after his Senate appointment and has been on the job non-stop since then.

RELATED: Keith Harper, Cherokee Nation Citizen, Confirmed as Ambassador

Harper’s ambassadorship caps two decades of legal work on behalf of Native Americans, including a partnership at the law firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, where he was chair of the Native American Practice Group; senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund; Supreme Court Justice on the Supreme Court of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians; and appellate justice on the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court.

ICTMN was pleased for the opportunity to conduct this interview. “This will be my first on-the-record interview since assuming my position so I wanted to be sure we did it with [a publication from] Indian country,” he said.

What is your mission as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council?

I represent the United States at the council. The council is a 47 member-state body elected by the member states of the U.N. and its purpose is to promote human rights, plain and simple. It’s one of the three principal institutions of the United Nations so it plays a vital role in promoting human rights and we assert the positions of the United States vis-à-vis human rights. And the mission is that we have interests in assuring the expansion of freedoms – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, among others. Certainly, the United States has important interests in assuring that countries live up to their obligations regarding human rights internationally, and there are a variety of mechanisms at the council’s disposal in order to shed a light on bad actors and bad situations and to otherwise establish best practices and provide technical assistance where needed.

What’s your typical day like when the council is in session?

Council sessions are very busy. They are chock-full of meetings where we’re negotiating texts on resolutions especially ones the United States cares deeply about. That would include things like freedom of expression, women’s rights, rights of Indigenous Peoples and country-specific resolutions where, for example, in the case of Syria you have mass atrocities going on for extended periods of time the United States took a leadership role in passing a resolution not only condemning the atrocities, but laying the groundwork for ultimate accountability for those committing such atrocities. So the council sessions are a busy time when we’re going through the process of finalizing documentation in order to pass very sound, effective resolutions and at the same time we’re making interventions, meaning we are identifying subject areas in which we have something important to say. … [I]n the June session we thought it was critically important to highlight the scourge of violence against Native women, indigenous women worldwide, that in far too many places, far too often and for far too long indigenous women have been subject to extraordinary violence and too often it goes unabated. So we thought it was important to highlight that situation and press states to find better ways to address those circumstances.

RELATED: US Ambassador Keith Harper: Violence against Indigenous Women ‘Global Scourge’

Can you actually affect policy? Do you have real tools to work with—a budget, a means to impose penalties or sanctions on violators?

Absolutely. I think it’s a demonstrable fact that the U.N. Human Rights Council’s actions have made a difference on the ground in a number of countries. … One, there is an ability to document through mandate-holders whether they be a special rapporteur or commissions of inquiry appointed by the council to go out and actually find the facts because what’s critically important here is not to debate the facts [but] to understand what the facts are and then one can understand what to do about the situation. And this leads to the ability to hold accountable not only states but also individuals within those states for violations of human rights. It’s also within the council’s power to provide technical assistance. What we find often is that states have a willingness to do better and bring themselves in line with their human rights obligations but don’t necessarily have the capacity to do so. So this technical assistance is critical to aiding them and enabling them to do better with human rights whether that be expanding freedom of expression, ensuring freedom of the press, making sure that there’s not extra-judicial killings – a whole variety of issues. So I think the council’s role is critical. The other piece that I don’t want to lose here is where the council acts on what we call thematic issues – things like insuring the protection of women, expanding the protection of children, taking steps against human trafficking, addressing concerns regarding Indigenous Peoples, having protections in place for LGBT persons. There’s a whole variety of thematic issues that we work on as well and these are a way to establish best practices, to appoint special rapporteurs to ensure that we are highlighting countries in which the practices are less than what they should be and also finding places where best practices have been established so that other countries can do the same.

Will you have any role regarding climate change policy especially as it pertains to working with tribes?

Climate change, as Secretary [of the State Department John] Kerry has stated time and time again is a critically important issue and it’s one that should be on the top of our priority list. The question is not whether or not the United States and the State Department should deal with climate change. The question really is, who should deal with it? What institutions are best equipped to affect real change on climate change? And there’s a number of bodies within the U.N. system and multilateral organizations generally that are affecting climate change in a very effective and forceful way. So from our vantage point, rather than try to force a square peg into a round hole, it’s better to have the institutions that are charged with dealing with climate change do so. And so the approach of the United States is to empower those institutions to bring together states so that we can deal with this critically important issue. And from my vantage point it should go without saying, the impact of climate change on Indigenous Peoples generally, and tribes in the United States specifically, ought to be a top agenda item for those addressing climate change.

How much of your work on the council will focus on Indigenous Peoples?

It’s obviously a priority issue for me. I think that now that we’ve had virtually universal acceptance of the [UN] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples there is a roadmap and a set of principles which states should move towards and I think with respect to that document, but also just ensuring that basic human rights of all peoples, which applies to Indigenous Peoples as well and indigenous individuals, should be lived up to and there are a number of respects in which they’re not, around the world. We can do far better. The other piece on Indigenous Peoples that I think we’ve had a very positive development on in the United States over the last four decades is this movement towards empowering indigenous communities themselves to address the challenges they face. So, for example, in the Violence Against Women Act, that was a circumstance in which the President supported and ultimately signed a bill that provided criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit violent crimes against women on the reservation. That is a watershed development because it empowers the tribe to deal with that challenge. And we think that’s a model that can be adopted in many other places where Indigenous Peoples are empowered either legally or through a provision of resources to address their economic, political or social challenges.

What, if any, will your role be in moving the federal government to implement the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Let me start by saying the United States from what I’ve seen of the internal dialogue regarding Indian policy has looked at the Declaration as a guiding source for implementing policy. I know that’s come up time and again in internal deliberations among federal officials and indeed if you look at some of the policies of the present administration whether it be the increased focus on consultation with tribes, insuring that there’s better economic development or empowerment of tribal governments or seeking protection of cultural resources – I think there’s a variety of ways in which the Declaration has informed policy already. My role is to encourage that and I will encourage that and have encouraged that… We think it should inform policy development everywhere and certainly in my experience it has already and should continue to inform policy development in the United States.

I think one of the things that made people uncomfortable was the language that was used when the federal government announced it was “lending its support” to the Declaration … and the State Department’s white paper said that the Declaration calls for “the development of a concept of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples that is different from the existing right of self-determination in international law.” Is there any evidence to support that claim?

Let me take each one of those questions separately. With respect to “lending support” I think it’s very clear from the President’s statement that he endorses the Declaration. You have to recall that the Declaration is indeed a declaration, meaning it’s not a legally binding instrument, it’s not covenant, and it’s not a treaty. Under international law, it declares certain principles by which we agree policy should be developed. And that’s very important! The Universal Declaration on Human Rights – when it was endorsed universally by states certainly the provisions were not universally complied with. Well, they’re still not universally complied with but I think there’s a push toward universal compliance with the Universal Declaration. So Declarations serve a critically important role but they are different from binding legal instruments. We just have to make that distinction, so when we say “lending support” or endorsing that’s an absolutely critical development. There was a thorough review of the Declaration. This president, who should be commended for it, decided to endorse the Declaration.

The second question goes to the issue of self-determination. I think there’s been an unfortunate tendency to get caught up in theoretical aspects of this… The scholars are pretty clear on one point – that self-determination has to be determined in a contextual manner based on the context in which it arises. So, for example, there may be in certain states, certain peoples who don’t have a right to secede because of concerns for territorial integrity and the important and vital central principle that is under international law. So self-determination is always to be viewed in a contextual manner and I think the thrust of that is to say that it should be viewed contextually here as well. But let’s really get down to the nitty-gritty here because what I think the Declaration says and the important message that it has is one that has been fully adopted by this President and that is that the relations between the United States and tribes should be nation-to-nation. He’s repeatedly said that and I think his actions and the actions of his administration have lived up to that ideal of being a nation-to-nation relationship where it’s not a top-down approach but far better to empower tribal communities to address the challenges that they face.

The U.S. has consistently said that the U.N. Declaration must remain consistent with existing U.S. Indian law but we know that’s not perfect. How can the Declaration be the basis for reforming what’s wrong with U.S. federal Indian law and policy when the U.S. insists that the Declaration must be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with existing U.S. federal Indian law and policy?

First thing I’d say is the Declaration, again, is a non-legally binding instrument; it’s a set of principles that states agreed to and that states’ policies should be guided by. And as I mentioned earlier, the Declaration has been and should continue to be considered as a guiding light. That is its critical importance. The second thing I’d say is we have vacillated over the last 200 years of Indian policy from times when there has been greater respect for tribal communities and tribal self-governance, whether that be during the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] or now in the self-determination period since the late 1960s. But there have been other periods like allotment, termination where there were much more assimilation-oriented policies, much more disrespect for tribal self-government. What the Declaration does is say that we all agree that these are the principles and the principles include the principle that tribes should have a key role in their own destiny. And what that does is makes it much more difficult politically to have regression back to the more difficult policies that end up hurting tribes.

How do you respond to criticism that the U.S. has a less than stellar human rights ranking according to the United Nation’s own agencies and processes?

There’s no official rankings, I think that would be a misunderstanding. Look, the United States would be the first to admit that no state gets it right all the time. We all have our challenges. And that’s why we have treaty bodies like CERD [Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination] and the Human Rights Council. That’s why the Human Rights Council has what’s called the Universal Periodic Review, meaning that every state goes under review on its human rights record because we believe that no state should be free from scrutiny and every state can do better on human rights. Having said that, I think we have to recognize that in so many ways the United States is the high water mark whether you’re looking at freedom of expression or freedom of assembly, or if you look at the movement that’s been made on securing the protections of LGBT people and the advancements in addressing standard discrimination, in preparing tribal communities to resolve their own challenges. There is no other state in the world that I’m aware of where Indigenous Peoples have been empowered to have criminal jurisdiction in their own court systems over non-members of that community, for example. So I think what we have to say is there are challenges, we need to continue these processes which are vitally important to holding up a mirror on every state so we can identify the challenges. And certainly no state is perfect and the United States has its challenges, but the important thing is that we have a robust and vibrant domestic dialogue to make sure we make progress day after day, month after month, year after year.

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How does your identity as an indigenous person inform your perspective on human rights?

Well, you know, given our history there’s no doubt there have been really tragic and difficult times. With the Cherokee Nation of course we have the Trail of Tears and even more recently than that when our lands were taken away and there were attempts to extinguish our tribal rights. I think what it does is it puts you in a place of having great empathy towards communities and individuals who are also striving to empower their own people… and to better connect with them in trying to resolve their human rights situations.

Could you please comment on the Washington football team’s use of the name Redskins?

On a personal level, I find the term “redskins” to be disparaging. I think it should have no place and if I owned the team I would change the name. It’s pretty clear cut to me – nobody would walk down the street and call me a redskin unless they were intentionally trying to insult me.

Once again, the United Nations has taken a strong stance in condemning what the Human Rights Council has described in its July 23 resolution as the “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights” by Israeli forces in Gaza. (Among other things, the resolution included a provision to create an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and particulary in the occupied Gaza Strip during the military operations conducted since June 13.) Yet Israel, with the support of its lone international ally the United States, persists in following a policy that has resulted in an extraordinary number of civilian deaths. Since the statement was made, almost 1,400 more civilians have been killed. What possible tools do you have as U.S. human rights ambassador to stem a war policy that targets all Palestinians as hostiles, much in the way the indigenous nations of the Americas were targeted for centuries?

First, I would caution against comparisons that may not apply. In this situation we are dealing with a group, Hamas, which by their own admission, are sending indiscriminately into civilian areas rocket after rocket after rocket in the thousands. They’re building tunnels for the purpose of kidnapping … I don’t agree that that analogizes to Indian struggles. With respect to the situation in Gaza what we first should acknowledge is whether there are deaths on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side, they’re tragic and I’m personally heartbroken by how many deaths there have been, including children. Having said that, we have to ask ourselves how we can be constructive and what approaches are we taking that are going to be most constructive and having increased condemnation of one side – the state of Israel – while not mentioning Hamas in my personal judgment doesn’t make any sense. So, going back to the Human Rights Council’s actions we were the sole vote against that resolution. I think it was the right vote because that resolution was not constructive, it was going to make it more difficult to get a ceasefire, which should have been the goal of all of us. In addition, the resolution was extraordinarily one-sided, it did not mention Hamas rocket attacks, for example, and so because of the biased nature of that resolution there was no reason to support it. I’ll also say this: There’s already an investigative mechanism in place – the special rapporteur, a respected diplomat from Indonesia – and so now to have another commission of inquiry did not make much sense to us. We also have to realize there’s a long history with the council taking action against Israel time and time again.

What do you hope to achieve as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council?

What I hope to achieve is the promotion of human rights writ large. There are also some specific areas in which I think we can make significant progress. One area that I think is of particular importance is this whole space of women’s rights whether we’re talking about gender equality, the importance of assuring access to education or capital for women, addressing female genital mutilation, addressing child marriage and forced marriage – this whole space of protecting women to enjoy their human rights. What we find if we look at the empirical data is that when states get that correct – when they protect the rights of their women – they set the foundation for empowering their entire nation politically, economically, and socially. And when they fail to protect women’s rights they undermine their ability to get almost anything else right. And so this is a place where we can be particularly successful, in my view.

The interview has been edited for clarity.



First Native American US Ambassador Starts UN Job: Cal Alum Focused on Human Rights


By Michael Collier California Magazine

keithharperKeith Harper says he always wanted a career that helped his people—indigenous people.

Harper’s dream, which he cultivated while a student at UC Berkeley, was more fully realized this week when he became the first Native American of a federally recognized tribe to earn the post of U.S. Ambassador. This week, he begins his new job as the U.S. representative on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, which is meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

As a young man, Harper attended UC Berkeley, where he graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. He would later return to Cal to address a group of Native American students, says Bridget Neconie, Native American Outreach Adviser in the undergraduate admissions office.

Having completed law school at New York University in 1994, Harper became an attorney and began to make his dream come true. A member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, he helped represent a half-million Native Americans who claimed in a class-action lawsuit in 1996 that the federal government, which had held their families’ land in trust for a century or more, had failed in its fiduciary duties.

More than a decade later, he was part of a legal team that helped secure a $3.4 billion settlement in the landmark case, which was approved by a federal judge in 2011.

The U.S. Senate, in a 52-42 vote last week divided along party lines, confirmed Harper for the post of U.S. ambassador, with support from California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

“Ambassador Harper is well-qualified for this position and he had strong backing, including from within Indian country,” Sen. Barbara Boxer said in a statement Wednesday. “I was proud to support his nomination as the first U.S. Ambassador from a federally recognized tribe.”

Tribal leaders across the nation also praised Harper for winning the post. “Ambassador Harper is an attorney who has dedicated his career to the injustices facing Native peoples,” leaders of the National Congress of American Indians said in a statement. “Issues surrounding Indigenous peoples have emerged prominently on the agenda of the United Nations, and Ambassador Harper will be a valuable resource to the Human Rights Council.”

Some Senate Republicans refused to back his confirmation because of his involvement in the class-action case and for being a major campaign fundraiser, known as a bundler, for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Harper brought in more than $500,000 for the campaign.

“Mr. Harper is just another example of a campaign bundler wholly ill-suited to serve in the diplomatic post for which he’s been nominated,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain added that Harper and his legal team received excessive attorneys’ fees in the class-action case—also a point of contention among some tribal leaders. Harper’s firm and two solo practitioners earned nearly $86 million in attorneys’ fees, according to court documents cited by the Washington Post.

At a news conference in Geneva on Monday, Harper said he will represent oppressed people around the globe and will support the work of non-government organizations that promote human rights. “In our work here, we must never forget our duty to champion the rights of the most vulnerable and to speak for those who have no voice,” Harper told reporters. “Whether those champions are in the media or are those from civil society or human rights defenders, the United States will continue to stand with you.”

With backing from the United States, Harper said, the Human Rights Council, established in 2006, has put a spotlight on human rights issues in Syria, North Korea, Iran and the Central African Republic.

In a 2007 interview posted on the website of New York University’s law school, Harper talked about his mission to serve Native Americans. “ I decided to work in Indian Law,” he said, “because I strongly believe that the law can be utilized to achieve real benefit for our tribal communities through securing their common rights and protecting our lands and way of life.” He added that the landmark case,  Cobell v. Kempthorne, was “mostly about one woman, Elouise Cobell, saying enough is enough—a trustee needs to be accountable and is not the boss but a servant….” The settlement included $1.5 billion in payouts to the 500,000 members of the class action; a $1.9 billion program to consolidate land to help tribes benefit from agriculture, business and housing development; and a $60 million scholarship fund.

The most rewarding part of his career, he said, “is working with American Indian people. There is nothing better for me than to meet with Native clients and figure out ways to solve the problems they confront. Indian people are poised for greatness and I feel very fortunate to be able to be part of the machinery that will permit us to achieve that.”

Native American lawyer confirmed to U.N. human rights post

(Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP)
(Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP)

By Al Kamen, Washington Post

The Senate confirmed Washington lawyer Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation, to be the U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, making him the first member of a federally recognized tribe to be accorded an ambassadorial-rank post.

Harper, confirmed on a 52-42 party-line vote, has been active in human rights and civil rights organizations. He was also a mega-bundler, having raised more than $500,000 for President Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Harper was one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in a long-running class-action lawsuit by Native Americans, who claimed that the federal government had mismanaged Indian trust accounts. The Obama administration settled the suit in 2009 for $3.4 billion.

Sacred Site Advocates Ask Senate to Heed Keith Harper Concerns


Rob Capriccioso, ICTMN

Wayland Gray, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen and sacred site advocate, finds himself in a David versus Goliath-type situation.

Gray says he wants the U.S. Senate and the White House to hear his views against Keith Harper’s nomination to become a human rights ambassador with the United Nations, but he knows he is up against a major political machine.

“I know some of the powerful Native lobbyists are supporting Keith Harper,” Gray says. “But they shouldn’t have any more influence with Congress than grassroots Native people who have problems with his nomination.”

Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen, is a lawyer with Kilpatrick Stockton who helped settle the Cobell lawsuit with the Obama administration, and he is politically well-connected to the administration, having worked as a transition team member, served on a presidential commission, and he was a major fundraiser for the Obama campaigns for president. Many Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist and lawyer associates of Harper, as well as tribal leaders who have had positive interactions with him and his firm, have weighed in to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with support for his nomination.

Several indigenous human rights advocates, disenrolled tribal citizens, Cherokee Freedmen, Cobell settlement critics, and tribal leaders who oppose the nomination and who are not as well-connected as Harper find themselves in a precarious situation: How to get Congress to hear their voices when up against such an influential lobby?

RELATED: Indigenous Rights Advocates Question Keith Harper Nomination

Gray thinks the story of Hickory Ground’s sacred site desecration – and Harper and Kilpatrick Stockton’s representation in the matter – should speak volumes to senators who are considering the nomination. “Keith Harper’s firm has been defending the excavation of approximately 57 of our tribal ancestors who were dug up to build a casino,” he says, noting a long-standing source of conflict and sadness for Muscogee Creek citizens who have for years battled the Poarch Band of Creek Indians building and expansion of a casino on and near sacred burial grounds known as Hickory Ground in Alabama.

“I don’t see how Keith Harper can be an ambassador of human rights at the U.N. if he can’t even protect our sacred places and the burial sites of our ones who have passed,” Gray says. “The number one most important thing to Natives and to all humans is our burial places of our loved ones.”

RELATED: The Battle For Hickory Ground

Poarch Band leaders have said that they have taken “efforts to maintain the site” and want to “preserve a relationship with the Muscogee Nation,” but the inter-tribal battle escalated in February 2013 when Gray was arrested on terrorism charges by Poarch Band police as he and three others tried to access the sacred Hickory Ground site to pray for their Muscogee ancestors buried there. The Poarch Band has issued press releases saying Gray threatened to burn down the casino before his arrest. A grand jury has since tossed out the terrorism charge, but Gray is awaiting a jury trial on appeal to try to fully clear his name, based on religious freedom legal arguments, and having rejected a plea deal in June 2013.

RELATED: Poarch Band Accuses Muscogee Creek Man of Terrorist Threat to Burn Casino

As Gray was dealing with the fallout from his arrest, Poarch Band Chairman Buford Rolin was sending a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year in support of Harper’s nomination that said Harper has served as “the tribe’s lawyer representing us in litigation critical to our community” and that the tribe has “a great deal of respect” for Harper and his work. Beyond his representation of the Poarch Band, Harper’s biography on his firm’s website says he has served on the tribe’s Supreme Court.

Brendan Ludwick, a lawyer for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, says that Harper’s work for the Poarch Band is a “reason to be concerned” about his nomination.

After Gray’s arrest, Ludwick wrote an e-mail to Harper in February 2013 to ask for his assistance on the matter. “I reached out to him as a fellow Indian lawyer to see if he could bridge communications between our clients to secure Wayland’s release,” he says. “Keith never responded.

“This was a situation where we had a Native American exercising his First Amendment right to access a sacred place and was incarcerated because of the actions of his client,” Ludwick adds. “It was disappointing that he did not do more to help.”

Harper’s silence on various indigenous human rights issues has led to consternation about his nomination from many Native Americans and from Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Ludwick, a citizen of the Kickapoo Tribe, hopes that more senators, on both sides of the aisle, will investigate the concerns. “The question is whether as a partner at the Kilpatrick law firm Keith Harper advised or profited from the desecration of the burials at Hickory Ground,” he says.

Robin LeBeau, a council member with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, says there are scores of Native Americans fighting for human rights in Indian country who would be less controversial and better U.N. ambassadors than Harper. “I hope that Congress understands that this lawyer is not the best advocate for Indian country or human rights,” she says. “But there are not many politicians in Congress who stand with and for their people nowadays. Money talks.”

Mary Lee Johns, one of the four Native Americans who appealed the Cobell settlement and who was later a target of a harassment-inducing letter sent by the Cobell legal team in 2010, suggests that Natives who want to voice their opinions on this nomination should contact their senators, as the nomination will likely be considered before the full Senate very soon.

RELATED: A Public Letter From the Cobell Lawyers Prompts Ethics and Harassment Concerns

Johns already sent a letter last year to the Foreign Relations committee explaining her concerns about Harper, but his nomination still passed narrowly along party lines in early February, with all Democrats on the committee voting in favor of his confirmation. She has since sent a new letter to more senators, including Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Patty Murray of Washington, and Mark Begich of Alaska who she hopes will not view this as a partisan matter.

“The fact that he is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Tribe does not necessarily give him unusual powers of insight, empathy and commitment to the problems of oppressed people,” Johns wrote, addressing senators including Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) who have pointed to Harper’s tribal citizenship as a top reason for supporting him.

It remains to be seen if the Senate will heed such arguments, but Gray says that if senators really listen and look at the scope of Harper’s character and commitments, they will come to the right conclusion.

“Right now it’s really important that Native Americans step up and contact their senators,” Gray says. “We need someone who is going to help us protect sacred places at the United Nations.”




Keith Harper, Cobell Lawyer, Bundled at Least $500,000 for Obama’s Re-Election

Keith Harper. Courtesy Flickr/Center for American Progress Action Fund/Ralph Alswang
Keith Harper. Courtesy Flickr/Center for American Progress Action Fund/Ralph Alswang

Rob Capriccioso, Indian Country Today Media Network

Keith Harper, one of the principal lawyers who negotiated the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement with the Obama administration, has been listed by the Obama-Biden campaign as one of the top voluntary campaign finance bundlers for the president’s successful re-election in 2012.

Harper is part of a list of what the Center for Responsive Politics calls “758 elites” who directed “at least copy80,100,000 for Obama’s re-election efforts—money that has gone into the coffers of his campaign as well as the Democratic National Committee,” according to

Harper is listed as a bundler of “$500,000 or more.” The donations he collected are largely believed to have come from wealthy tribal donors, as he oversaw multiple Indian donor events during the 2012 election season, while also working for Indian interests in the Cobell settlement with the federal government, which was first announced in December 2009 and became final after appeals from four Indians drew to a close late last year.

Harper’s bundling effort matched the contributions of such notables as actor Will Smith, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, actress Eva Longoria, filmmaker Tyler Perry, singer Gwen Stefani, and producer Harvey Weinstein.

The Center for Responsive Politics also indicates that Harper personally contributed $2,500.

Obama’s re-election campaign voluntarily released its latest batch of bundler data in early March. The campaign for failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has not disclosed its complete list of bundlers, and has not said it will.

Harper is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. Beyond the Cobell case, the firm has also represented several tribes in separate multi-million dollar trust settlements with the Obama administration.

The Cherokee lawyer has been a principal in the ongoing Cobell litigation since he worked for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) in the 1990s. Harper left NARF in 2006 to work for Kilpatrick Stockton.

As the Cobell settlement payment process to individual Indians continues to take place over this year, lawyers with NARF are currently battling Kilpatrick Stockton and other lawyers involved in the case for a share of the approximately copy00 million designated for lawyers involved with the litigation. A hearing on the lawyers’ fees is scheduled to take place March 18 in Judge Thomas Hogan’s U.S. district courtroom in Washington, D.C.

March 1 was the deadline for Indian class members to have submitted their applications to receive the second payments of the Cobell settlement, the trust administration class payments. Most Indian beneficiaries in the case will receive less than $2,000.