Image: coyotescorner.com, ISN
American Indians have suffered under foreign invaders for 500 years. Now the descendents of Sitting Bull are fighting back, withdrawing from treaties with Washington..
By John C K Daly for ISN Security Watch (25/01/08)
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series on separatist movements in the United States.
The Native American Lakota Sioux tribe has declared independence from the US unilaterally, citing a string of broken treaties dating back to the 19th century.
In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration declared a dual global campaign, a war against terror and a US-led effort to promote democracy around the world. The latter campaign has resonated within the US, with secessionist movements agitating for the values that Washington proclaims abroad: from American Indians through secessionist movements in the two most recent states added to the Union, Alaska and Hawaii, all the way to one of the original 13 colonies, Vermont.
While the efforts have been largely ignored or ridiculed by the mainstream press, because of the internet and the evolving global communications network, their causes have attracted immense interest abroad.
On 17 December, the Sioux "Lakota Freedom Delegation" delivered a seven-page document of "unilateral withdrawal" from the US to the State Department in Washington. The withdrawal notice was hand-delivered to Daniel Turner, deputy director of Public Liaison at the State Department.
The document, entitled "Lakotah Unilateral Withdrawal from All Agreements and Treaties with the United States of America," states: "Lakotah, formally and unilaterally withdraws from all agreements and treaties imposed by the United States government on the Lakota People."
The eight-member group included Lakota Sioux activist Russell Means, Women of All Red Nations (WARN) founder Phyllis Young, Oglala Lakota Strong Heart Society leader Duane Martin Sr and Wounded Knee incident veteran Gary Rowland.
Means, a long-time Sioux Indian activist, politician and actor, led the group, which also visited the embassies of Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile and South Africa to share the declaration.
According to Means, both Ireland and East Timor have expressed that they are "very interested" in the declaration; Iceland and Finland have also shown interest. Means said that the document would also be delivered to the UN and to state and county governments covered by treaties.
Bolivian Ambassador Gustavo Guzman, who attended the press conference at Washington's Plymouth Congregational Church out of solidarity, took the Lakotas' declaration of independence very seriously.
"We are here because the demands of indigenous people of America are our demands. We have sent all the documents they presented to the embassy to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bolivia and they'll analyze everything," he commented to those present.
Means' group, based in Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, is not an agency or branch of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Means joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968 and became its first national director two years later. He has remained at the forefront of Indian activism, leading AIM's 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, DC and the group's occupation of Wounded Knee a year later.
The Republic of Lakota, based on the 1851 treaty, includes parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.
Age of communication, age of recognition
While the US media largely either ridiculed or ignored the declaration, it attracted intense interest abroad. In fact, The Republic of Lakota's website crashed after receiving more than 500,000 hits in the week following the declaration.
The Lakota initiative builds on more than 30 years of activism, beginning in 1974 with the first International Indian Council conference held at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, which lies on the border of North and South Dakota. Five thousand people from 98 indigenous nations attended and issued "A Declaration of Continuing Independence," which sought to address grievances and treaty violations dating back to the beginning of the US.
At the time of the drafting of the US Constitution in 1787 there were over 60 distinct tribes of Indians in North America. During the first century of its existence the US government and Indian tribes concluded more than 800 treaties between 1778 and 1871, but the Senate only ratified 372.
The first agreement concluded by the US with an Indian tribe was the Treaty with the Delawares of 17 September 1778, which even envisioned that the Delaware and other tribes would ally with the US, form a state and send a delegate to Congress. Treaties were concluded with the Sioux nation in 1851 and 1868. In 1871, the Congress put a stop to the practice of concluding treaties with the Indians altogether without, however, invalidating the treaties concluded before that time.
The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation, setting aside nearly 93,000 square miles for the Sioux in present day South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. The Lakota Declaration is based on Washington's violations of these two treaties under Article 6 of the US Constitution.
Two years after the Fort Laramie Treaty was concluded the Black Hills Gold Rush began in the Lakota's Dakota Territory, peaking in 1876. George Armstrong Custer led the first 1,000 prospectors into land owned by the Sioux, who fiercely resisted the onslaught.
In 1876, Washington violated the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty by opening up 12,000 square miles in the Black Hills to white homesteaders and commercial interests in violation of Article 12 of the 1868 agreement.
The white incursion culminated in the two-day Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. Sioux Indians led by renowned warriors Tasunka Witko (Crazy Horse) and Tatanka Iyotanke (Sitting Bull) wiped out Custer and 262 US 7th Cavalry Regiment soldiers in one of the US Army's greatest defeats of the Indian wars. Sioux Chief Tasunka Duta (Red Horse) later told Colonel W H Wood that the Indians suffered 136 dead and 160 wounded during the battle.
"They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept but one: They promised to take our land [...] and they took it," Oglala Sioux Chief Makhpiya Luta (Red Cloud) was quoted as saying in 1900.
Cause for grievance
The Sioux have never reconciled to the loss of territory promised to them by federal treaty, and on 30 June 1980, won a legal victory in the United States vs Sioux Nation of Indians case when the US Supreme Court upheld an award of US$17.5 million for the market value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years' worth of interest at 5 percent, for an additional US$105 million. However, the Sioux nation declined the compensation, as it would have legally terminated their demands for the land's return. In early 2008, the settlement with attendant interest rose to over US$1 billion.
By any reasonable measure the American Indian population has legitimate grievances against Washington. According to the US Census Bureau's The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2000, Census 2000 Brief, of the 4,119,301 US citizens defined as "American Indian and Alaska Native tribe," 153,360 are Sioux.
While today 50 percent of all Sioux (defined as 25 percent Sioux lineage) reside outside the reservation system, there still exists an extensive network of reservations scattered across America's northern Great Plains states of Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The census found that 25.7 percent of all Indian households lived in poverty, defined as income of US$13,738 for a family of three, the highest percentage of all groups surveyed, with 34.5 percent of all Indian children under five living in poverty along with 26.3 percent of all Indians aged 75 or older. According to the census, 27.2 percent of all Indian women live in poverty.
The situation at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation is typical. Pine Ridge is the eighth largest reservation in the US, and also the poorest, with an unemployment rate of around 35 percent and 61 percent of its residents living below the federal poverty line. Teenage suicide is four times the national average, while life expectancy is one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, approximately 47 years for men and in the low 50s for women. Pine Ridge's infant mortality rate is five times the US national average.
Higher education is largely beyond the grasp of most American Indians. A 2002 National Science Foundation survey found that of the 39,665 doctorates awarded that year, American Indians received only 0.5 percent of the Ph.Ds, the lowest percentage among the white, African American, Asian/Pacific and Hispanic categories surveyed. Of associate collegiate degrees, Indians earned 1.1 percent, bachelor's 0.7 percent and master's 0.5 percent.
Whatever form the Republic of Lakota might take, it could hardly have a more dismal track record than governmental oversight of Indian affairs up to now.
Means means business
The Sioux activists are not limiting their legal claims to US precedents, however, also citing Articles 49 and 60 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the non-binding September 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Lakota representatives say if Washington does not enter into immediate diplomatic negotiations, liens will be filed on real estate transactions in the five-state region, disputing title over literally thousands of square miles of land and property.
Means said the republic tried to file liens against property that the South Dakota state government had seized for nonpayment of taxes on 1 January, declaring liens on real estate held by "foreign" governments but not on private real estate. The county in which the attempt was made however refused to accept the liens because it claimed not to know what a "sovereign nation" was.
The State Department has handed the issue over to the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). BIA spokesman Gary Garrison dismissed the withdrawal announcement, saying that it "doesn't mean anything. These are not legitimate tribal governments elected by the people [...] when they begin the process of violating other people's rights, breaking the law, they're going to end up like all the other groups that have declared themselves independent - usually getting arrested and being put in jail," according to a 4 January report.
Internal Sioux controversy
The announcement has stirred up controversy in the Sioux nation as well.
On 3 January, Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux told Indiancountrytoday.com that the group led by Means represented "individuals acting on their own."
"They did not come to the Rosebud Sioux tribal council or our government in any way to get our support and we do not support what they've done [...] Russell made some good points. All of the treaties have not been lived up to by the federal government, but the treaties are the basis for our relationship with the federal government […] We're trying to recover the lands that were wrongfully taken from us, so we are going by the treaties. We need to uphold them. We do not support what Means and his group are doing and they don't have any support from any tribal government I know of. They don't speak for us."
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty echoed those sentiments: "What has been said by these individuals has been talked about from dinner table to dinner table since I was a young kid; but the thing is, these individuals are not representative of the nation I represent. I may agree, I may disagree, but they have not gone out and received the blessing of the people they say they are speaking for," the South Dakota paper Rapid City Journal reported on 7 January.
Means responded to these sentiments, saying: "I maintained from the get-go I do not represent, nor do the free-thinking, free-seeking Lakota want to have anything to do with, the 'hang around the fort' Indians, those collaborators with the government who perpetuate our poverty, misery and our sickness - in other words, our genocide. They are part and parcel of that genocide."
He does have his supporters; according to news reports, a representative for the Pine Ridge Reservation's council will "consider the proposal."
Means believes that his movement's struggle for sovereignty has spread far beyond US borders, and international interest will support his group's cause; "If the US violates the law, the whole world will know it," he told the Rapid City Journal on 7 January.
During a 24 January telephone interview, Means told ISN Security Watch that Washington had so far failed to respond to the declaration, but "they longer they take, the better for us.
"It's better for us because it allows us to strengthen our provisional government, which includes investors in our energy company."
When queried about the response from abroad and other Indian tribes, Means said: "We have no concerns about the response from other governments as yet because we are too busy being free. We have been contacted by other reservations because other Indian tribes want to do the same thing, including the northern Cheyenne in Montana and the Objibay in Wisconsin."
"We are making sure that we follow all the laws of the US Constitution and international law, thereby avoiding any confrontation," Means emphasized.
In an interview with ISN Security Watch, Jerry Collette, the Republic of Lakota's provisional government interim attorney general, echoed Mean's observations, noting Washington's silence by saying: "They have not left yet. In spite of being given a very polite notice, they have continued to trespass on Lakota land."
According to Collette, other Indian nations have shown "overwhelming support."
As for foreign interest in the Sioux cause, Collette noted that the greatest empathy was displayed by another long-suffering nation. "Our most supportive response has come from the longest colonized people in Europe - the Irish."
America's Indian population has waited 221 years for Washington to live up to its treaty obligations. While it would be nice to see them finally get justice, the current administration's cavalier attitude towards its international treaty responsibilities would seem to indicate that America's long-suffering indigenous population is in for a long wait.
Dr John C K Daly is a Washington DC-based consultant and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.