It is often said that the United States of America is a nation of laws. There is a group of Lakota who would disagree with that.
The Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council is the traditional governing body of the Lakota Nation. The Council is responsible for the preservation of their lands for future generations and, according to the Council, the “ancient Lakota ways of governance, culture, and spirituality.”
Over a century ago, the United States signed the Fort Laramie Treaties, which guarantee the Lakota “ownership” (a foreign concept to the Lakota, who see stewardship over land to be more appropriate than ownership) of the Black Hills as well as surrounding lands through Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota.
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Treaties are protected by article 6, paragraph 2 of the US Constitution, which states, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
But the treaties were soon broken, as was every single ratified treaty that the United States ever made with a Native nation, in order to make way for more settlers, gold mines and railroads in the quest for Manifest Destiny.
On March 28, President Obama, in his address to the nation concerning events in Libya, declared, “Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.”
Here at home, it's been a different story. The violations of the treaties threaten the very way of life of the Lakota as uranium mining runoff poisons their land and water with radioactive waste and they continue their fight to live according to their “traditional value system in rejection of a colonized world view,” says Sicangu Lakota linguist and lifelong activist Rosalie Little Thunder.
Bring Back the Way
In the Lakota language, Owe Aku means “bring back the way.” Founded in 1997 by Alex and Debra White Plume, Owe Aku is a grassroots, nongovernmental social change organization which, they state, is dedicated to, “the preservation and revitalization of the Lakota way of life, 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty rights, and human rights.”
Under the direct guidance of the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council, Owe Aku's International Justice Project's (IJP) mission states that it is meant, “to be a resource to traditional Indigenous leaders and communities who are preserving ancient Indigenous wisdom and a world view that honors and respects the earth and all her descendants. That is, we seek to bring back the way.”
Just like their ancestors, the Lakota are fighting to protect the protocols surrounding the governance of their people, which, the Treaty Council says, “have never been surrendered or sacrificed since our peoples first had contact despite the ongoing attempts to do so by the colonizers and invaders from the Untied States of America.” Adding, “Our only foreign conflict in modern history has been the government, military, people and corporations of the USA”
The Way Forward
After exhausting all efforts in dealing directly with the US government, the Treaty Council, its members mostly direct descendants of the signatories of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, has tasked the IJP with bringing their case to the United Nations (UN) International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court.
Alex White Plume, who, in addition to being the leader of Owe Aku and IJP, is also the former president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, told Truthout: “We see this as our last stand – our last stand to keep our ways, to keep our culture…. If we stand together in solidarity against the opposition, we will see our way of life survive. We have been through the Supreme Court and we have exhausted the remedies under World Court rules.”
In late January, the treaty council president, Chief Oliver Red Cloud, called a council meeting among all bands of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, as well as Cheyenne, Arapaho, Haudenosaunee (the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy), First Nations representatives from the Treaty 6 and Treaty 4 regions in Canada, and the International Indian Treaty Council.
The meeting charted a path forward and passed several resolutions, including one, “condemning the United States for its unreasonable and inequitable limitations and qualifications placed on the [United Nations] Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The resolution also stated that, “the Americans make it very clear in the first paragraph that the Declaration is in no way a legal document, nor are they bound by it.” The Lakota statement on US “support” of the Declaration further denounced it as, “nothing more than false rhetoric designed to deceive the world on the US violations, historic and contemporary, against the human rights of Native Peoples.”
Resolutions were also passed to address uranium mining, the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and language preservation, and to demand the immediate release of Leonard Peltier, whose imprisonment the council declared illegal.
In its meeting summary, the Council said, “Sovereignty is an inherent right of the land and territories of the Lakota Oyate [Nation] and we are responsible to future generations for the Nation of our ancestors. In acknowledging this truth, internationally recognized treaties were signed by our grandfathers in 1851 and 1868 with the invented nation of “Americans” whose ancestry heralds from other places.”
International Court of Justice
As the primary judicial organ of the UN, the stated role of the World Court is, “to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.”
The IJP is now organizing a campaign in the hope of establishing the Lakota Nation treaty case as an advisory opinion and become, says IJP, “a specific example to apply the general principle of the legitimacy of Indigenous treaties and their contribution to world peace.”
As White Plume explains, the stakes could not be higher. “When the government took the Black Hills illegally in 1871, that broke the spirit of our people because that is our sacred place. That's where we go to do our rituals to stay in harmony,” he told Truthout. “We don't want money. We want our land back – our sacred areas – because the Lakota need to survive, and we have our spirituality and our ceremonies, which were designed for the Black Hills. Right now, we perform our ceremonies on the outskirts of the Hills because the government policy is that we have to buy a permit.”
Kent Lebsock, coordinator of IJP, is well aware of the challenge. “A lot of people tell me that we are wasting our time because the United States is too big and too powerful to challenge, and this is all ancient history and nothing will ever change for Indian people.”
But he remains hopeful. “What has been happening in Egypt and throughout the Mideast is so important,” he said. “The tyrant installed and supported by the US for over 30 years in order to defend American interests was driven from the country in an overt exercise of self-determination by a people without an army or economic power. Like us in the 21st century, they simply relied on the Internet.”
“Our work is, in effect, to do the same thing,” said Lebsock. “Educate people about our right to self-determination in a place where it is completely and intentionally hidden from view.”
If IJP and its peers were to do nothing, he adds, “We contribute to the process of colonization.”
Instead, said Lebsock, “the Lakota Nation can lead the world in giving the United Nations the opportunity to reverse the inconsistencies of international law and justly address indigenous peoples and our treaties.