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Lakota Indian activists secede from the US

23 December, 2007

Numerous Native American activists, including former American Indian Movement leader, Russell Means, presented a kind of declaration of independence for the Lakota Sioux on 19 December, 2007, to the United States State Department. Here’s the account of developments from Lakota Freedom, the website which seems to be an official newsource from the delegation:

Lakota Sioux Indian representatives declared sovereign nation status today in Washington D.C. following Monday’s withdrawal from all previously signed treaties with the United States Government. The withdrawal, hand delivered to Daniel Turner, Deputy Director of Public Liaison at the State Department, immediately and irrevocably ends all agreements between the Lakota Sioux Nation of Indians and the United States Government outlined in the 1851 and 1868 Treaties at Fort Laramie Wyoming.

“This is an historic day for our Lakota people,” declared Russell Means, Itacan of Lakota. “United States colonial rule is at its end!”

“Today is a historic day and our forefathers speak through us. Our Forefathers made the treaties in good faith with the sacred Canupa and with the knowledge of the Great Spirit,” shared Garry Rowland from Wounded Knee. “They never honored the treaties, that’s the reason we are here today.”

The four member Lakota delegation traveled to Washington D.C. culminating years of internal discussion among treaty representatives of the various Lakota communities. Delegation members included well known activist and actor Russell Means, Women of All Red Nations (WARN) founder Phyllis Young, Oglala Lakota Strong Heart Society leader Duane Martin Sr., and Garry Rowland, Leader Chief Big Foot Riders. Means, Rowland, Martin Sr. were all members of the 1973 Wounded Knee takeover.


Reports have cropped up in some of the mainstream news outlets (such as USA Today), but most of the accounts simply derive from a reading of the official statement made by the group. As Fox News reports (I can’t even imagine what their editors are saying behind the scenes):

“We are no longer citizens of the United States of America and all those who live in the five-state area that encompasses our country are free to join us,” long-time Indian rights activist Russell Means said.

A delegation of Lakota leaders has delivered a message to the State Department, and said they were unilaterally withdrawing from treaties they signed with the federal government of the U.S., some of them more than 150 years old.

The group also visited the Bolivian, Chilean, South African and Venezuelan embassies, and would continue on their diplomatic mission and take it overseas in the coming weeks and months.

Aside from the fascinating sight of watching the heads of conservatives explode, the development is provocative, to say the least (and, from what I can tell by looking on line, nearly unreported). I first read about the development on Alternet (where there’s a great discussion of the Fox News story).

As all the reports discuss, Lakota country would include parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. According to the report, citizenship in the new country would be open to all residents, not merely those recognized as Native Americans, as long as potential citizens renounced their US citizenship. According to the reports, citizens of the new Lakota country would be able to live ‘tax free’ (again, I wouldn’t stand too close to any conservative friends when they learn about this: ‘tax free… Native American independence… head exploding…’). Bill Harlan, from the Rapid City Journal, quotes activist Russell Means as claiming, ‘It will be the epitome of individual liberty, with community control.’

The declaration of independence is accompanied by a statement of their intentions that has a number of interesting wrinkles from the point of view of combining cultural survival with environmentalism. From the statement:

Education, energy and justice now take top priority in emerging Lakota. “Cultural immersion education is crucial as a next step to protect our language, culture and sovereignty,” said Means. “Energy independence using solar, wind, geothermal, and sugar beets enables Lakota to protect our freedom and provide electricity and heating to our people.”

This is certainly not the first time that ‘third wave’ human rights (indigenous rights) have been combined with environmental demands to strong rhetorical effect in a way that some academics have criticized. It also shows the degree to which this movement has probably been in the planning stages for a while.

Local media in the area are reporting that the group is not representative of the Lakota Nation, nor is it an official branch of Lakota government. Harlan in the Rapid City Journal, for example, points out that “Means’ group is based in Porcupine on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is not an agency or branch of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Means ran unsuccessfully for president of the tribe in 2006.”

Doreen Yellow Bird, writing in the Grand Forks Herald, suggests that the whole ‘seccession’ is anachronistic, a ship that ‘has already sailed’:

Of the people who called or e-mailed me, most are chuckling at the absurdity of it. Means and his group, of course, would be speaking for themselves and not tribes, whose tribal councils speak for them. But Means and his group have some points – perhaps 200 years too late, but they do have some points….

We have, however, gone beyond those years. We have taken on the federal government as our government, too. That means the government also provides us funding and supplies for programs such as Head Start, housing, social services and so on – just like it does for the rest of the country.

Many of our family members willingly serve in the military. Indians serve in the armed forces in extraordinarily high numbers. In general, American Indians are proud of their record as defenders of this country – our country.

Finally, there the treaties. For the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1886 provided land. True, the U.S. government took some of that land rather surreptitiously, but we were able to hold the line because of that legal document – a treaty.

Those documents are important, shouldn’t be abrogated and should be taken seriously.

Means and his group are seemingly out of step, but they remind us of our tragic history.

The fact that the movement is likely quite limited is, in some sense, not surprising; the demand of Native American activists for independence in the US is not high by comparison to indigenous activism in other places with which I’m more familiar, but there are some very savvy, very angry Indian activists in the US. The boon of Indian casinos has not shut up all of the demands for real justice, autonomy, and social development. As Wonkette describes, the fact that the US Department of the Interior hasn’t been paying royalties on petroleum extracted from Indian lands for a few decades might have something to do, too, with their irritation at treaty violations (although I’m not as cynical, there’s nothing like being robbed through a pipeline to really continually remind you of just how your rights are being undermined.).

One of the dimensions of this that interests me most is the way that property law is being used as a primary tool of activism. As I found in research on the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra or MST) in Brazil, since property law has become such an expansive area for pressing legal claims of all sorts (for example, trademark infringement being easier to pursue redress for than libel or slander), property has also become an important tool for human rights issues. Especially around indigenous groups and other traditional owners (sharecroppers and small farmers, maroons), land title is a major wedge for extracting not just regularization of holding, but also other concessions. In the case of the Lakota land, the declaration is explicitly being described as a shadow cast over any land transfers in the affected area. As the Free Lakota media announcement says:

Property ownership in the five state area of Lakota now takes center stage. Parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana have been illegally homesteaded for years despite knowledge of Lakota as predecessor sovereign [historic owner]. Lakota representatives say if the United States does not enter into immediate diplomatic negotiations, liens will be filed on real estate transactions in the five state region, clouding title over literally thousands of square miles of land and property.

Whether or not the declaration does immediately affect land transactions remains to be seen (I’ll try to find out more and post on it). Real estate systems in a lot of places have been very successful at ‘suspending doubt’ and carrying on with transactions even if the legitimacy of title is questionable, so I suspect this will not slow down sales. (Of course I’ll also be watching to see if the Lakota get blamed for any housing slump in the region, even though the subprime mortgage crisis is far more likely to be to blame.) Bill Harlan points out that land has long been a central issue for the Lakota:

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1980 awarded the tribes $122 million as compensation, but the court did not award land. The Lakota have refused the settlement. (As interest accrues, the unclaimed award is approaching $1 billion.)

In the late 1980s, then-Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey introduced legislation to return federal land to the tribes, and California millionaire Phil Stevens also tried to win support for a proposal to return the Black Hills to the Lakota.

Any comparison to Australia is strained for a number of reasons, including the lack of treaties with Aboriginal Australians and the relatively recent recognition by Australian courts of legitimate land claims, whereas these had a much longer traditional of judicial recognition in the United States. But the idea of the Lakota claiming independence in the middle of the American heartland will no doubt fuel fears among some Australians that the ‘red heart’ of this country might up and declare its independence if granted any rights.

Of course, if you take the Lakota activists at their word, then the lesson should be that secessionist movements are inspired, not by the granting of rights, but by the search for some remedy when a situation is intollerable. As Phyllis Young, representative from Standing Rock, explained: ‘The actions of Lakota are not intended to embarrass the United States but to simply save the lives of our people.’ As the announcement goes on to explain, Lakota men have the lowest life expectancy of any group of men with low HIV+ rates (44 years) and infant death rates are five times that of the majority US population. Unemployment is 85%, and poverty over 95%.

I’ll keep on eye on this one and try to post more as more information becomes available.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Joshua D. Woosypitti permalink
    24 December, 2007 6:17 am

    I think that the whole decision on declaring freedom and stripping away very important documents are more of a joke in Indian Country than a part of actual news. Everyone I talk to over the subject agree and speak about the importance of the treaties how they impact our “sovereign nations” and how these particular documents are a vital source to the governments we call nations, tribes and so forth. I believe within myself that when people who take matters in their whole hands more or less, blindly then the people that they wish to represent are truly misrepresented. Creating obstacles, hardships, and if he wishes to continues.. Will send his tribe to some serious poverish situations. Best wishes to Means and his delegates as well to all the tribes that are having to do some major PR work. If someone did that in my tribe then there would be some serious consequences. Thanks..

  2. Julia permalink
    13 March, 2009 11:41 am

    If the $$ from the government is equaling about 1 billion at this time, why don’t the Indians take it and purchase the ground outright? They have the right to own property, can’t they just buy the reservation from the Govt? I don’t understand the issue, I guess, but if the money is there…could it be done?

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