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My Strange, Strange Holidays Arguing with Cher, yes, THAT Cher

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The 'Land of Oz' on the 10th Anniversary of UNDRIP

by Jacqueline Keeler

In 2015, I had the honor of interviewing Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation for Earth Island Journal about his work at the United Nations and role in the creation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and something he told me remained on my mind when I had the opportunity to go the UN for the first time.

“In the UN, you have a number of nations and everyone has their own agenda. And part of that agenda is land and indigenous people are a problem because we have prior rights to the land. We thought we were going to a place where justice was prevailing. I call it the ‘Land of Oz’. We went to see the wizard and we were very much like Dorothy thinking that there was truth and equity and justice and we ran into the very same people as we had come from.”

Even on this, the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark document representing the work of leaders like Oren Lyons since the 1970’s to articulate the international status of Indigenous peoples and to protect our communities and cultures, I went to the UN wondering if this was indeed the land Oz and me, Dorothy, or was this really a place where real progress was possible to protect our people?

My first day at the meetings I spoke via phone to Doug George, Mohawk Nation, who had attended the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) the week before I was there and he told me how shocked he was that testimony given by Indigenous peoples that their attempts to assert their rights under UNDRIP, had led to retaliation and violence against their communities. It was, apparently, not an entirely foreseen outcome by those like Mr. George, who had participated in creating the declaration.

Mr. Leonard Gorman
Exec. Dir. of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission
However, the testimony that struck me was that of a representative of my own nation, the Navajo Nation, Mr. Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission who noted:

“As a representative from the Navajo Nation, I am unable to participate in this PFII session under the credentials of the Navajo Nation. I'm here with an identification card says NGO and my name is on it. I'm hopeful that sometime in the near future I would also hold here a card that says Navajo Nation under its own credentials.“

Being discussed was the zero draft resolution of the General Assembly “On Enabling the Participation of Indigenous Peoples’ Representatives and Institutions in Meetings of Relevant United Nations Bodies on Issues Affecting Them.” This resolution once finalized and passed would finally allow a representative from an Indigenous Nation like Mr. Gorman to finally attend meetings at the UN credentialed by the Navajo Nation and not by a Non-Governmental Organization.

I was stunned that the representatives of my nation would not be allowed to attend as representatives of the Navajo Nation. It made me wonder how far we had come? I remembered how my husband’s grandfather was denied entry to the first UN meeting in San Francisco in 1945. He was the chief of the Mohawk Bear Clan of the Iroquois Nation. He and other Iroquois chiefs had traveled from Six Nations in Ontario, Canada on their own dime to attend this important international meeting. After they were denied entry and told there was no “Iroquois Nation” on the list they met out in front of the Fairmont Hotel and discussed what to do. They decided to try once again since they had come so far and the second time they were admitted. However, the man had thought they were from the Iraqi Nation and so the elected representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy, once one of the most powerful on the Eastern seaboard, entered the UN by mistake.

Later, I heard Frank Ettawageshik, a former tribal chairman of Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians attending as representative of the National Congress of American Indians and the United Tribes Michigan speak to the same issue:

Frank Ettawageshik, former tribal chairman 
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians
“For 14 years I served as the elected head of state for my nation and that's the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. During this time I did not attend United Nations meetings because as my colleague Mr. Gorman from the Navajo Nation spoke, I did not want to be here as the elected head of state with an NGO certification and I felt that that was not proper protocol and I couldn't attend. It was only after I left office as an elected official that I engaged strongly in this process because I believe that we should work to try to change that.

My nation has engaged internationally for thousands of years. We have treaties with other Indigenous nations—both in the United States, all across North America and around the world—we have treaties with European governments and with the United States. These treaties remain in force today. It would, therefore, be completely unacceptable for our nation to participate in a process that would not provide the right for participation as an individual Indigenous nation (emphasis mine).”

I had no idea that our nations had so little representation at the UN. And make no mistake about it, our “tribes” are nations. The U.S. Senate does not ratify treaties with anyone but sovereign nations and under international law, you cannot treaty away your sovereignty. We still exist, albeit militarily oppressed by the most powerful country in the world. We are nations and the UN should recognize that as does the United States by the act of treaty-ing with us.

I was particularly appalled when Mr. Ettawageshik mentioned that even Chairman Archambault of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in the midst of the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff on the Great Sioux Nation’s unceded treaty land almost did not get to speak when he came to the UN regarding this international dispute. He had to wait in line with NGO representatives and would not have gotten to speak at all during this conflict which garnered international outrage if 6 speakers ahead of him had not given up their spots for him. I was stunned.

By ignoring and refusing to acknowledge our Native Nations, even those with treaties with the United States, the UN participates in the denigration of our nations. Even the zero draft does not guarantee access to the General Assembly or allow more than a potential observer status that does not recognize our nations in any meaningful way as nations.

Ta'Kaiya Blaney (Tla A'min Nation) on right
with Rachel Marco-Havens
“Agrees that the selection of Indigenous Peoples’ representative institutions to attend and participate in the United Nations in accordance with the principles and criteria set herein does not imply recognition of those institutions under international and domestic law or policy for any purpose other than participation in meetings relevant United Nations bodies on issues affecting them.”

I wonder if the UN can be a body that recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ in any meaningful way when it cannot recognize our Native Nations which clearly have been accorded nationhood recognition through international legal documents like our treaties with the United States.

What gave me hope, however, was hearing the voices of the youth. From fellow Wittenberg Center attendee Ta'Kaiya Blaney (Tla A'min Nation) to Lianna Rice, Inuit from Nunatsiavut, Canada.

Lianna Rice, Inuit from Nunatsiavut, Canada
Rice poignantly reminded the UN PFII chairs about the real price our youth pay for having their identity marginalized and displaced.

She told me in an interview after her testimony, “within my land claims area Nunatsiavut the most at-risk population are young male Inuit between the ages of 16 and 24. They actually experience suicide at a rate 40 times the national average of Canada… I, myself, have attempted suicide a couple of years ago and nine months ago my brother passed by suicide.”

And what is killing our youth? Why do Indigenous youth in the United States and Canada have such greater rates of suicide than other youth in these countries? I believe it is tied to the erasure of their peoples, their nations. The UN could help these youth by recognizing their nations and not by scuttling the issue as they have done since its founding 72 years ago. We can and should do better for the next seven generations to come.
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America is Still a Colony and the Reemergence of Native Nations

On April 30th, I will be delivering my first ever keynote at the 2017 White Privilege conference. Below is the text and some of the slides I will be sharing. Enjoy!

- Jacqueline Keeler

My Keynote at the 2017 White Privilege Conference

Kansas City, Missouri

How Standing Rock Made the Military Occupation of Native Nations Visible

Oceti Sakowin Camp, October 2016  photo credit: Jacqueline Keeler 

Good morning!

Shik’éí dóó shidine’é
Shí éí Jacqueline Keeler yinishyé—My name is Jacqueline Keeler.

My preferred pronouns are she, her, hers.

In the Navajo way, we introduce ourselves through our clans. I am a member of the Navajo Nation (also known as the Diné people) through my mother and I am Yankton Sioux (which are called in the Dakota/Lakota language Ihanktonwan Dakota).

Kin Ya’áanii nishłį́
Ihanktonwan Dakota bashishchiin
Hashk'ąą hadzohi dashicheii
Ihanktonwan Dakota dashinalí
Ákót’éego diné asdzáán nishłį́

I am a citizen of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native Nation within the United States which boasts a landmass the size of Ireland and 350,000 citizens—close to the population of Iceland. The Navajo Nation is also larger than 20 members states of the United Nations.

I would like to thank Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. for inviting me here to speak to you all today. I’d also like to thank Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, a Kiowa professor of Native American Studies at Portland State University and much-beloved community leader in the Portland, Oregon Native community where I live for suggesting I attend this conference. This is my first (and hopefully not my last!) time at WPC.

Out of curiosity, before I begin my main topic, I’d like a show of hands as to know how many of you have close Native American friends?

Great! You can’t believe how many people tell me I’m the first Native American person they’ve ever met. We are 1 percent of the population. One in a hundred, literally of people you could meet. That always astounds me that so few Americans believe they have never even met a Native person.

How many of you have been to a Native American community? A reservation?

How many of you know whose lands we meet on today?

Yes, we are on Osage lands today. The Osage’s language is classified by linguists as Siouan which is interesting considering we are discussing the re-emergence of the Great Sioux Nation.

In addition to recognizing the Osage Nation oyate (nation), I’d also like to recognize the Missouri River. I crossed it yesterday driving from the airport to this hotel. The Missouri—or Mni Sosa, as we call it in the Dakota/Lakota language—begins far north of here in Montana. It is the longest river in America.

And the events I will discuss took place along the shores of this river as did the lives of many of my Dakota and Lakota ancestors. I’d like to take a moment of silence to honor their lives, the movement to protect the water and the gifts the river gave our people.

[Moment of Silence]

You know, when I was a kid my traditional Navajo grandparents used to come and visit us. We lived in suburbia, I guess we were your typical Native American family in suburbia. And we crossed rivers every day to get to school, to work, to shop. And yet we knew little about those rivers. We were not living in our own homelands, but in those of other Indigenous nations, other oyate. But when my grandfather, my shi cheii (as we say grandfather in the Navajo or Diné language) came to visit, he insisted we pray and address these rivers before crossing them as is our Navajo tradition.

My grandfather and my grandmother (my shimá sání) did not speak English, they spoke only Navajo. They spent their lives running a ranch near the south rim of the Grand Canyon where they raised horses, cattle, sheep and goats. They both dressed traditionally in turquoise and silver and my grandmother wore her hair in a traditional bun (called a tsiiyeel) and wove Navajo rugs to sell at the trading post in Cameron from the wool of the sheep they raised.

I don’t know how many of you have grandparents like that—elders in your family who come from another culture, who you cannot even speak to in the same language but yet, they teach you so much simply by their actions, their demeanor and their self-confidence based in a culture very different from this one we live in here in “America”.

So, he made us stop and stand by the river under the bridge. We were visible to all the cars streaming past us on the busy road  above us as he led us in offering tádídíín (corn pollen) to the river. He prayed in Navajo and formally asked the river’s permission for us to cross it and for it protect our family in our journeys as we went about our daily lives.

It was this demonstration of respect and an expectation that part of living in the world was to build relationships with the natural environment, itself, that my grandfather taught me purely by example. And he brought this into the modern context of suburbia for us without self-consciousness (although, I wonder to this day what folks who saw us from the road thought!).

He took a stand for another way of life, another way of relating—the only way that seemed true to him. And it was an indigenous worldview and me and my siblings stood with him and learned by the side of that road speaking to the river.


Standing Rock

In a time when more and more interaction occurs over social media (and there are many Native American elders who are on Facebook—maybe you are friends or relatives of some of them!) the media is filled with warnings that a life of isolation, a lonely life will be had by looking at a screen will become be the norm. Yet, conversely, this greater connection to others via a digital format, this sharing our deepest (and maybe not so deep) thoughts, ideas, convictions, memes, and videos has lead to some of the largest stands, we have taken together, collectively, as a people.

Recent examples include marches like the Climate March, held just yesterday in Washington, DC and all concurrently all over the country, and the Women’s March—for which an estimated 2.9 million turning out across the country and is believed to be the largest march in US history.

And for me as a Diné and Dakota woman the most profound such gathering took place just on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation this past year.

The fight against the Dakota Access pipeline and for the water and for the sovereignty of the Great Sioux Nation united not only our Dakota and Lakota people but all of you as well. As the camp, called Oceti Sakowin Camp—Oceti Sakowin is our name for ourselves (Sioux is derived from a name our enemies once called us). It refers to the Seven Council Fires that make up our Oyate, our nation. I am Ihanktonwan, one of the seven council fires.

As I mentioned earlier, the camp was located just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The Standing Rock Sioux reservation is one of many islands of land left of the Great Sioux Nation. Here you see the original boundaries agreed upon by treaty [see map below].

If you look at this map (see below), you will see that the Oceti Sakowin camp is clearly located within the unceded treaty territory of the Great Sioux Nation. What is unceded treaty territory? It is territory we never ceded under treaty. As you can see in this map, this land actually encompasses a good chunk of the state of North Dakota and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the Black Hills where Mount Rushmore is.  Yes, Mount Rushmore that international symbol of the United States’ exceptionalism is on unceded land.

So before I discuss, what unceded treaty land is maybe I should discuss what are treaties? [See slide below]

First of all, Tribes are nations. Native Americans are not merely another “race” nor are we simply another ethnic group within the United States. We are citizens of nations that pre-existed the creation of the United States and continue to persist politically to this day. The U.S. has pursued a policy of attempting to destroy, disappear and absorb us but yet we are still here are in 2017. I’m here to tell you we still exist as nations within this country and treaties are merely legal proof of our sovereignty and status as nations.

As you know, treaties are not a special realm of law that exists only between tribes and the United States. Treaties are international legal agreements entered into between sovereign nations—not by a government and its citizens or with random collections of ethnic groups. The Senate does not ratify treaties with anyone but other sovereign nations. By ratifying these treaties with the Great Sioux Nation the United States recognized the sovereignty of the Oceti Sakowin internationally.

Unceded treaty territory is territory that the Great Sioux Nation never actually ceded and is held in violation of international law by the United States. It is, in fact, held illegally through military force. It is a military occupation of our lands and remains so to…this…day. What I am proposing to you all today is that the heavily militarized on the Dakota Access Pipeline (which is their right by treaty and as a sovereign nation with concerns about their people and their territory) made that ongoing (for 149 years) military occupation visible to all Americans and to the world. This was not just a generic response by the state of North Dakota (and by extension, the United States government) against the fight for climate justice. That response looks very different as was seen in the strikingly less violent response to anti-DAPL protests in Iowa led by mostly non-Native U.S. citizens.  Anti-DAPL demonstrations in Iowa did not face then extreme levels of militarized violence that Lakota/Dakota people and their allies did. No, the heavily militarized response at Standing Rock was directly tied to the threat to the sovereignty of the United States posed by a tribe asserting its treaty rights to land wrongfully taken and occupied by the United States.

And this gets me to the title of this keynote. Does the United States have a homeland? Is it truly a nation? Or is it still a colony that exists to exploit the lands of others?



If the United States is still a colony, it is a colony without portfolio—without a homeland. It broke with its homeland, Great Britain, during the Revolutionary War and now occupies the homelands of other nations, our nations—Native Nations.

How can you tell if something is a colony—or if it never stopped being one despite rebadging? Well, I think looking at how a colony operates can be instructive. What does a colony do? It extracts resources and wealth from other nations and sends the profits back to the elite of its home country, its 1%. In a colony without portfolio (a homeland) that 1%, the ruling elite, are corporations.

And this should come as no surprise when you remember that the United States was founded by corporations. The first modern corporations. The Hudson Bay Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Virginia Company, among others. These joint stock companies were formed to meet the financial demands of exploration and of colonization that even the Crown, the monarch, could not meet. In exchange for this capitalization of colonial aspirations, these early corporations were given rights not only to lands and markets but they were given governmental powers. In India, of course, the East India Company evolved from trading, to ruling large parts of India which then evolved into British rule of India.

With DAPL and other pipelines crossing this country, many Americans are outraged and shocked when they discover that a corporation was given governmental powers of eminent domain. Farmers and ranchers face the hard choice between giving in to these corporations and fighting a legal battle with the pipeline they will most likely lose. All the while, wracking up huge legal bills which they have to pay even after they lose their land to eminent domain. And yet, history shows this blending of corporate and governmental power goes back to the very origins of this country. It is how “Manifest Destiny” was funded.

I just put up a map of the 13 original colonies (see above). And you can see the western boundary for the colonies is a great deal further east than it is today for the present-day states of Pennsylvania, New York and Georgia, among others. In the north that boundary was held by the Iroquois Confederacy. In the south by the Cherokee and the other so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”.

My husband is Iroquois, they call themselves the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Longhouse. They are composed of an ancient confederacy originally of five nations, the Mohawk, the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, and the Oneida. Later, the Tuscarora joined and they became the Six Nations. And in the years before the Revolutionary War, one of their key leaders, the Tadadaho, gave speeches to the colonists urging them to unite as the Iroquois had under the Great Law of Peace. He demonstrated the strength of unity by showing how a bundle of arrows could not be broken as easily as a single arrow. His speeches were translated and published by Benjamin Franklin (who owned a printing press and this became his first bestseller) and were widely read in the colonies before the Revolutionary War. Today, the 13 arrows can be seen on American money clutched in the claws of an eagle.

After the French and Indian War, King George III negotiated a treaty that guaranteed Indian rights to lands west of what was called the Proclamation Line of 1763. This outraged the colonists because they coveted these lands. And this, (in addition to what we all learned in school about taxation without representation) was one of the motivating factors leading to the Revolutionary War—the right of the colonists to have access to more Native Nations’ lands. In this case, the Ohio Valley, in particular.

My husband’s ancestor, Chief Joseph Brant, as leader of the Mohawks, sided with the British and when the colonists won they and other Iroquois lost their lands in New York state and had to settle in lands given by King George III in Ontario where they live to this day. And New York state is, of course, bigger. And Ohio is now a state without any reservations—as is Pennsylvania—and the Cherokee were force marched out of Georgia and Tennessee on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.

Going back to the question of the United States still being a colony….

In this model, what responsibilities does a colony have to the 99%? I’d say, as much as is required to get their work as cheaply as possible. Sometimes, that does involve sharing the spoils of colonization—but not always.

If Americans are, in fact, colonists and the American Dream is the partaking in the division of wealth pilfered from Native Nations and currently held by/under military occupation, what would ethical colonialism look like? Is it even…possible?

“Honor the treaties” is, of course, a timeworn phrase Native Americans activists and leaders have been demanding since relations with the colonists began, and so it may have lost its meaning to many Americans but it, honoring the treaties, to stop breaking international law, is also the only way to remake this relationship into a healthy one.  That means one that does not leave Native people (and, particularly, our youth) to pay the price for America’s wealth (suicide, poverty, loss of land). Native people have the highest rates of suicide, poverty, rape and murder of any group within the United States bar none. For example, young Native men have a suicide rate 9 times that over other young American men, Native men over the age of 30 have 6 times the rate of death by police of any other group of American men and Native women face rates of rape and murder that are on average, according to a 2010 Department of Justice report, 3 times that of other American women—and unlike other ethnic/racial groups, 70% of their attackers are men outside of their ethnic/racial group, they are white men.


Origin Stories

It is true that all people have origin stories and we have just spent some time examining the truths and the hidden truths of the American origin story. However, there is a distinct difference between the origin stories of a colony to that of an actual nation, the creation of a real people.

The name many Native American peoples call themselves is often some derivation of “the people” or even, “the real people.” This is what Diné—Navajo people’s word for themselves—means. My father’s people call themselves Dakota or Lakota (depending on the dialect) and this means Allies and friends. A slightly different meaning that puts emphasis on the connections that make them a people.

However, both peoples have origin stories that have similar themes. [See slide below]

As you can see in the above slide I am comparing the colonial origin story to that of “real people” that is as our Native Nations would understand it. I have this titled “Sovereign Citizen vs Sovereign Nation” because all of this is part of a larger analysis I am doing comparing the Bundy  takeovers of public lands (which is part of the Sovereign Citizen movement) to Standing Rock (which is about Native nations’ sovereignty).

In the Dakota/Lakota origin stories it begins with the meeting with the White Buffalo Calf Woman (Pte Ska Win) and her giving us the canunpa, the sacred pipe and the 7 sacred ceremonies. My Lala (my grandfather) always said this is when we became Dakota. Before that we were not Dakota—we were something else.

Interestingly, when I was at Standing Rock, I interviewed some the tribal council members and they told me that the story as told by some families on their reservation was that the meeting with the White Buffalo Calf Woman happened at a site east of the reservation. This illustrates the fact, that for us, all around us, the land is sacred because it reflects a relationship we have made with it. A relationship built on respect which is the core not only of our identity as a people but of our experience of our very humanity and life, itself. This is something the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipeline builders can never understand as entities with colonial and corporate origin stories.


Sovereign Citizen vs Sovereign Nation

Overall, 2016 was an interesting year in “Indian Country.” Even as 2017 is proving to be a test of the strength of the United States’ democratic institutions with the election of Trump—the events of 2016 culminated in a reawakening of Native Nations and their rightful claims to their own lands occupied by the United States.

It all began early in the year. On the second day of the new year, on a Saturday, January 2nd, 2016, Ammon Bundy, son of rogue Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who held his own standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in 2014, led a group of protestors to occupy and takeover the Malheur Wildife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon.

I live in Oregon, on the opposite side of the state in Portland, some five hours away,  on the more populous part of the state. More than half, 2.4 million of the state’s 4 million residents live in the Portland metro area. Harney County, on the other hand, is the largest county in Oregon and one of the largest counties in the entire country. It’s actually 30% bigger than New Jersey. But they have a population of only 7,000 people. A couple hundred of which are members of the Burns Paiute Tribe, the original (and, I believe, rightful) owners of the land.

When I interviewed Charlotte Roderique, the then-chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Tribe, a few days into the Bundy’s occupation of her traditional lands she was frank, “If we [the tribe] had done this—gone in and taken over the refuge with guns—law enforcement would have shot us.”

I have to admit I both believed her and yet…I was skeptical. Yes, I found it at the time hard to believe the state of Oregon would assault the tribe to that degree for taking a stand on its land—its own wrongfully taken land. Yes, I could see state and federal officials scuttling the issue of treaty rights and blithely pretending these were not relevant, simply old history, but could I see Oregon officials committing actual violence against the tribe? Obviously, these things happened in the past…but today? In the 21st century?

Why was I skeptical? Well, Oregon is a blue state. It supposed to be progressive. Sparsely populated rural counties like Harney County may be red, but the state legislature is controlled by the Democratic party and we have a Democratic governor, Kate Brown, an environmentalist and we are represented by two of the most liberal senators (Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden) in the U.S. Senate today. As white as the state is (and Portland has the distinction of being called the whitest city in America according to the U.S. Census) the phrase “that couldn’t happen here” was the refrain I heard in my mind.

And I should explain something about the Burns Paiute Tribe. The 180,000 acre Malheur Wildlife Refuge was once been part of their 1.4 million reservation,—the Malheur Indian Reservation. It was lost after the Bannock War in 1878 and the Watadika people (their own name for themselves) were force marched through foot high snow, some chained together in leg irons to the Yakama reservation in Washington State 320 miles to the north. Remember how I said Portland is 5-hour drive from Harney County? Well, the Paiute people (including children and elders) were not going by car but on foot and had to cross 2 mountain ranges and the Columbia River. Many died.

It just so happens, Ammon Bundy’s takeover of the refuge on January 2nd occurred the same month as the 137th anniversary of this tragedy.  Did he know this? Yes, I think we can be sure, despite living most of his life on Paiute land which extends south into Nevada, he did not.

Several years later some survivors returned on their own, finding their way back home. There is a story on the tribe’s website of an ancestor swimming across the Columbia river holding onto the tail of a horse. When they arrived back they were landless outlaws in their own homeland until 1928 when they were given the former city dump in Burns, Oregon to make their home (and from which they derive their present name). From that tiny group that persevered the tribe has grown to about 400 today. At the beginning of the Bannock Wars their band the Wadatika numbered more than 2,000.

So, what changed my mind? What made me believe Chairwoman Roderique’s belief that state violence would be the result if a tribe took a stand to assert their rights over their homelands? State violence greater than that faced by United States citizens making similar claims? It was Standing Rock. On August 12th, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, a council member and the tribe’s chief physician were all arrested for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. They were strip searched and indicted by the Morton County Sheriff’s department and the state of North Dakota.

All of this is particularly galling when you remember that Chairman Dave Archambault II is the head of state of a nation and yet, was still strip-searched and imprisoned by Morton County, North Dakota for standing up for the internationally-recognized treaty rights his nation enjoys to consultation regarding projects that impact the well-being of his tribe’s territories and people. Normally, this would be protected by diplomatic immunity.

And the assaults did not end there. They continued with alarming regularity. Over Labor Day weekend, dogs were used on peaceful demonstrators—water protectors as they prefer to be called—and several were bitten. Early reports indicated a pregnant woman and a child were bitten. I was later able to verify the identity of the young woman but not the child.

Photos and videos taken that day of the use of dogs on peaceful non-violent water protectors brings to mind similar photos taken during the Civil Rights era. And when the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Standing Rock a month later he told the press, “This is the ripest case of environmental racism I've seen in a long time. Bismarck residents don't want their water threatened, so why is it OK for North Dakota to react with guns and tanks when Native Americans ask for the same right?”

And the hits kept coming. Three days before Halloween, on October 27, 2016 141 were arrested and temporarily housed in kennel-like enclosures and had identification numbers written on their arms. The photos that came out of the police raid on the “1851 Treaty Camp” were chillingly reminiscent of old U.S. military raids on our people. Video shared live on Facebook and Twitter showed Native people being dragged from sweat lodges, police officers in riot gear ripping open a tipi to drag out a Native woman. These images recalled for me descriptions of the 1863 Whitestone massacre in which the U.S. calvary killed or wounded 300 peaceful Dakota/Lakota including women and children. s

I should note here that the next day on October 28th,  brothers Ryan and Ammon Bundy and four others were acquitted of ALL federal conspiracy and weapons charges in Oregon for their armed takeover of Malheur. I know, shocking. And why was this? Because the Depression-era law they were charged under required proof of intent. Since, the Bundys and their followers ascribe to an interpretation of the Constitution that says the federal government had no authority over them and they did not actually have the intent of threatening or obstructing the work of federal employees—intent could not be proven. In this alternate “Sovereign Citizen” reality the sheriff is the ultimate authority, even above the President of the United State, and the federal government is restrained from owning more than a 10 mile square area of land and other land to build forts, etc. According to a Center for Public Integrity report, some 700 of the 3,000 sheriffs nationwide are dues-paying members of Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, an organization that encourages officers of the peace to defy laws they believe are not constitutional and is affiliated with the Sovereign Citizen movement.

The “forward camp” as the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty camp was also called, was founded on the idea, that the signatory tribes have a right to the land in question under the boundaries agreed upon under the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty by the Great Sioux Nation and ratified by the U.S. Congress.

Once again, treaties are international agreements entered into only by sovereign nations. The United States does not make treaties with its citizens or random groups of people. The act of ratifying a treaty means the United States recognized the sovereignty of the Great Sioux Nation and under international law, nations cannot treaty away their sovereignty. Signing a treaty does not extinguish sovereignty it’s an act of sovereignty. Here you have supporters of a nation (the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, although the camp was the act of nonprofit organizers not directly affiliated with the tribe or the Great Sioux Nation) standing on established international law to lay claim to unceded treaty lands facing immediate mass arrest and the dismantling of their camp. On the other hand, you have the Bundys and their followers, occupying a federal facility for more than a month, coming and going as they pleased unmolested, standing on an interpretation of Constitutional law largely derided by constitutional legal scholars and they got away with it.

Again, on Nov. 3rd, water protectors gathered to pray at a site along the river where they claim the remains of Standing Rock Sioux tribal members who once owned Cannonball Ranch and older burials of Lakota people were threatened. The ranch, recently purchased by Energy Transfer Partners, the owners of the Dakota Access pipeline is protected by law enforcement. The nonviolent demonstrators are met with pepper spray and rubber bullets from police. A journalist (Erin Schrode of CNN) is shot with a rubber bullet, and although captured on video, police later claim it never happened. The assault lasts for hours as tens of thousands from around the world watch it all live on social media.

And just when you thought shame would stop Morton County and the state of North Dakota, just days before Thanksgiving on Nov. 20th police deploy water cannons for 5 hours and tear gas on protesters in below-freezing weather. 167 protesters are injured including Sophia Wilansky, 21, a water protector and medic from Brooklyn who is in danger of having her arm amputated after being hit with a concussion grenade and Vanessa Dundon, 32, a Navajo activist who lost sight in one eye after being shot at close range by pepper spray.

The next day, the New York Times’ editorial board, America’s paper of record, issued a public condemnation of the use of outrageous use force against unarmed protestors saying, “When injustice aligns with cruelty, and heavy weaponry is involved, the results can be shameful and bloody.”

Every American can see that America, the United States is still a colony in function and form if not in name. When Americans realize this then they can truly begin to change the system by asking themselves the question: how can I be an ethical colonist?

Thank you. Pidamaya ye. Ahéhee

Points of Wisdom: 

  1. Tribes are nations. 
  2. Treaties are only ratified between sovereign nations—not between a government and its citizens. 
  3. The state violence seen at Standing Rock is what happens when a Native Nation exerts its rights to its territory (under the Fort Laramie treaty).
  4. This made the military occupation visible.
  5. States cannot exist if tribes are strong.
  6. A leader like Trump is the epitome of the colonial mindset—not the exception.
  7. What does “freedom” mean to some Americans—the right to have total access to the stolen booty taken from Native Nations?

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Standing Rock & Sovereignty

Last night, I spoke at a 350PDX panel on Standing Rock and was asked to summarize what Standing Rock means to me and what my "lessons learned" were. I recalled a statement about Standing Rock made by my friend Joleen Brown (Oglala Lakota), editor of Native Hoop Magazine: "Even after everything they did to us—how they tried to damage us to make us lesser than we were...that we can still make a stand like this? When you see the two cultures facing off, I am so proud. You can clearly see which is the better culture."

I called Standing Rock a pilgrimage and I truly believe this to be true. A pilgrimage of heart and mind and a form of as we Dakota say "of voting with our feet." Everyone who is going there is casting a vote for the kind of society—world, even—they want to see and be a part of.

But it is also about sovereignty. And why does honoring the sovereignty matter? The sovereignty of the Great Sioux Nation or as we call it, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) and of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe? Beyond the fact that without the sovereignty of our nations, treaties have no validity, diminishing, sidelining and/or co-opting our nation's sovereignty is no small thing.

Sovereignty cannot reside in a cult of personality—it must reside in systems that are accountable and transparent to all the people. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has methods of being held accountable (see here) but charismatic personalities do not. See the pictogram (right) for the problems with leadership vested solely in an individual and not an agreed-upon system of checks and balances clearly accountable to the people.

I posted these Facebook posts that explain my take on the maligning of Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II:

Our people were not organized as feudal societies in Europe were with an autocratic leader who enforces his will through violence against his own people. Lakota/Dakota people were organized through specific respect relationships embodied in our kinship system. This was the main government we possessed. Disrespecting, ignoring and sidelining the leadership of elders and respect relatives is simply culturally alien to our culture, it is colonial in nature.

As my great-great aunt, Dakota ethnologist Ella Deloria noted in her 1944 book "Speaking of Indians":
"For the most part, then, everyone had his part to play and played it for the sake of his honor, all kinship duties, obligations, privileges, and honoring being reciprocal. One got as well as gave. Thus kinship had everybody in a fast net of interpersonal responsibility and made everybody like it, because its rewards were pleasant. There were fewer rebels against the system than you might think, since, as I have said, social standing and reputation hinged on it. Only those who kept the rules consistently and glad- good citizens of society, meaning persons of integrity and reliability. And that was practically all the government there was. It was what men lived by."
The use of colonial attitudes in the reemergence of the Oceti Sakowin would signal a very different nation or oyate than what we once were. Fundamentally different—in fact, not Dakota or Lakota, anymore. It would be a nation that would be some product of colonization. A change of this nature to our identity as people would have to be the result of a calm and reasoned discussion and be agreed upon by all the people of the Oceti Sakowin.

Which leads us to another fundamental aspect of Lakota/Dakota culture: consensus. We are not only not led by autocrats or charismatic leadership that makes its own rules, but we are ruled by consensus, a long, difficult but culturally-relevant process. Change either of these and you have a different people—a people who are no longer Lakota or Dakota except in name.

It saddens me that there is such division. Opening my email and I see a daily news brief from Grist and the lead story is about the infighting arising at Standing Rock. Once again, I turn to my great-great aunt's recollections of our kinship system to seek a remedy for this that is grounded in our culture and the strengths that it gave us a people whose leaders (who were a product of this system and utterly accountable to it) are admired and known the world over. Here she explains what she calls  "the kinship appeal":

"The kinship appeal was always a compelling force in any situation. If two normally decent acquaintances quarreled, for instance—and of course if they were acquaintances they were social relatives outsiders were deeply concerned over it until it was straightened out. The 'good men' felt it incumbent on them to restore peace and order by appealing to the quarreling ones through kinship. Peace is implied by the very name of the people, Odakota, a state or condition of peace; the 'O' is a locative prefix. 
'We Dakotas love peace within our borders. Peacemaking is our heritage. Even as children we settled our little fights through kinship that we might live in Odakota.' And with that, two of the most responsible and influential men would visit the unhappy ones and appeal to them to cool off their hearts for the sake of their relatives who were unhappy over their plight. And they did not go empty-handed. There must always be a token, an outward sign of great inner desire. The peacemakers went prepared to give a gift 'to cool off your heart and to show by it that we your kinsmen value your life far above mere chattel.' 
Such an appeal in kinship's name was supreme. It placed the responsibility for his relatives' peace of mind squarely on the troubled man, reminding, him that no Dakota lived unto himself alone; all were bound together in kinship. He might not rightly risk even his very own life needlessly, thereby bringing tears to the eyes of' his relatives especially his sisters and women cousins, to whom he owed the very highest respect and consideration. However slightly he valued himself, he must regard the relatives. And the quarreling men, unable to resist such an appeal, smoked the pipe together and were feasted before the council, and so the breach was healed. Friends, happy over the reconciliation and the restoration of peace, brought them more presents. And it was not in the least the intrinsic value of the gifts that mattered but what they symbolized: that the two were more precious to their relatives than mere things. And thus peace was restored in the camp circle to the relief of all."
Peace everyone. Peace and beauty (Hozho Nahasdlii'). 
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Dakota Kinship & Trump's America of "Carnage"

Ihanktonwan (Yankton) Family 
My 16-year old daughter was pretty unhappy today about Trump's inauguration. She was supposed to go to a rally with her friends but became overwhelmed and despondant. I realized I couldn't make her happy by simply a heart-to-heart about what Trump's election means to our Native American family. In fact, to anyone American who is not white. So, instead I decided to read her a chapter from my great-great Aunt Ella Deloria's book "Speaking of Indians." The title of the chapter is "A Scheme of Life that Worked: Kinship's Role in Dakota Life." The book was published in 1944 but I feel it still held truths that would be relevant today in 2017.

My great-great Aunt Ella Deloria
My aunt opens the chapter saying, "All peoples who live communally must first find some way to get along harmoniously and with a measure of decency and order. This is a universal problem...The Dakota people found a way: it was through kinship."

The beauty of this way of life she recounts, this vision of how humans can—and did—live together had a healing effect on my daughter. She was laughing and smiling by the end of the chapter. (My aunt ends the chapter with a funny joke.) And I was thankful to my aunt once again. Her words remembering what we once were, 'Odakota' as she calls it, drove away the despair this society had filled my daughter with, driven as it is by division and polarizing self-interest.

Ihanktonwan Camp in 1882
I remember asking my Uncle Vine Deloria if Aunt Ella told him everything she knew (I had heard there were things she did not share with the younger generations) and he told me that she had not. He said some of these things were just too precious to be passed on in some malformed way and losing our way of life, which our elders loved so much, was so painful that passing it on in some twisted form, well, they could not bear that. I thought about this for a long time and several years later, I came to the conclusion that our ancestors had confidence we could find our way back again. That we could rediscover this "way of life that works" for us today. Coming together, as we have at Standing Rock, bringing the bits together each of our families still have of the previous society that once filled our ancestors with such joy, is the start. And it will grow. Even under Trump. It will not be denied.
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On the Icy Edge of Trump's Empire: Standing Rock and Hoth

Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Cannonball River north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation

It’s Cannonball, North Dakota but with the temperature hovering around -25 degrees Fahrenheit with windchill factored in it feels like the planet Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The whiteness of the landscape and the intense cold brings such comparisons to mind. The NoDAPL camp, which numbered 10,000 in early December before the first blizzard, is a testament to the support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe enjoys in its fight against the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline that they say threatens their lands, water, and people.

At the hill north of the Oceti Sakowin (Lakota for the Seven Council Fires) camp, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department had been shining bright lights on the camp every night. It is a constant presence as has been the helicopter that circled the camp for months at all hours. The sound of it reminded everyone at camp those in power could see them, would not stop seeing them. One water protectors (as protesters prefer to be called) told me that he estimated the gas bill for the helicopter cost the state of North Dakota $1,000 per hour. State officials have estimated total costs for this militarized response to the encampment and nonviolent demonstrations at $15 million ($10 million of it borrowed from North Dakota’s state-owned bank). The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the elders of the Oceti Sakowin (what the Americans call The Great Sioux Nation) say is a peaceful, prayerful encampment on unceded treaty lands.

In stark contrast, at the foot of the hill where the police shine their lights on the camp is the “Moms Against Meth” camp run by Native American mothers who oppose the spread of meth in their communities. It is a solemn cluster of yurts, as white and serene as the snow that lays all around for miles in every direction.

Just beyond this hill on the night of November 20th, at a small bridge, aptly named Backwater Bridge, thousands watched in horror in real time on Facebook as police sprayed some 400 water protectors for 5 hours straight with water cannons in subfreezing temperatures. Law enforcement fired at close range on unarmed people using rubber bullets, bean bags, pepper spray and concussion grenades against unarmed demonstrators who trapped on the bridge could not easily disperse. More than 300 were injured according to a class action suit brought by the Water Protectors Legal Collective. Those injured that night included 21-year old Sophia Wilansky from Brooklyn, New York, who is undergoing painful surgeries and rehabilitation but may still lose her arm after being directly hit by a concussion grenade, and Vanessa “Sioux Z” Dundon, a 31-year old Navajo activist from Arizona who had a tear gas canister go off in her face and has lost nearly all vision in one eye.

After the Nov. 20 assault, thousands of veterans answered the call to come to Standing Rock on Dec. 5 and nonviolently place themselves between water protectors and police. On Dec. 4, as veterans arrived the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suddenly announced the DAPL’s easement had been denied, and ordering an environmental impact statement would be completed to determine the course of a new route for the pipeline.

The 18 Dakota/Lakota reservations that remain in North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska are, in a very real sense, islands left in the storm of colonial expansion that engulfed the Oceti Sakowin in the 19th century. Americans, driven by a semi-religious credo of “Manifest Destiny,” a divine plan that the lands from “sea to shining sea” were meant to be under the domination of the United States. The fallout of this belief is that the nations that were already there and their legal claims to the land, even their very existence as nations with political rights, was ignored and later, clouded. If you look at a map today reservation boundaries are given a secondary status to that of states, when, in fact, tribes, as sovereign nations enjoy a higher political status than states. In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report for the DAPL permit, reservations are not shown at all. It is a form of political gaslighting.

CEO Kelcy Warren of Energy Transfer Partners owners of the DAPL (ETP has since merged with Sunoco) claimed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that the tribe had not voiced its concerns earlier. In response, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe released audio of the Sept. 2014 meeting which clearly demonstrates the tribe and its leadership firmly told the company that it did not want the pipeline crossing through its unceded treaty territory.

“Honor the treaties” is, to many Americans, a tired, plaintive phrase that Native Americans say simply to make them feel guilty. But what most Americans don’t grasp is treaties are actually international law. The U.S. Senate does not ratify treaties with anyone but sovereign nations. Also, under international law signing a treaty does not extinguish your sovereignty—it’s an act of sovereignty. The fact is the United States has been breaking international law for 150 years and did so with the hope that the Great Sioux Nation would not be around in the future to hold the federal government accountable. But what has happened, and that what Standing Rock represents, is with a growing population and a greater sense of political identity as a nation we are witnessing in the 21st century, the political re-emergence of the Oceti Sakowin.

Compare the level of violent, military-style reprisal by the police on water protectors at Standing Rock” to the lack of it faced by NoDAPL demonstrators in Iowa (who are mostly white U.S. citizens). Or even to how the Bundy family were treated when, armed to the teeth, they took over public lands in Nevada (in 2014) and in Oregon (in 2016). The violence can be seen as a reaction to the tribe’s mild assertion of its rights to its unceded territory (the tribe has only been demanding meaningful consultation on the pipeline) and the military force holding the land of the Oceti Sakowin in violation of international law becomes visible.

These unceded territories are now counties (including Morton County) of North and South Dakota. This includes the Black Hills where Mount Rushmore is carved into one of our sacred mountains. The faces of four U.S. presidents is often used as a symbol of America, itself.

Walking down “Flag Road” the wind whipping and the hundreds of rainbow-colored tribal flags wave and twist on their PVC pipe flag poles, I am struck, not for the first time, how this is not something done alone by the people of Standing Rock or a few of their allies. These flags are backed up by tribal resolutions. Even planted by heads of state like the Navajo Nation president, Russell Begaye who with his Vice President Nez and dug the hole to plant the Navajo flag representing a Native Nation of 350,000 people the size of Ireland. He wielded his shovel in a black suit and Begaye and Nez could have been mistaken for Asian businessmen except for the silver and turquoise the two men were wearing. Dakota means allies, in both a friendly and in a political sense. That what Flag Road means. Real political support and alliances. The hoop of the Dakota grows in this century.

The sound of construction goes on in camp, a builder from Vermont leading a crew to build a meetinghouse, there is the sharp chop of an ax on wood, and murmurs punctuated by singers and a drum at a community meeting where the air is so cold every breath is visible.

In a warm felt-lined yurt, I spoke to camp headsman Lewis Grassrope (Wicahpi Ksapa Peji Wikan). He and about 200 others will remain as they say until “the Horn comes down” and their elders tell them to leave. The Horn is a traditional encampment of tipis in the shape of a horn representing the seven council fires and pointed at the enemy in defiance. There, the fire still burns.

Headsman Lewis Grassrope and Ike Weston

“Well, when this movement first started it started on prayer and you know through ceremony,” Grassrope explains. “The wakening of our knowing that we need to rethink our societies and rethink the way that we look at life and restore the old values that our ancestors carried so we actually become true human beings (Ikce Wicasa).”

When I saw “The Empire Strikes Back” as a kid and saw Han cutting up the tauntaun to shelter Luke in the warm carcass, I thought of the Dakota stories I heard as a child where a person would take shelter from the deathly cold of a Great Plains winter in the carcass of a buffalo. Our stories differed, however, in that the buffalo would come back to life with the man or woman still stuck inside. As a child, I would pester my dad with questions like, how could they breathe? Today, as an adult, my perspective has changed and I long to be gently swinging to the buffalo’s gait, to be part of such a powerful creature that is the center of Dakota/Lakota culture.

The camp feels like that center, the center of the buffalo and I understand when Grassrope says, “most of us don't want to leave after we’re done because of the feeling and the kinship and everything that was gained here.”

My son who accompanied me to the camp actually asks to wait awhile before seeing “Rogue One,” the next Star Wars installment. I agree and we wait. We wait to return to camp in the spring as the United States and American's inaugurate Donald Trump as their 45th President and to see if the miracle will happen as it did in the old stories, if our Oyate (nation), our people, and the buffalo that holds them still lives.

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