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').