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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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