Every day throughout Indian Country, encroachment of Native rights is happening. For most tribes, this means a perpetual uphill battle involving government, public education and legislation. Protecting those rights in South Dakota for the Sicangu Lakota people is the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council. With a two-person staff, eight Tribal Council members and a broad-scale mission, this grantee of First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is readying to take on every challenge, from oil and gas to climate change.
The Keepers of Wisdom
The mission of the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council is to assert its inherent dominium over the Sicangu Lakota Oyate territories expressed in the Fort Laramie Treaties. Under this mission, the council works to bring awareness of the history and the rights of the Sicangu Lakota as part of the Great Sioux Nation and the Oceti Sakowin Tribes within the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation.
According to Executive Director Phil Two Eagle, the threats to these rights are widespread, involving everything from oil and gas drilling, uranium mining, to gold mining operations in the Black Hills. “Like our Lakota Warrior Scouts and War Chiefs, we keep our ears on the ground on the issues that will affect our people and our territory,” he says.
The demand is great, he explains, as protection is needed for all Lakota natural resources – subsurface minerals, burial sites, ground water and air space above treaty lands – and all the Native rights associated with them. This means there is an ongoing fight to ward off pollution and climate change, protect hunting and fishing rights, honor sacred sites, and ensure that natural resources will benefit the local Native economy.
To meet this demand, the treaty council acquires, keeps and passes down tribal knowledge and works with federal, state and local governments as a Native advocate and negotiator. Moreover, like treaty councils everywhere, it serves as a guide for tribal councils.
Two Eagle explains that treaty councils have traditionally comprised the chiefs – the traditional leaders of the tribes – and they have played a vital role in tribal governance ever since the first treaties were signed. Today, they continue to provide traditional leadership and consultation to tribes and hold tribal leaders accountable for what they are elected to do.
“Treaty councils are the wisdom keepers of the tribe,” Two Eagle explains. “Without treaty councils, treaties – and the language, history and culture they protect – would be gone.”
Broad Reach Funding
In this capacity, the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council has served the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of the Rosebud Indian Reservation since 1992, with input from eight treaty council members representing the Sicangu Lakota Oyate as part of the Oceti Sakowin Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Tribes in the area. Now, they are maximizing a First Nations grant – made possible through the Broad Reach Fund of the Maine Community Foundation – that is designed to support Native American-led community efforts pursuing environmental justice, with a particular emphasis on combating abusive extractive industry practices occurring on treaty lands. Through the grant, the treaty council will build on its momentum with dedicated efforts to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The current Keystone Pipeline delivers oil from Canada to refineries in Illinois and Texas and to oil tank farms in Oklahoma. The proposed XL Keystone Pipeline would further connect the pipeline system through a shorter route, running through Montana, North Dakota, and the Great Sioux Reservation, which was established by treaty.
The XL expansion is now tied up in legal challenges, including proceedings initiated by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, which asserts that the permit authorizing the expansion does not consider tribal sovereignty and federal trust obligations. If approved, the XL project will not only cut across Native land, it will wreak further havoc on Native resources in its path. Two Eagle reports that the existing Keystone Pipeline has had numerous spills since it began in 2010, including a recent 1,800-gallon spill in Missouri and a 400,000-gallon spill in South Dakota last year.
Through the project, the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council will lead community outreach and engagement efforts to teach tribal members, the public and all stakeholders about the impact of the expansion and the inherent rights of Lakota and Sioux People. The work will be two-fold. First, the council will host community meetings at each of the seven Lakota tribes to provide updates and develop a unified strategy to oppose the pipeline. Next, the council will raise awareness about tribal treaty violations through an illuminated billboard.
“As wisdom keepers, our job is to educate people about the inherent powers of our treaties,” says Two Eagle. “The billboard is part of a marketing strategy to convey how the Sicangu Lakota feel about the pipeline, and the negative impact it will have on both treaty rights and the environment.”
Two Eagle says the billboard will inspire viewers to initiate their own research about the pipeline expansion and direct them to a website for more information.
A site for the billboard will be selected with input from a local advertising agency to strategically reach drivers of the 2,500 vehicles that travel on Interstate 90 across South Dakota every day. “That’s over one million people a year who will see our message and become better informed,” he says.
It is the council’s hope that greater awareness will increase the power of treaty councils and tribes in protecting their inherent rights.
“A lot of times, the government only consults with us after the fact. We need to hold the federal government accountable,” Two Eagle says. “We need to get ahead of the game.”
At the heart of these efforts is the knowledge that treaty protections are just one part of the overall work that’s needed to protect the Sicangu Lakota way of life. Two Eagle explains there is work to be done to bolster education, drive the economy, protect the environment and preserve the Lakota language, which he says is only 10 years away from extinction unless something is done.
“The Lakota language, history and culture are our inherent sovereignty and we must do everything we can to protect our people from becoming assimilated, because without your Indigenous language you are no longer sovereign. You are completely assimilated, and you can disappear into the mainstream American society,” he says. “But we have been here for thousands of years. This is our territory and we are not going anywhere.”
Recognizing these needs, planning is underway to build a Lakota cultural center and to bring in legal training for the treaty and tribal council members on issues that affect Native sovereignty. In addition, the council works regularly with the International Indian Treaty Council and with others aligned with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Further efforts are being directed to formalize a Lakota language program as part of the local Indian school curriculum. The council is also collaborating with other treaty councils on ways to address climate change, in solutions that go beyond the federal government.
“There are no more traditional enemies within tribes. We’re all in this together and we all have to work together to help the world come up with solutions,” he says. “Traditional Native knowledge is critical right now to teach the world what needs to be done.”
For Seven Generations
As is common in Indian Country, the Sicangu Lakota believe every generation has a responsibility for the next seven generations. For the Sicangu Lakota, this means opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline, from meetings to billboards to education. And it means taking all steps needed to protect treaty rights and natural resources and preserve the culture, history and language of the Lakota. Through these efforts, the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council is persevering in honoring its inherent sovereignty, and it continues to be the wisdom keeper of its people.
By Amy Jakober