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Cook-Lynn: Decolonization of American Indians

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Cook-Lynn at a recent Indian Studies conference. The conclusion will appear next week.

American Indians tell the counter-story, which has been neglected by much of the academic world to Western ideas, which have permeated so much of the dialogue in the modern world. It is in the political dialogue that I have centered much of my work ... because it is in the political dialogue that we can disrupt the rules of the game. It is in the political dialogue that we urge ourselves toward practices that can expose a vast critical examination of what has happened to us and how we must go forward. This dialogue is now called ''decolonization.''

Politics are about power relations and how we are governed. I can think of no subject more useful to those of us who want to culturally affirm our survival; how to define and create indigenous realities; how to rise above oppression and how to value our lives.

It is my observation that the life and times of reservation-based and urban Indians - all of us who are working hard every day to improve our lives - are sort of taking one step forward and one step backward. Scholars of Indian Studies are constantly probing the relationship between the indigenous populations of this continent and its colonizers. We recognize that it is a power relationship of enormous consequence. Indians remain the most colonized people in this democracy, and colonization has brought about the loss of tribal power to affect our own lives.

One of the pragmatic realities of enforced colonialism, and one of the first strategies for making colonialism work, is the challenge of the power status of women and the dogged dispossession of women's rights. Though I've been called a feminist, I don't want this discussion to be understood as a feminist issue. It is not that. It is an issue of colonization and imperial power based in religion.

This was never clearer to me than in 2006 when South Dakota passed a bill which outlawed all abortions for all women in the state, including Native women. It was intended for the ultimate overturning of 1973's Roe v. Wade, which recognized a woman's human right to privacy, thereby assuring the right to health services concerning reproduction in the United States. We all know that the colonial-based Indian Health Service failed in this regard, but now all health organizations were to be bound by this ruling.

State political coalitions, including Native women's groups, recognizing the exploitation and extremism of the legislative measure, secured a referendum to put the legislation on the state election ballot in November 2006. Almost 70 percent of the voters rejected the state law.

As is often the case in Indian law and politics, a woman was in the crossfire. Cecelia Fire Thunder, Lakota, had two years before been elected by a substantial margin to the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe at the Pine Ridge Reservation, the first woman in modern times to achieve this status. Fire Thunder proposed putting a private health clinic on her privately-owned land on the reservation to serve the reproductive and health needs of all women and children in the region. In my view, it was the best idea for health services anybody had in this region in a hundred years.

Not everyone agreed. Within months, Fire Thunder was impeached by her own tribal council, including several women council members. Vice President Alex White Plume, a longtime member of the American Indian Movement, became temporary chairman of the tribe. People on the reservation were torn. A fellow councilman, Will Peters, probably following the ideals of the Christian school systems which have functioned on this reservation since 1860, stood in the council chambers and blasted those who disagreed with the impeachment proceedings: ''We don't want to be known in Indian country as the tribe that kills babies.'' He didn't mention that several Sioux reservation counties have the highest infant mortality rate in the U.S.

Within weeks, Oglala activist Russell Means, describing himself as an attorney, though he has no law degree, spoke at public meetings proclaiming that the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie disallowed Native women in leadership roles. He said that the treaty, which ironically had been used successfully as a defense mechanism in the Black Hills land case, disenfranchised Lakota women. He was quoted widely in local and national media. His cohort, Lyman Red Cloud, great-great-grandson of

the famed chief of the 1800s who negotiated that treaty, was accompanied by white female church representatives as he gave interviews to news organizations saying: ''I would never vote for Cecelia Fire Thunder because she is a woman and cannot be a leader of the tribe.'' A former chief judge of the Oglalas and lifelong Catholic, Patrick Lee, wrote an op-ed piece saying that a woman having an abortion would be violating tribal law. He is now in retirement from the tribe, a respected faculty member of the Oglala Lakota University and teaches law courses even though he apparently fails to make the necessary

distinction between tribal law and federal law and state law.

Traditionally, in accordance with tribal law, which is thousands of years old, Sioux women have always had access to abortion and birth control and reproductive rights and knowledge. You have only to read the works of the late Lakota scholar, Dr. Beatrice Medicine, to know this is true. Her book, ''The Hidden Half,'' is one of the many anthropological works which document Native women's rights and knowledge.

Is it possible that some of the contemporary speakers and leaders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe have failed to remember their traditions in this modern world? Worse yet, have they have failed to reject state law and state jurisdiction on our homelands? Our relatives of past generations who fought hard wars and difficult negotiations for the survival of the people must be mourning the moral and political tragedy of this recent attack on women, tribal government and the law.

(Continued in part two)

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Crow Creek Sioux, is professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Eastern Washington University and a visiting professor at Arizona State University. She makes her home in the Black Hills of South Dakota.