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Kinship brings focus to tribal people

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WAKPALA, S.D. - The effort to develop a collective approach to help legislators understand how government actions impact treaties raised diverse issues during the weeklong Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin Treaty Council attended by tribal treaty leaders from throughout the region.

Victor Douville, professor at Sinte Gleska University in Rosebud, reminded the group of the need to revisit kinship and teach kinship among tribal members. The entire social order, he said, once revolved around kinship.

Kinship has been lost for many because non-degreed tribal elders have been removed from the educational experience, he said.

"Our teachers of course are our elderly people."

He said the loss of the elderly tribal members in the educational process has created a loss of connection in kinship and a loss of some older terms in the native language that only the elderly use when referring to family members.

Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of tribal families are struggling because they are incomplete. At least 35 percent of the families are headed by single mothers raising children, he said.

This loss of kinship and the connection takes its toll on tribal leadership because the daily struggle to deal with basic life needs such as food and shelter overwhelm tribal members and leave little time for them to approach issues surrounding the protection of treaties, Douville said.

"It's hard to take issues out to families that are struggling with basic family needs."

While elders understand and can contribute, it is difficult for them to travel to meetings such as the conference held in Standing Rock, he said.

"We almost have to rebuild our social order."

He suggested the return to a more traditional tribal community would reduce more than 60 percent of the crime rate. Our economic development problems would be solved," he said.

Douville estimated it would take at least four generations to rebuild traditional tribal society and a traditional leadership along with it. The challenge is getting people to recognize their kin, "getting our people to know their relatives."

People have moved from reservation to reservation and off of the reservations so they are spread out. Many, like Douville, left their reservations to marry.

The terms in the Lakota language, many of them lost to the present generation, dealt not only with social order and kinship, they also included instruction for behavioral patterns, he said.

For example words carrying the meaning of a female cousin identified them as such and young men were instructed that it was inappropriate to tease their female cousins. The language set the pattern for respectful behavior, he said.

Tribal governments may be changing. Standing Rock Councilman Jesse Taken Alive said his tribe is redefining its constitution. A proposed amendment would return the tribe to a traditional form of leadership following family lines. Instead of electing a council, the tribe would choose its leadership much like leaders were chosen earlier. They would be taken from the family lines of the chiefs or families would select a person they wish others to emulate, he said.

Douville said traditionally Lakota chiefs were chosen when a man reached the age of being a grandfather because they were considered more stable, no longer seeking a mate and establishing a family. Instead, they were managing a family and tribal households chose them based on that ability to manage.

He said Crazy Horse was one exception. Just 33, he was forced to compete with men in their 50s such as Spotted Tail and Red Cloud.

However, Crazy Horse openly admitted he was a military leader instead of a chief managing the affairs of his band," Douville said.

Following the line of tribal chiefs was the firstborn male, he said. If tribal governments follow the tradition then it will include the succession, as it would have several generations ago where the first born in the chosen family became a new leader when the chief was ready to retire. If the firstborn was unavailable, succession moved to the second-born son.

Revitalizing the language is a challenge because elders who knew it well are disappearing from the culture.

"We're running out of time. Our elderly people are dying out. Those who are left say they can't do it any more," Douville said.

Many of the elderly, though willing to help, finally reach an age where they simply can't remember the words any more, he said.

Another issue for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is blood quantum. Taken Alive said there is a move to include tribal members based on lineal descendancy rather than a measure of tribal blood quantum which is how the federal government chose to recognize American Indian people.

Taken Alive said the blood quantum issue is limiting tribal members from opportunities and as tribal members' lives change, as the result of job related moves or marriage, tribes will face an enrollment decline.

Earlier in the week, South Dakota State Sen. Ron Volesky, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, vowed to create a panel to study the impact of state laws on tribal communities.

He said while the state has a tribal relations committee, more can be done to deal equitably with tribal issues on a state level.

"We would not only recognize the sovereignty of tribal governments, but we would also try to do something to make sure the documents are not only understood, but carried into effect."

The Huron Democrat, who serves on the state tribal relations committee, said the committee has served as an open door to tribal leaders and tribal members looking for a change in how the state deals with tribal governments and issues that affect American Indian people in South Dakota.

Many of those issues have been defined under treaties with the federal government, but often the treaties are overlooked when state legislation is under consideration, he said.

Volesky said the committee will hold a series of meetings this summer across the state on some of the reservations to look at remedies for disparities in health care, long-term care, economic development and racial profiling.

Tribal leaders face enormous pressure to make federal agencies and courts recognize their rights under treaties and the federal obligations tied them, participants agreed. A recent court ruling dismissing a lawsuit concerning water and land rights is being pursued by a North Dakota tribe.

The Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin Treaty Council endorsed a resolution from the Spirit Lake Tribe of North Dakota supporting its legal battle with the federal government over the ownership of Spirit Lake. In May, a federal judge dismissed a 15-year-old lawsuit filed on behalf of the tribe claiming rights to the lake. Tribal leaders said the tribe never gave up its water or treaty rights.