PINE RIDGE VILLAGE, S.D. ? The occupation of the Red Cloud Administration Building, the most visible evidence of the social schism within the Oglala Sioux Tribe, ended quietly on a warm, August Saturday night. But while the 18-month long occupation is over, most of the frustration, anger and division that sparked it is not.
The tribal government's executive committee received word the building was "abandoned" and decided August 18 to investigate. They entered the building about 9 p.m. and found it was indeed unoccupied. They decided to take advantage of the situation and immediately reassume control of the building. Vice President Theresa Two Bulls, Secretary Donna Solomon and Executive Director George Ghost Bear notified President John Steele of the situation and their decision and he agreed. An act of protest that began with a bang ended in a whimper.
A group calling itself the Grass Roots Oyate took over the building January 16, 2000, citing a list of grievances including corruption, favoritism, nepotism and mismanagement by government officials. Among demands were dismissal of then-Treasurer Wesley "Chuck" Jacobs and a federal audit of tribal financial records. They set up an altar using a sacred Pipe and a copy of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and took up continuous residence.
A vigorous war of accusations, finger-pointing and name-calling between occupiers and the elected tribal government raged as winter melted into spring and spring became summer. Most press accounts and casual observers seemed to view the protesting group as a monolith, but in the months that followed subtle yet visible signs of fracture within the Oyate group began to show.
Demands evolved into a repudiation of the government system, installed following the U.S. government's Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and a call for establishment of a 'traditional' council faithful to the historical Lakota system. As demands altered, so did the makeup of individuals in the building. Fewer of the original group, and elders who provided the occupation with a certain legitimacy, were present.
Tribal elections approached, bringing hope for a wave of new blood and a fresh start. While only two of the sitting council were returned to office, the primary election left between incumbent President Harold Dean Salway facing previous president John Yellow Bird Steele.
Steele won, former treasurer Jacobs was quickly removed, and audits produced indictments against members of the former council and the Housing Authority. Several of the original Oyate group, including high-profile spokesman Dale Looks Twice, were brought into the Steele administration and it seemed the occupation might end.
Announced plans for a ceremonial return of the building on the one-year anniversary of the takeover soured when individuals in the building refused to leave, insisting their goals would not be fulfilled until the IRA government relinquished power and control of the reservation to the Traditional Council. The fracture of the Oyate was complete. Most of the original occupiers repudiated those who remained inside, even trying to insist that they give up the name Grass Roots Oyate.
The people who remained ignored them, declared the building an international embassy and renamed it the Tetuwan Lakota Embassy or the Tetuwan Oyate International Embassy. Throughout the standoff, the tribal government rejected retaking the building by police or military action and continued to pay to keep the lights on and other utilities operating.
Until Saturday night it was thought the building was continuously occupied, guarded by armed tokalas. And it was believed the altar and sacred Canunpa were still in place, but such was not the case.
"Upon entry into the building it was discovered that there were no sacred Pipes present as believed," the executive committee reported in a press release.
"The Executive Committee had to take action to reassume control of the building because the original Grassroots Oyate group were no longer in the building and many tribal members were asking us to reassume control," Two Bulls said. "Scattered offices made it difficult for the people to conduct their business."
Tribal Secretary Solomon, who had been among the early occupiers, said "the resumption of control of the building by the Executive Committee is best for the people.
"Now we can centralize our administrative headquarters in one building to better serve our people. But we intend to still address the concerns of the Grassroots Oyate," she said. "Our goal is to end corruption and make tribal government accountable to the people."
Oliver Red Cloud issued a statement that he was remaining neutral on the government action to retake control of the building named for his ancestor. He laid the dispute upon the previous government, saying, "We can't blame the council in 2001. This council is trying to straighten it out."
Tribal Fifth Member Johnson Holy Rock, a respected traditional man and elder, endorsed Red Cloud's position. "I hope people try to understand both sides of this issue. We have to work together?"
The wide divergence in perceptions of the government and current Oyate members cannot be overstated. An Oyate press release called the executive committee actions an "illegal break-in" and an act of "throat-cutting against the Grass Roots Oyate." The August 20 press release also claimed the building was unoccupied and that two tokalas in the building were arrested by tribal officers. But a spokesperson for the Oyate, Jake Little, said that had not been confirmed and he regretted inclusion of that claim in the release.
Little said those in the Oyate leadership, "the embassy working group," believe the Red Cloud building belongs to the people ? literally ? and not to the IRA government. Regardless of the legal technicalities, the Oyate believe the building to be theirs and feel that their possession of it is legitimate and should be respected by the IRA government whether or not it is unoccupied at any given time.
"The building wasn't abandoned," Little said. "There was no one in there at the time, but there were reasons for that. The embassy working group were told to start establishing some guidelines and procedures, and some of the guidelines and procedures they developed were that the building should remain closed at some times like a regular place of business. That's one of the reasons why there wasn't anyone in there."
Little said that advice came from the United People's Organization, a subgroup of the United Nations, via Tony Black Feather, a Lakota representative to the subgroup.
Little claims broken glass inside the building indicates a break-in, but he doesn't know for certain when it was broken, by whom, or if doors to the building were even locked when tribal government representatives entered.
In a government press release, President Steele described the people who took over the building in January of 2000 as "very brave," saying they "set off a chain of events that will affect tribal government for years to come."
Two Bulls said she intends to ask the tribal council to do a special ceremony to honor the original Grassroots Oyate members who participated in the takeover. "It was a very brave thing they did and they opened a lot of eyes. I want to present each of them with an eagle feather or plume to show our appreciation for their bravery and their contributions to a more open and honest government."
Little said that could be an interesting ceremony because while some of the original group were no longer participating and some have taken positions in the government, others like himself are still active in the Oyate and still reject the legitimacy of the IRA government.
"I was in the building when it was first taken over, and off and on," he said. "I supported it fully from the beginning, but I don't know how they're going to go about honoring the original takeovers. They're probably talking about Looks Twice and Solomon. They call themselves 'the original seven' or something, but yet it was everyone. I guess they felt that because they were the spokespersons they were the only people that took it over. But there were many people."
Little said the impression that the Oyate was one group with one set of goals and one voice was never correct. "At the time there were several groups that went in there together. It wasn't just one, one mind, one action. One particular group I participated with a lot was always interested in the abolishment of the IRA and that was my main concern. I didn't care about any of that other stuff.
"I don't know who they're going to honor, but it will be interesting to see," Little said.
He added the embassy working group has no plans for retribution or any form of violence in reaction to the government assuming control of the building. They issued a call to "all headsmen, elders, women, children, tokalas, all supporters and protectors of our future generations" for four days of prayer, August 28-31. During that gathering they intend to discuss what, if any, response they will make to the reclaiming of the building, he said.
There are two things the Oyate will surely want, Little said. The first is to know who demolished the sweat lodge constructed on the grass at the rear of the building. "I see that it's gone, but I'm not sure who did it. I don't want to say that the IRA did it or if a relative came by and did it like they were instructed to."
But more important is return of important symbols that were taken from the building. "We cannot find our embassy sign or the United Nations Peoples Organization flag and no one will tell us where it is," Little said. "There are rumors that they were burned. I burned the American flag in front of the embassy a couple of months ago and I don't know if it's retaliation in some form.
"We'd like to know where our flag is and the sign, and if anybody did tear down that inipi."