Treaty council challenges feds
RAPID CITY, S.D. - As the federal government grants more power to the
states through various programs and the dispensation of funding to tribes
that have treaties, the Great Sioux Nation Treaty Council said that
practice must be challenged.
Federal courts and Congress are not adhering to the treaties that were made
on a nation-to-nation level, council members said.
"The Supreme Court recognized that we are a distinct group of people. Our
treaties are the same as with foreign countries but the treaties were
changed to domestic treaties.
"The treaties were made with people who didn't read or write the language
so ambiguities are to be interpreted in favor of the Indians," said Harvey
White Woman, treaty council representative from the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty is the focus treaty for the council, although
the 1851 treaty also applies as it was a treaty of war not of peace,
council representatives argue.
Mention of a treaty is rare in Congress and especially in the halls of
state legislatures. It was a special occasion when former Senator Tom
Daschle of South Dakota talked about a treaty on the floor of the Senate in
the 108th Congress.
Lars Herseth, father of Rep. Stephanie Herseth, read the 1868 treaty on the
floor of the South Dakota Legislature.
Treaty council members still fight to remind people that the boundaries of
the 1868 treaty were taken away by executive order and by acts of Congress
through allotments and land grabs. In 1874 gold was discovered in the Black
Hills and that led to wholesale violations of the 1868 treaty, which named
all land east of the Missouri River to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming as
Teton or Lakota lands.
"We seldom get people to recognize the treaties. We find ourselves
adjudicating to protect the treaty. The South Dakota Attorney General has
filed 27 amicus briefs around the country to limit sovereignty," said
Charles Colombe, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Colombe said he stays away from state involvement because he has to take a
look at what he is dealing with. He told the treaty council that the tribal
and the treaty council must work together.
"Rosebud honors the treaty, we live with it," Colombe said.
One of the most respected people who has worked with treaties is Johnson
Holy Rock, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Holy Rock was dragged by his grandfather to treaty meetings when he was a
child. He heard the sub chiefs, some of whom signed the 1868 treaty,
discuss the treaty and their way of life.
He told the treaty council about buffalo lying dead by the hundreds along
the railroad tracks. They had gashes in their muscles that contained
poison. He said the elders knew something was wrong at the time and did not
attempt to touch the animals.
That was the situation at the time the treaty was signed. "There was a
desire to decimate the Lakota people," Holy Rock said.
He said if that was the act of a supposedly civilized people, he didn't see
the need to strive to become civilized.
"We have a history and culture and we are people whether anyone likes us or
not. The Creator put us here," Holy Rock said.
One of the greatest rights retained by the Lakota under the treaty is
water. Water, it is said by many tribal leaders will be the center of the
next gold rush. And the Lakota, under the 1868 treaty own the water that
travels down the Missouri River through Teton territory, or the western
portions of South Dakota, North Dakota and in Montana.
The watersheds that feed the river come through Indian country, the
reservations and the traditional treaty lands. Recent negotiations by the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage the river's flow with hydropower
dams that harness the Missouri have come under criticism. Some of it from
lower states that use the river for navigation. But, the tribes with the
treaties have the rights to the water and are demanding more say in how the
river is managed. Cultural and sacred sites are at stake as well.
Victor Douville, cultural instructor at Sinte Gleska University on the
Rosebud Reservation said he met with environmentalists and the EPA over the
fear that the Glacier National Monument would disappear because of global
warming. That, he said, would dry up the Missouri River. As treaty tribes
the Lakota have a vested interest in making sure that doesn't happen.
He said that 900 years ago the river dried up and the tribes fought over
water, destroying some villages.
"Now the treaties are important. Who will address this issue," Douville
"There are 100 million acres of land that is not challengeable in court and
there are 15 to 20 rivers that are part of the Winters Doctrine," he said.
Under the Winters Doctrine a quantity of water was reserved to support the
designated reservations. Whatever the need was for a particular
reservation, water in enough quantity and quality was allowed.
Management of the Missouri River is under the direction of the Corps of
Engineers and consultations with the river tribes as is stated takes place
- but not in every instance of management or flow change, tribal leaders
Reservations that do not touch the river, according to the treaty council
members, are no less part of the equation because of the treaty and the
fact that water from tributary rivers run through the reservations into the
Missouri and become part and parcel of the 1868 treaty.
"It is important to get control of the water. I would like to see a
coalition of tribes formed to put pressure on water rights," Douville said.
He said there is a need to get young people involved in treaty and water
rights issues. Tribal colleges are offering curriculum that will prepare
those students, he said.
The government wants to quantify the water. That is to decide how much each
reservation needs in terms of acre-feet of water for personal and
irrigation use. The tribes have other methods of determining water needs
and Douville said Congress needs to learn tribal terminology.
"Congress today is steamrolling over our rights. We must go to Congress to
do something. These are our hearts and souls. We need more action - we talk
a lot. We must take the fight further, to the state and the federal
government," Douville said.