The Heart of the Pine Ridge Occupation

Pine Ridge, Ogala Lakota Reservation...

On January 16, 2000, the Grassroots Oyate, traditional Lakota tribal members led by their Elders, took peaceful control of the administrative offices of the Oglala Sioux tribe.

An alter was erected to hold the Sacred Pipe , eagle staffs and coup sticks. The Oyate were protesting massive misappropriation and misuse of tribal funds on a reservation with chronic 85% unemplyment and the lowest per capita income in the country. The Oyate demanded the removal of the tribal treasurer, a full audit of tribal finances and land transactions, and a restructuring of the tribal constitution along traditional Lakota ways. Tribal council members were locked out of the building and the Tokala (Protector Society) assured no physical interference with the occupation.

During the ensuing two months, the FBI came into the building with consent of the Oyate to confiscate tribal records and begin the financial audits; a federal mediation team came and went in frustration; the tribal president suspended the treasurer - only to be suspended himself by the renegade council, which sits with the treasurer writing checks to each other for pow-wow trips while the poor and elderly go without fuel assistance; the police receive conflicting orders from the president, council and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) superintendent; the Nebraska bank holding the tribal accounts allows the suspended treasurer to transfer funds and ignores the president's order to cease; sporadic shootings and the ever-present threats of violence surround the town; and the Elders lead daily prayer around the Sacred Pipe and remain vigilant.

I was requested to come to Pine Ridge by both the Elders of the Oyate and some tribal officials to assist in a peaceful resolution of the standoff in light of my 20 years experience as an attorney and activist with indigenous peoples on issues of political, economic and environmental self- determination. My goal was to organize and begin a project for the restructuring of the tribal constitution that would restore traditional Lakota values and cultural to the governing process.

There was, however, an immediate need to help stop the financial hemorrhaging, reassert presidential authority and keep the BIA and the FBI from using force to impose their own solution (which would change nothing). At the direction of the Elders, I worked and continue to work closely with the president for this purpose, going to tribal court, meeting with police and standing up to the BIA. Yet the Elders have consistently said this was not the most significant thing - the heart of the takeover is the need to change the structure of the government. Unless the system is changed, these problems will reoccur as they have over and over again since the U.S. forced Indian nations to accept the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) government format in the 1930's.

The IRA had two express purposes: to break up Indian communal government and tribal identity, and to bring "modern and efficient" governing systems to Indian nations. In the 66 years since it was imposed through fraudulent voting and intimidation, the IRA has done more damage than bullets to tribal self-determination. The "modern" systems disenfranchised the Elders from formal or meaningful participation, created secrecy and privilege in open, generous societies, fostered individual gain for elected officials at the expense of communal welfare, destroyed consensus decisionmaking, and allowed the federal government to exercise both subtle and heavy-handed interference and control in internal tribal affairs from land ownership to tribal membership. In sum, the IRA has worked to shred the social, political and cultural fabric of indigenous societies by eroding the traditional processes and relations that are a true reflection of who these people are.

Although the IRA allows tribes to revise their constitutions, few have done much more than reform some of the more dysfunctional aspects of the system. The IRA has stayed intact because of fear, lack of information about how to change, and outright pressure and misinformation by the BIA about what can be done.

My work with other tribes and indigenous communities in several countries has given me insight as to how to incorporate traditional values tnd ways into the governing process so that tribal government may reflect the people it is supposed to serve. We have begun this work in the Oglala Lakota Nation by listening to the people, talking candidly on KILI radio and in public meetings about some of the subtle dynamics of the IRA and what can be done to change it, as well as creating a community-based framework where all segments of Lakota society can participate, share their knowledge and expertise and contribute to the creation of a new government that reflects who the people are. This is deep cultural, political and spiritual work, guided always by the wisdom and authority of the Elders. I am honored to be a part of this historic process of rebirth of Lakota self-governance.

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