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Lakota Sioux have not withdrawn from the US

All over my LJ friends page in the past couple of days, and on reddit and other places on the net, was this AFP article:
    Descendants of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse break away from US

    The Lakota Indians, who gave the world legendary warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, have withdrawn from treaties with the United States, leaders said Wednesday.

    "We are no longer citizens of the United States of America and all those who live in the five-state area that encompasses our country are free to join us," long-time Indian rights activist Russell Means told a handful of reporters and a delegation from the Bolivian embassy, gathered in a church in a run-down neighborhood of Washington for a news conference.

    A delegation of Lakota leaders delivered a message to the State Department on Monday, announcing they were unilaterally withdrawing from treaties they signed with the federal government of the United States, some of them more than 150 years old.
Since then, this story has been picked up in about this form by:
  • Some foreign press
  • Questionable domestic media like UPI, Capitol Hill Blue, and Fox News
  • Not by the likes of CNN or the New York Times
In this case, the "respectable" media got it right: it's an interesting but minor story, and AFP's presentation is glaringly wrong. "The Lakota Sioux" have done no such thing.

These stories cite Russell Means as the source of the declaration, but follow AFP's lead in calling him a tribal "leader" and implying he represents the Lakota Sioux, without giving the actual context. To be sure, Russell Means is an activist "leader" with a great claim to fame & notoriety: he led the American Indian Movement's occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.

However, the Sioux tribes have elected leaders too, not just notoriously famous activists. Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is part of the Oglala Sioux tribe, and Russell Means has in fact repeatedly run for president of the Oglala - but has never actually been elected. Although I'm not sure what mechanism there is for the entire Lakota Sioux to make a decision like this, or who gets to represent them and speak on their behalf, I'm quite sure that a press release by someone who keeps losing elections for the presidency of his own tribe (one of several that make up the Lakota Sioux) isn't it.

Stories in the local & native press reported this story with more context and a better perspective on what it means...

Tim Giago's indianz.com:
    A group called Lakota Freedom Delegation is withdrawing from the treaties their ancestors signed with the U.S. and is setting up their own independent nation. Four activists, including Russell Means, were in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to announce their plans. [...]


The Rapid City Journal (South Dakota):
    Political activist Russell Means, a founder of the American Indian Movement, says he and other members of Lakota tribes have renounced treaties and are withdrawing from the United States.
    [...]
    Means' group is based in Porcupine on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is not an agency or branch of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Means ran unsuccessfully for president of the tribe in 2006.


The Sioux Falls Argus Leader has the most cogent explanation of what this actually means:
    A group of "freedom-loving" Lakota activists announced a plan Wednesday for their people to withdraw from treaties their forefathers signed with the U.S. government. Headed by leaders of the American Indian Movement, including activist, actor and Porcupine resident Russell Means, the group dropped in on the State Department and the embassies of Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile and South Africa this week seeking recognition for their effort to form a free and independent Lakota nation. The group plans to visit more embassies in the coming months.
    [...]
    "I want to emphasize, we do not represent the collaborators, the Vichy Indians and those tribal governments set up by the United States of America to ensure our poverty, to ensure the theft of our land and resources," Means said, comparing elected tribal governments to Nazi collaborators in France during World War II.

    Rodney Bordeaux, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said his community has no desire to join the breakaway nation. Means and his group, which call themselves the Lakota Freedom Delegation, have never officially pitched their views to the Rosebud community, Bordeaux said. "Our position on that is we need to uphold the treaties, and we're constantly reminding Congress of that message," Bordeaux said. "We're pushing to maintain and to keep the treaties there because they're the basis of our relationship with the federal government."


In other words, a group of prominent activists from a controversial group (AIM) are shopping around for recognition of an independent country they want to declare. They have issued a press release about it, and met with some embassies, and some of those embassies are saying "this is interesting" or "we'll talk about it". The people who would be part of this country, the Lakota Sioux, could join it by choosing to renounce US citizenship, but both the people and the land in question currently already have elected tribal governments and as far as we know, none of those governments have anything to do with this press release, nor do we know if anyone besides these four activists wants to join this country-in-declaration-only. Regardless of Russell Means' explanations for why it is legal for the Lakota to withdraw from treaties and have their own country, nobody has presented any reason why his group of activists has any legal standing to do so, so the talk of withdrawing from treaties is a red herring to distract us from the fact that this is, so far, nothing more than a press release looking for recognition.



P.S. In early 2006, Oglala President Cecelia Fire Thunder got some blog publicity and national news when South Dakota passed a law banning all abortions and she suggested the Oglala would open an abortion clinic on tribal land. Since then, Fire Thunder has been impeached over money issues, and South Dakota repealed its abortion ban in a vote later that year.

Back in March 2006, when this story first came up, I did some research and posted about it on Daily Kos. I exchanged emails with Tim Giago, who broke the story on Indianz.com after Fire Thunder made the remark privately to him and then told him he could publish it. Giago founded the first American Indian newspaper in the country, The Lakota Times, in 1981, and earlier this year became the first American Indian added to the SD Newspaper Hall of Fame. In 2004, he briefly ran for US Senate against Tom Daschle, then withdrew.

It just so happens that President Fire Thunder's opponent in the 2004 election was Russell Means; and that Tim Giago, a friend of Fire Thunder, is a strong opponent of Means (and AIM) in tribal politics. So, several of the comments I got on that dailykos post about Sioux tribal politics talked about Russell Means. If you're interested, I recommend reading through them.

P.P.S. I emailed Tim Giago to ask his take on this new incident, and will update this post if he writes back.
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