Two weeks ago, I went to New York with a delegation from the Republic of Lakotah, to utilize the annual meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII, May 16-27). The primary purpose of the trip was to utilize past and present allies in the indigenous struggle to aid us in visiting a small, select group of other Nation’s Missions and their Ambassadors to the United Nation to discuss the international character of treaties between my people, the Lakota, and the United States of America.
In 1851 and 1868, the Lakotah, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho nations had militarily defeated the United States, and the United States had requested peace. Our nations agreed to peace at a treaty negotiation at Fort Laramie. The treaties were international instruments between two independent nations, unambiguous and unequivocal in defining the territories of the indigenous nations involved—it covered an area the size of the contemporary country of Guatemala.
Since the time of the signing of the treaty, the Lakotah have insisted that the United States respect its obligations under the treaties. Our insistence has even taken us to the United States Supreme Court. Now, how ridiculous is that, for us to go to the violator of the treaties, expecting that same violator to force itself to live up to its own laws. How can we allow an international contract dispute to be decided by the Violator?
Over the past century, one thing has become clear—the United States wanted to take its benefit from the treaties, and it never intended to abide by the other essential treaty provisions. OK, we get it. The US certainly is not going to begin to respect the treaties today.
There are some who say, “Well, if we don’t have our treaty, we have nothing.” To them, I say, “Look around you. You already have nothing! You experience the worst poverty, the worst health, the worst environmental problems, the worst of everything, plus they have stolen your territory, your freedom, and your self-respect. Wake up! What you wave around in the name of ‘sovereignty’ is no longer a treaty, it is a broken contract!”
Let’s be clear, if the US decides that it is not going to abide by the treaties (and it has done so repeatedly), then there must be consequences for that decision—just like if you sell me your car, but I do not pay you the money for your car. I don’t get to keep the car just because I have grown accustomed to driving it. Neither does the US get to keep our territory just because it allowed its citizens to invade and occupy our homeland, build homes and businesses, and steal wealth and resources from our homeland.
Article 37 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PDF document) directly addresses this point:
Indigenous peoples have the right to the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements concluded with States or their successors and to have States honor and respect such treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements. Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as diminishing or eliminating the rights of indigenous peoples contained in treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.
Our treaties are international instruments, and require enforcement. If the US is not going to honor its obligations then international law is clear about an equitable remedy for that breach. Under the established international legal principle of inadimplanti non est adimplendum (“one has no need to respect his obligation if the counter-party has not respected his own”), if one party to a treaty consistently refuses to abide by the treaty, then the parties have to return to their original positions before the treaty was signed.
When I first came to New York in 1975 to help establish the UN office of the International Indian Treaty Council, we were in the midst of an indigenous revolution. (Two years before, we had liberated our community of Wounded Knee, indigenous peoples were on the move.) By 1977, we had kicked open the doors of the UN, and demanded our seat at the table of nations. In my recent visit to the UN, I was dismayed and saddened by what has happened since that time.
In the years since 1977, that revolution that we began has become bogged down in bureaucracy and procedure that divert and sidetrack our right to be free. Countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand trot out their sell-out “Natives” like puppets to mouth the ongoing genocidal policy of those countries. The original indigenous revolutionaries have been replaced by “technicians” who accept crumbs from the invaders who continue to seek to destroy us.
People in the throes of genocide are given five minutes to tell their story, with no recourse—it’s just on to the next speaker. It is time to renew the teachings of our ancestors.
We need a renewal of the international indigenous revolution, one that does not ask permission from the invaders of our homelands, one that recalls the original message of our ancestors never to surrender, one that advances our natural right to be free and independent peoples, with international personality and dignity and respect. The Republic of Lakotah is not waiting. We have renewed our strategies with other freedom-loving indigenous peoples, with countries like Bolivia who understand and support our aspirations, and with international civil society. We now encourage a new generation of indigenous young people to shake off their cynicism, put their talents to work, and take their place in history by writing the next chapter with us in the international indigenous revolution.
Russell Means, Oglala/Iynktowan, is Chief Facilitator, Republic of Lakotah (republicoflakotah.com), and author of the autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread.