In a recent article the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity website posed the question is “The Cliven Bundy Standoff: Wounded Knee Revisited?” As a Dakota woman with painful family memories of the atrocities that took place at Wounded Knee in 1890 when some 300 Lakota were massacred by the U.S. Army—including 200 women and children—I take issue with the comparison. Cliven Bundy’s situation — a wealthy rancher refusing to pay his government a relatively unsubstantial 20 years of grazing fees — is nothing like what our people faced at the end of a terrible war with the United States. These sort of careless exaggerations and conflations of our own painful and real history of dispossession by the Right Wing is both predatory and despicable.
The article that follows Ron Paul’s headline is a fairly dry history lesson on the total war tactics the U.S. military pursued in their war against the Great Sioux Nation, the seven bands speaking three dialects (Dakota/Lakota/Nakota), known in our own language as the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Campfires. As much as I appreciate the sharing of this history, the purpose of it was not to demand redress or a reassessment of these historic wrongs but to act as a call to arms for causes like Bundy’s—nothing more.
And it is not the first time the far right have made this comparison. Last year, gun control opponents circulated on Facebook and Twitter the graphic photo of frozen Lakota victims being buried in a mass grave at Wounded Knee with taglines saying “Wounded Knee was among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history. It ended in the senseless murder of 297 people.” A meme also made the rounds featuring a vintage portrait of a Native leader emblazoned with the words, “I’m all for total gun control and trusting the government to protect you, after all it worked great for us” around his face.
Disregard if you can the incredible callousness of using such tragedies to limit restrictions on sales of automatic weapons and to prevent a three-day waiting period for gun purchase—all of which have been shown to save lives; instead I would like to explain to the American public the very real difference between these two fights: one for sovereignty of a pre-existing nation states on this continent and the other, for what Bundy and his supporters call the “Sovereign Citizen” movement, which basically translates to: they make up the rules.
Native Americans, for one, are more than just an ethnic group or simply just American citizens. Until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, most were not citizens of the United States and were still just citizens of our own nations within the borders of the United States. But for many, full citizenship with voting rights did not come about until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So for most of U.S. history, the only real citizenship Native Americans could claim was for their respective Native nations.
When tribes speak of “being nations,” they are not being prosaic or nostalgic, they are speaking of the real political status our nations hold internationally. There are tribes that issue passports; states have no jurisdiction over our lands (something they dislike greatly). And the constant discussion of honoring treaties is not something to be taken lightly, either. The U.S. government only signs treaties with other nations, not with ethnic groups. These treaties are ratified by Congress, and under international law, a nation state cannot treaty away its sovereignty. Hence, Native Nations still exist. Under U.S. Indian Federal Law we are called “Domestic Dependent Nations,” a term I dislike because the designation relies on a 15th century Papal Bull, the Doctrine of Discovery. This edict from the Pope, awarded land title of “discovered lands” only to Christian, “discovering nations.” Non-Christian, “discovered peoples” possess only the right to exist on the land similar to the rights of animals. To this day, this doctrine underlies much of U.S. legal claims to the land within the United States. The Doctrine is, itself, a denial of the basic human right of Indigenous Peoples to title to their land and taints American policies and perception of our nations to this day.
Bundy’s hullabaloo is particularly ironic considering that the Western Shoshone Nation’s claim to the land predates his own. He has declared he will only recognize the original sovereignty of the state of Nevada. Despite the fact that Nevada existed only as a territory of the United States, and as such has no pre-existing claims to sovereign status. Only the 13 original colonies possessed sovereignty prior to the United States existed. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico gave up Mexican claims but did not guarantee Indigenous land rights. Shoshone sovereignty over the area of the Bundy’s graze their cattle was recognized by the U.S. Government via treaty with the Treaty of Ruby Valley (1863)—a treaty that did not include any land concessions.
In the blog post Millionaire Mormon Ranchers Always Get their Way, Indians Get Off Your Land!, Native American blogger Ogichidaag compares the U.S. government’s reaction to Cliven Bundy & his armed militia to the Dann sisters and their fight for Shoshone land rights:
“Now contrast this with the treatment of Western Shoshone Tribal members Carrie and Mary Dann in 1998 after grazing cattle on land that was rightfully theirs since 1973 the U.S. government ordered them off of their own land. In 2003 Federal agents with back up from local cowboys swept onto the Dann sisters traditional grazing lands in helicopters, on ATVs, and on horseback they confiscated 504 horses that belonged to the Dann sisters. At one point elder Clifford Dann doused himself with gasoline to stop federal agents to no avail. In the end the Federal government hung a 3 million dollar bill around the Dann sisters necks and kept their horses. Mary Dann passed on in 2005 at the age of 82. Carrie is still with us. The Western Shoshone land claim was upheld by the United Nations. The United States refuses to acknowledge the treaty.”
In 1979, the U.S. government attempted to legitimize claims to Shoshone land (which encompasses nearly all of Nevada) by paying $26 million to the Department of the Interior for 24 million acres. It should be noted that the Department of the Interior is a branch of the federal government—hence the government paid itself for Shoshone land. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that this payment to the Department of the Interior was, in fact, Shoshone acceptance of payment for their land. In 2004, the U.S. attempted to distribute $145 million as payment for Shoshone land in Nevada. Seven of nine of the Western Shoshone tribal councils have refused to accept this payment and are holding fast to their demand the original treaty be honored. In 2006, the same year the U.S. District Court for Nevada dismissed Shoshone claims, United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found “credible information alleging that the Western Shoshone indigenous people are being denied their traditional rights to land.” So, if Cliven Bundy wishes to pay taxes or grazing fees—he should pay it to the Shoshone.
Contrast the armed and primarily White stand-off at the Bundy Ranch to the peaceful “Cowboys and Indians” stand-offs ongoing in South Dakota and Nebraska where Native American and White landowners have joined together to fight the Keystone XL Pipeline. They have held peaceful tipi encampments along the pipeline route and recently did a giant crop art in a Nebraska corn field that says, “Heartland = NoKXL.”
I find the unity being forged in the Cowboy Indian Alliance far more interesting and representative of the true ideas of our collective nationhood. The very origins of the United States can be traced to speeches the leader of the Iroquois Confederacy gave to the colonists the generation before the Revolution. Speeches that were translated by Benjamin Franklin (yes, he spoke Mohawk) and published by his printing press. This was his first bestseller. It is indigenous ideas of what it means to be a people, of democratic rule that are the inspiration for America, itself. It make sense then, that it would be my Yankton Dakota Sioux relatives and farmers and ranchers from South Dakota and Nebraska who are leading the fight for a new idea of what American will be in the 21st century.
My dad’s cousins Faith Spotted Eagle and Philip Lane Jr. have been active in the fight. When I was home in Lake Andes, South Dakota at the Yankton Sioux casino last summer, I found Faith busy holding a conference with white ranchers and farmers from Bold, Nebraska. They were united in their efforts to protect their water and their way of life on the land against the pipeline. This Earth Day, they will take their message to Washington, D.C. and hold a tipi encampment on the Washington Mall.
In Dakota, we call such encampments Tiyospaye a word that means more than just a circle of tipis, it represented as my great-great aunt Ella Deloria wrote how, “all Dakota people were held together in a great relationship that was theoretically all-inclusive and coextensive within the Dakota domain.” The bounds that tie us together as a people through kinship are what makes us Dakota (allies) and without it we cease to exist as a nation or as they say in Dakota, Oyate. It is this lesson that will carry the day, not the tired and divisive ideas of Bundy and his militia.