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Revolution long in coming

By Charmaine White Face

The crisis with the government on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota was inevitable. Anytime a group of people is subjected to a government that is not their choosing, then eventually a revolution will happen. Combine an unwanted form of government with corruption, then the seeds of change are sown.

How did this all happen right in the middle of the U.S. of A.? A revolution? A corrupt government not wanted by the people?

But isn’t the tribal government a constitutional democracy? Sounds more like what would happen in a Third World nation in South America or Africa, not in the middle of the United States.

This call for change began on Jan. 16 when a group of protesters entered the Red Cloud building, the seat of the Oglala Sioux Tribe government and began an occupation of the building shutting down the tribal government. Their actions were initially precipitated by a request last fall to indebt the Tribe — the Oglala Lakota people — with yet another multi-million dollar bond.

The disclosure of the nearly half million dollars of tribal money spent by elected officials on miscellaneous items that caused the need for more money triggered questions about other uses of tribal funds. But the final catalyst was when more that 60 police were to be laid off because of lack of funds.

The people have been continually frustrated by the lack of information as to exactly what was, or what was not, in the tribal coffers, after decades of allegations of the mishandling of tribal funds. The protesters demanded the ouster of the tribe’s treasurer and an audit of all the tribe’s accounts for the past five years. The tribal president tried to suspend the treasurer but was stymied in his efforts by the Tribal Constitution. Under pressure from the people, the Tribal Council did suspend the treasurer for a 20-day period.

By this time, the protesters had succeeded in acquiring a copy of the tribe’s General Fund expenditures for November 1998 to December 1999, which showed how much, above and beyond their salaries, every council representative and executive committee member was receiving.

The tribal president then tried to suspend a majority of the council who were also trying to suspend him. The tribal president was again stymied by the Constitution; however, the council was not. The vice president is currently in charge of the administration of all tribal business. As far as the audits go, the local superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said there was not enough money to do an audit going back five years, only one year.

The tribal council has gone on record requesting the intervention of an outside agency, such as tribal marshals. The local tribal police will not remove the protesters stating the protesters have done nothing wrong as the Red Cloud building is a public building and is being occupied peacefully.

The protesters say they are "monitoring" the documents so that no records can be changed, or disappear. They also say they will not leave until the current treasurer is discharged. In the meantime, a makeshift office has been established in another building where the treasurer and council are conducting business.

How did it reach this point? There are a number of reasons. One is the lack of a separation of powers in the existing tribal constitution. There is no separation between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Therefore, the people have nowhere to turn for any type of injustice by the tribal government. This also includes the inability of the people to be able to remove a tribal council representative or any other constitutional officer once he/she has gained office. But there are no checks or balances on the tribal council. The tribal council controls everything. They can remove people at will from jobs or elected positions and are protected by sovereign immunity.

Another reason is the question of the legality of the tribal constitution based on the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. "Treaty people" state that the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868 are still legal and binding. They are calling for international and congressional hearings on the March 2, 1889, act passed by the United States which supposedly abrogates those treaties.

A second consideration is the actual vote in favor of the tribal constitution. The constitutional form of government for the Oglala Sioux Tribe began with the Wheeler-Howard Act, or the Indian Reorganization Act, as it is more commonly known, which was passed on June 18, 1934, by the United States government. Section 16 of the Indian Reorganization Act states: "Any Indian tribe, or tribes, residing on the same reservation, shall have the right to organize for its common welfare, and may adopt an appropriate constitution and bylaws, which shall become effective when ratified by a majority vote of the adult members of the tribe, or of the adult Indians residing on such reservation."

The U.S. government forced elections on many reservations including Pine Ridge. One account states that on Oct. 27, 1934, elections were held at the Pine Ridge agency to determine if the Oglala Sioux people would live under a constitutional form of government. This was only four months after the passage of the law. Of the total voting population of 4,075, only 1,169 or 28.7 percent, said yes. This clearly was not a majority of the voters. Another election was held. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Constitution states that it was adopted on Dec. 11, 1935, by a vote of 1,348 for, and 1,041 against, but it fails to mention the total voting population. Did 1,700 voters just disappear in one year’s time?

The election in December 1935 clearly was not passed by a majority of the voters. However, in violation of its own law, the United States imposed its will and the Indian Reorganization Act government became the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council.

S. Lyman Tyler, in writing the history of Indian Policy for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1973, stated in a summary on page 132: "Constitutions were not properly prepared for particular groups. The philosophy of the IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) itself was violated in that the Indians did not play a truly significant part in preparing these documents… As a result the meaning of these instruments of government were often quite foreign to them.

"The IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) was conceived by the Indian Service for the Indians. The community life patterns of some Indian tribes are not compatible with its principles. Programming must be done at the community level with Indian participation."

These "errors" were evident as early as 1944, according to Tyler’s work!

If the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized the deficiencies in the Indian Reorganization Act tribal governments, why haven’t reforms been developed? Why hasn’t the Bureau of Indian Affairs done anything about the deficiencies if, as Tyler states, they knew about these within a few years of the passage of the IRA? Why didn’t the Bureau of Indian Affairs correct the situation in 1973 when Tyler gave his report?

By that time there were many of us who not only read English but had college degrees and could have helped. Why didn’t the BIA, and their bosses, want this to happen?

It was only a matter of time before a revolution occurred at Pine Ridge. The patience of the people has been amazing considering the poverty and civil rights violations they endured. Hopefully, the outcome of this revolution will be true peace which includes justice, not just the absence of conflict.

(Charmaine White Face is a former tribal treasurer for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.)
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