Treaty rights today


Treaty rights today

I’ve been thinking about the upsurge in Indian activism over recent years. The sudden rise of the Idle No More movement – which began in Canada and swept through the Western Hemisphere – was quite a surprise, as a new generation of activists made their presence, and grievances, known.

Young Indians, along with graying American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders who brought Indian issues to the world more than four decades ago, also have spearheaded a renewed movement to stop the exploitation of Indian culture and religion by professional sports teams. Thousands of Indians and their allies marched to TCF Bank Stadium on the U of M campus, on Nov. 2, 2014, to protest the continuing racist slur propounded by the NFL’s Washington franchise.

And tribal leaders and activists have been an important factor in the popular resistance to the continuous assault on the land from oil and gas interests, and multinational mining firms. In Minnesota, for example, the White Earth Nation, along with environmental groups, has campaigned against the Sandpiper Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the Bakken oil field in No. Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. The project received approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC); but in September the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a full environmental impact review had to be completed before moving ahead with a certificate of need proceeding.

In the case of proposed copper-nickel mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, the concept of Indian sovereignty provides a legal framework for protecting the natural environment. Specifically, reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands ceded in 19th century treaties between Indian nations and the United States provide the legal underpinning to tribal intervention

When I started as journalist in Indian Country, in the late-1970s, I was fortunate to meet a number of elders who carried knowledge of the lifeways of their peoples: Phillip Deere, of the Muscogee Nation (Oklahoma), David Sohappy, of the Wanapum Band of the Yakama Nation (Washington), and many others.

I also had the good luck to meet Vine Deloria, Jr., of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (So. Dakota). Deloria, a former executive director of National Congress of American Indians, made Indian sovereignty and culture comprehensible to a wide audience through his books, including Custer Died for Your Sins, God Is Red, Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties and The Nations Within (with Clifford Lytle).

In God Is Red, for example, Deloria explains that the lands on which people resided gave birth to the religions that arose: “The chance that lands would be lost meant that religious communities would be destroyed and individual identities forsaken. As sacred mountains became secularized, as tribal burial grounds became cornfields, as tribes no longer lived on the dust of their ancestors’ bones, the people knew that they could not survive.”

In the 19th century treaties between Indian nations and the U.S. government, Indian leaders recognized that an irresistible wave of European immigrants was flooding the land; and, as they relinquished their ancestral land to the new nation, they had the wisdom to reserve their rights to sustenance within the ceded territories.

Of course, after treating with the Indians, the U.S. government often engaged in double-dealing; the U.S., broke treaties at its whim. Such was the case with 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, between the U.S. and the Great Sioux Nation and Arapaho. In 1874, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills, accompanied by miners looking for gold. And when gold miners usurped the Sioux hunting grounds, they demanded protection from the Army. Things came to a head at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn), in 1876.

I happened to be at an Indian gathering in Montana, the 1980 International Indian Treaty Conference, an AIM-led annual summer forum, when the Indian Claims Commission announced that the Sioux would be compensated for violations of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty – with money. A sum of $105 million was awarded; and I was startled to see the Lakota people gathered on the Fort Belknap reservation react to the news of the settlement with anger and with tears.

So I learned that, along with the land, the treaties are sacred, at least to the heirs of the Indians who negotiated these contracts, which take supremacy over all other laws, according to the U.S. Constitution.

I’m not a treaty law expert, but I know that treaty rights have been upheld by the Supreme Court; and this acknowledgment of Indian sovereignty will continue to play a useful role in efforts to beat back energy development schemes and extractive industries that threaten the survival of Indian nations, and of the earth’s ability to sustain life for coming generations of humans and other living creatures.