Friday, December 21, 2007

The First Day of Freedom for a nation?

h/t Sara, at Sara Speaking.

Today is a very special day.
It's a day that I am both excited, and terrified by.

Today is the first full day of the Lakota nation's independence.

The Lakota Sioux have officially, and permanently withdrawn their nation from all previously signed treaties with the United States government on the grounds that the United States has historically ignored and continues to ignore the conditions of those treaties. Like many Native American tribes, the Lakota sought, repeatedly, to gain the respect and fair treatment they deserve through treaties and by following the orders of the United States government... but to no success. They signed these treaties in good faith with the government, and the government has consistently refused to honor those agreements, So, they've decided to take a stand:

After 150 years of colonial enforcement, when you back people into a corner there is only one alternative... the only alternative is to bring freedom into its existence by taking it back to the love of freedom, to our lifeway.

We are the freedom loving Lakota from the Sioux Indian reservations of Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana who have traveled to Washington DC to withdraw from the constitutionally mandated treaties to become a free and independent country. We are alerting the Family of Nations we have now reassumed our freedom and independence with the backing of Natural, International, and United States law.

The Lakota are pretty explicit about why they've taken this step:

For far too long our people have suffered at the hands of the colonial apartheid system imposed on the Lakota Sioux. Our treaties with the United States government are nothing more than worthless words on worthless paper - repeatedly violated in order to steal our culture, our land and our ability to maintain our way of life.

The devastation this has wrought is clear:
Lakota men have a life expectancy of less than 44 years, lowest of any country in the World (excluding AIDS) including Haiti.
The Lakota infant mortality rate is 5x the U.S. Average.
The Tuberculosis rate on Lakota reservations is approx 800% higher than the U.S national average.
97% of our Lakota people live below the poverty line.
Unemployment rates on our reservations are approximately 85%.
Teenage suicide rate is 150% higher than the U.S national average for this group.
Our Lakota language is an Endangered Language, on the verge of extinction.

On the one hand, I'm tremendously excited, because I want to see the Lakota succeed- the treatment of the Lakota at the hands of our government has been, to put it simply, horrific, and it's wonderful to see them pushing back, holding the United States responsible for failing ot honor their treaties, and becoming a part of the international community (they've been meeting with representatives from a number of other nations, including Bolivia and Venezuela).

And, to be honest, part of my excitement comes from a really selfish place. I have Native American ancestors, and I don't know anything about them, except very generally what tribes they were probably from, because all of the records of their lives have long since been destroyed, often by the orders of the government, but also by the desire and need to "fit in" with a society that devalued the lives and experiences of "savage" natives. So, it brings my heart great joy to see a tribe taking a stand.

On the other hand, it's also scary.

Mostly, it's scary wondering what the official reaction of the government will be. This is not a government known for its level-headedness. I honestly can't even begin to think of what kind of reaction to expect. A shrug? A refusal to accept the withdrawal? A show of force? The complete destruction of all treaties with all tribes? The "taking back" of all reservation lands, basically forcing all Native Americans off of their land again?

It's scary not to know what to expect from the government. And, honestly, I don't even know what to expect from the general public. How many people are going to see this as threatening? There's already tremendous misinformation spread about what Native American reservations are like- they're generally not very pretty, and they don't usually have lots of casinos and money floating around- and I can imagine that there are a lot of people who still think of Native populations as being savages living backwards lives. Even now, people continue to have this image of tribal nations as being completely without electricity, full of uneducated people drinking away their lives. Very little effort is taken to see what any of the tribal nations are really like.

Many of the comments I've seen on various sites about this have been supportive, but there are still comments like this one, from Suhlig, at USAToday:

I understand the frustration of the Lakota nation, but this is all part of our HISTORY.. what happened to the Native American all over the country (not just the Lakota,) is a horrible part of our nations past.. lets leave it there..we should not forget but we should also not dwell on it. If the indian people are having a hard time on the reservations, maybe they should get of the res. and join the real world. It is not the rest of the countries fault that some of the Lakota people cannot seem to function in society. I have had opportunities to be around many Lakota people and they are smart, funny likeable and honest.. I think maybe you need to find someone other than Mr. Means to lead you to success..

If you really understand the frustrations of the Lakota, you wouldn't think that this is all just a part of history. Yes, it's a part of history- but it's a part of an ongoing history. What happened is definitely horrible- but it's not over. The suggestion that the Lakota shouldn't "dwell on it" is insulting, but only marginally as insulting as suggesting that they should get off of the reservation and join "the real world". Because, what? Life is only real if you're working to become like middle-class America? But, of course, it's because the Lakota "cannot seem to function in society." And that's not our fault. It's not like our government has done everything possible to see them fail for 150+ years.

I sincerely hope that this turns out for the best. It sounds like the Lakota are working with other nations to build an infrastructure- they're apparently building alternative energy sources: "Energy independence using solar, wind, geothermal, and sugar beets enables Lakota to protect our freedom and provide electricity and heating to our people." And they're going to start issuing their own passports and driver's licenses. Unemployment, and lack of resources for education and health care have been significant problems for the Lakota, but I haven't seen anything yet that discusses what plans are in place for dealing with those issues.

I'm going to be following this story very closely.

If you're interested in learning more: Lakota Freedom

You can see the Declaration of Continuing Independence by the First International Indian Treaty Council at Standing Rock Indian Country June 1974 here.

No comments: