Ivan Starr: An underhanded erosion of our tribal sovereignty

The following opinion by Ivan F. Starr appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

Ivan F. Starr

We were never taught about tribal sovereignty in our school days

Like many residents here on the Pine Ridge, I too am unaware of what has been happening with our police within the past five years. So I engaged in a self-study and learned some interesting facts. Of course there is more to what we are actually seeing and this is but a tiny glimpse into this remarkably dire situation.

The most obvious situation is that our tribal Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been functioning with a severe shortage of funds. Regardless of what has occurred in the past, we have a crisis wherein our safety, health, and our lives are at risk. Actually, we have been surviving amidst the widespread, if not flourishing, illegal drug trafficking and the enduring alcohol-related events.

We cannot rightfully blame the DPS but that is exactly what has been happening. Let’s remember that our officers are someone’s relatives. I was surprised to find, even after nearly forty years, a few people are still nervous about the idea of reinstituting federal law enforcement. Obviously, the 1970’s fears are still present. I assumed that this would have played itself out by now.

Also, there is a lot of tribal government activity that remains unknown or vague to the public simply because they have not been adequately informed. This situation leaves a lot to the public’s imagination (rumors) and contributes to a growing mistrust toward tribal government. These adverse circumstances should not exist, but they do. That reputed “light at the end of the tunnel” does not appear to exist either.

I believe an immediate and achievable tribal government action is to plan a measured and sustained action to create interconnection and cohesion with its voting population. In other words, the voters need to be informed sufficiently and continually about tribal government activity. Such action will most certainly benefit everyone.

An even more attainable action is for individual constituents to understand the history of tribal police, tribal government, and tribal sovereignty. This is not an instant solution, but once it is accomplished, it will be awfully hard for anyone to erode. Now, let’s take a quick peek at something that affects us all.

The idea of federal “Indian” police came into existence in 1880 and was organized by Commissioner John Q. Tufts, Muskogee Indian Territory. He used officers from the Five Civilized Tribes’ (FCT) police force known as the “light horsemen.” These officers were under the absolute jurisdiction of the FCT. The new “Indian” police were placed under the jurisdiction of the federal “Indian” agent.

Actually, maintaining tribal (not federal) police and court systems is an inherent right. Unless a treaty or act of congress further erodes tribal sovereignty, it remains unimpeded. For this reason we have our own laws about gambling, hunting, fishing, etc. We must always be aware of the fact that the federal government has tried repeatedly to diminish the strength of tribal sovereignty.

It is an undeniable fact that Congress controlled reservations for decades and has repeatedly dismantled genuine Lakota leadership structures. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) supposedly reversed this erosion of tribal sovereignty. But as the Oglala assumed control, this system of government became autocratic and about half of the voters moved into a state of despondency.

Undoubtedly, managing courts and police forces require logistical support and tons of money. Although federal appropriations and grants can enhance a tribe’s police system, it has not happened with our DPS. The bottom line is that a reduced amount of these appropriations always arrived at the local level.

Regardless, we now have qualified Lakota police officers, lawyers, prosecutors and judges. Why then is our tribal government reluctant to go after resources to strengthen our sovereignty? Instead, they choose to engage in petty and personal politics while subtly sustaining the continuing erosion of our sovereignty.

Sovereignty means supreme and independent authority within a geographic area. Our ancestors had absolute sovereignty when they signed those treaties. Treaty rights, casinos, tribal police and courts are possible here because of that inherent sovereignty, even though it is now of a limited nature.

This quasi-sovereign status allowed us to protect our language, culture, and our remaining Lakota treaty lands in ways that would be impossible if it did not exist. In other words, we were able to do these things without state and federal intrusion. This limited sovereignty is what differentiates us from the rest of this country. We are not subject to state jurisdiction.

Tribal sovereignty, as limited as it is, is still a solid political authority. Let us not forget the fact that U.S. government has successfully eroded tribal political powers and diminished our sovereignty. Examples are the Major Crimes Act (1885) and Public Law 280 (1953) and we cannot maintain an army or mint our own currency.

We must also be aware of the fact that not one of us living today was taught one word about traditional government, law, education, treaties, sovereignty, etc., during our formative years. We must grasp the fact that there was a purpose to this peculiarity and that was to wear away our sovereignty. Sovereignty is essential to our existence as a culturally distinct group of people.

We were taught a partisan U.S. history and government in junior and high school, which have shaped our perception (s) of our world today. At the same time, our own Lakota history and government were cunningly concealed to remove them from the Lakota psyche. Although we have been influenced by this shrewd federal mind-altering scheme, we can still fight it by taking the time to learn the truth. I offer this small peek into our factual relationship with the newcomers to the land with the hope that it takes root among the residents of the home land. I pray our treaty elders will talk to our tribal educators about developing a candid, impartial, quality curriculum for the youth of the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota People. Our educators must respect the knowledge of these elders.

I rue the fact that this did not happen many decades ago. Our youth are the only ones who can make a real and lasting difference. Young people are our future and it is our responsibility to provide that proverbial Canku waste (good path) for them to travel on in their time.

Enough with this persistent and underhanded federal erosion of our tribal sovereignty! It’s all we have left and we ought to be defending it with every breath we take.

(Ivan F. Starr, P.O. Box 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448; mato_nasula2@yahoo.com)

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