Manape LaMere, who has renounced his citizenship in the Yankton Sioux Tribe and signed an affidavit for defection from the United States, stands outside of his yurt at the Wiconi Un Tipi Camp on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Wiconi Un Tipi Camp rises to fight back against another controversial pipeline

A model for an independent Native nation

Camp rises on Lower Brule Sioux Reservation
By Kevin Abourezk

LOWER BRULE, South Dakota – Something called Maria Birch to this place.

It was the same inner voice that convinced her to return to Standing Rock last fall after traveling there initially as a reporter for a small newspaper in Chamberlain, South Dakota. Her editor had asked her to travel to North Dakota to write about a group of men and women from the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe who had joined tens of thousands of Native Americans and their allies to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Birch jumped at the chance to report on the protest but told her editor: If I go to Standing Rock, I might not return.

Since first learning about the protest, she had felt compelled to join the fight against greed and the destruction of natural resources. And while she returned home after first visiting Standing Rock, it wasn’t long before she was on the road north once again. This time, she stayed for several months, serving as the cook for the Kul Wicasa Camp inside the larger Oceti Sakowin Camp.

“My life changed profoundly being at camp,” she said. “I can’t express how profoundly.”

The 67-year-old former journalist turned activist shares her story while sitting inside a yurt – a circular tent covered in multiple layers of coverings and supported by wood latticework – on a windswept plateau a few miles from the Missouri River. A small herd of horses can be seen through an open door.

Here at the Wiconi Un Tipi Camp near Lower Brule, Birch is the cook, the provider of warm meals and even warmer conversation. It’s a great responsibility that she takes seriously but also a great honor.

“I’ve spent a lot of years cooking for large groups of people, but none as appreciative as the Kul Wicasa Camp last fall and here,” she said. “Everybody thanks me, everybody at every meal.”

Katrina Silk, a 29-year-old from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, poses with a modified United States flag at the Wiconi Un Tipi Camp on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Silk has been building a yurt at the camp as part of the resistance against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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More than a dozen water protectors now call this place home.

They are here to stop the resurrected Keystone XL Pipeline and established the camp in the path of a proposed power line that TransCanada hopes to use to feed electricity to a pumping station on the pipeline.

Lewis Grass Rope, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, invited the protestors here on his parents’ land not long after he left Standing Rock, hoping to enact some of the ideas discussed in that place.

“There are many things that this camp is about,” he said.

A spirit of collective resistance wasn’t the only thing born at Standing Rock. An idea as old as the first trail of tears was reborn in that cold and snowy place and is now taking root at Wiconi Un Tipi.

The camp was developed to continue building on the notions of sovereignty expressed in the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Those gathered here hope to build a sustainable community that can serve as a model for an independent Native nation.

Norman Red Wing, a Sisseton Wahpeton man, was among the first to arrive at the camp.

He said life here isn’t completely divorced from modern conveniences. A generator provides electricity for Playstations, computers and wireless internet.

Those here aren’t necessarily advocating for renunciation of modern technology. Rather, they are seeking economic and social independence from mainstream America, he said.

Eventually, they hope to find a means of generating goods – such as crops or livestock – that they can trade with those beyond the confines of the camp, he said. What they use with the revenue they generate will be up to each one of them, Red Wing said.

“It’s not like we’re roughing it here,” he said.

The kitchen at the Wiconi Un Tipi Camp on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Organizers are raising $30,000 for a larger cooking and dining space at the camp. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Indeed, Birch said she would like to improve accommodations inside the camp and is working with an alliance organization, Dakota Rural Action, to raise $30,000 for an arctic tent large enough to provide cooking and dining space in the camp.

She said the tent would allow her to cook a greater variety of foods. Currently, the small tent the camp now uses for cooking has a dirt floor and holes in the ceiling that leak water during rainstorms.

Wind blows dirt onto cooking utensils and extinguishes a gas flame on the stove, forcing Birch to clean before and after every meal she cooks. The tent lacks adequate insulation and foods freeze and thaw repeatedly as the stove heats the tent and then cools off.

But Birch said she primarily wants a larger tent to give camp residents a place to gather.

“We’ll be able to gather during meals and talk,” she said.

The tent also would help her to better be able to feed large groups of people, such as the nearly 200 people she expected to visit the camp during a weekend gathering leading to the second signing of the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred against KXL and Tar Sands.

As she prepared to make enough food for the tribal leaders invited to the weekend event at the camp and in nearby Lower Brule, Birch said she was thankful for the gift of serenity she’s learned while at the camp.

“I know it’s going to be okay,” she said.

On a recent afternoon at the camp, Katrina Silk, a 29-year-old Standing Rock Sioux woman, kneeled on the ground and held a piece of rope in her hand.

She pinched it together in order to weave it through small holes inside wood slats that will make up the latticework of the yurt she is trying to build.

She’s dreamed of this for much of her life. A life free from the trappings of modern society. Genuine freedom.

“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” she said.

She even brought her four children with her. She wants them to experience the kind of freedom she knew while fighting beside other water protectors in North Dakota. She wants to remind them of their true natures.

“You’re born free, a free being on this earth,” she said.

Julie LaBrake and Manape LaMere enjoy a meal inside a yurt at the Wiconi Un Tipi Camp on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. LaBrake, a citizen of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, has been making meals for camp residents. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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Manape LaMere came here in March, a few weeks after the Oceti Sakowin Camp was dismantled and the activists who gathered there scattered to the four directions.

The 39-year-old man has been here living in a yurt ever since, working to free himself a little more each day from the tethers of mainstream American society and culture. It was an idea he first heard uttered by his father, Chaska Denny, who called on his fellow Sioux people to seek a life independent of American legal entanglements.

To that end, LaMere has renounced his U.S. citizenship, disenrolled from his tribe, the Yankton Sioux Tribe, and gave up his Social Security number. As proof, he shows an “affidavit for defection” from the United States, signed and dated December 2, 2016. In the document, he explains he is defecting in order to become a citizen of the Sioux Nation of Indians and to return to his country of national origin – Dahcotah Territory.

He also shows a passport that he had made that shows his citizenship in the Sioux Nation of Indians. It’s a document he said he plans to use for international travel – including travel outside of Dahcotah Territory, an area he describes as making up much of the Great Plains.

So why call his people the Sioux Nation of Indians?

LaMere said that is the name of the only group of people who actually signed the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868. Therefore, it’s the only group that can be recognized as a separate and distinct nation, he believes. According to LaMere, other tribes, such as the Oglala Sioux Tribe or his tribe, were recognized only after enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and depend on federal status in order to be considered true governments.

He said in order to be sovereign Sioux people must first renounce their membership in the IRA-created tribes to which they belong in order join the Sioux Nation of Indians. Otherwise, they are simply American citizens with secondary membership in a tribe. The original first people of America didn’t have dual citizenship, he said.

He describes the current state of American-tribal relations as that of an apartheid government toward an oppressed minority. To break free from that dysfunctional relationship, tribes must break free from America completely in order to be treated as equals, LaMere said.

These ideas aren’t new, he said. However, he said, it hasn’t been easy trying to convince tribal leaders that the path to true sovereignty requires giving up federal recognition. And that requires a commitment to establishing communities that don’t require anything from mainstream America, he said.

“With freedom comes responsibility because there has to be order,” he said.

A panorama of the Wiconi Un Tipi Camp on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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