We, the Native Peoples

Bryan Brewer

Our Creator, Wakan Tanka, endowed our Lakota people with life and liberty. As Sitting Bull said, “We are free. We choose our own path.” We Lakota established the Lakota Nation, Oceti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires. When the White Buffalo Calf Woman gave us our rules for living together, our grandfathers and grandmothers who founded the Lakota Nation gave us sovereignty, our right to self-government.

We, the Native peoples, are the source of Indian sovereignty.

America is founded upon self-evident truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence:

All men (and women) are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration of Independence declares:

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

With the Declaration of Independence principles in mind, Congress recognized that we, the Native peoples, have our own “rights and liberty” in our own lands. By law, the original guiding principle for Indian affairs was “consent:”

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress….

Northwest Ordinance (1787). As most Americans know, the United States’ words were closer to this law than its deeds: America’s longest war was the 100+ Year War against Indian nations.

In the beginning, the American Republic was a collection of states under the Articles of Confederation. America was weak and struggled in the Revolutionary War while the Continental Congress lacked clear sovereign powers, including the power to tax. Under the original Articles, the United States made sixteen treaties during the American Revolution, nine were Indian nation treaties and seven were Foreign nation treaties. General George Washington, who knew America’s struggles first hand, chaired the Constitutional Convention to establish a strong, clear Constitution for an energetic, empowered Federal Government.

The Constitution affirms the earliest “treaties made” and later treaties “which shall be made ” as part of the “Supreme Law of the Land.” So, the text of the Constitution recognizes Indian nations as sovereign treaty partners. The Constitution grants the Federal Government power to “regulate Commerce … with the Indian Tribes,” again, acknowledging Indian tribes as sovereign governments. It treats Native peoples as citizens of Indian nations by “excluding Indians not taxed” from representation in Congress and direct taxation.

After the Constitution was ratified, President Washington made it clear that the United States Indian Affairs Policy was based upon consent. In 1790, when the Creek Nation signed the 1790 Treaty, he invited Creek Nation delegates to the Executive Mansion in New York (the first White House) for a state dinner to celebrate. When Thomas Jefferson made the Lousiana Purchase Treaty in 1803, the United States pledged to abide by existing International treaties until it entered its own treaties with the Indian nations based upon “mutual consent.”

Chief Red Cloud knew the source of Indian sovereignty. When he first saw the U.S. Army fly the American flag over Fort Laramie, he asked, “What’s that?” That’s the symbol of the United States, he was told. Red Cloud took an eagle feather and tied it to an arrow. He shot the arrow into the flagpole above the American flag, where the eagle feather flew in the breeze. “The Eagle Feather is the flag of the Lakota Oyate,” Red Cloud said.

Our Lakota people fought and died in wars to protect our people, our land, our rights, and our sovereignty. Red Cloud led the Powder River War known as “Red Cloud’s War.” When the U.S. Army abandoned the forts, Red Cloud burned the forts and only then did he sign the 1868 Sioux Nation Treaty.

As Red Cloud and the Lakota Nation made clear, we were sovereign before the United States came to our country. The 1868 Sioux Nation Treaty provides:

From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall forever cease. The Government of the United States desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it….

In the Treaty, the United States recognized our Lakota Nation as a Native nation vested with sovereign power to make war and peace, a right of self-government and the “absolute and undisturbed use” of our lands as our “permanent home.”

In Ex Parte Crow Dog (1883), the Supreme Court explained:

The pledge to secure to these people, with whom the United States was contracting as a distinct political body, an orderly government … necessarily implies … self-government, the regulation by themselves of their own domestic affairs, the maintenance of order and peace among their own members by the administration of their own laws and customs.

Today, as Native peoples, we consent to self-government. It is up to us to fight for our sovereignty, our right to self-government, and our lands. For us, our Indian sovereignty is liberty and it is our “unalienable right.”

Bryan Brewer is president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

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