Thursday, January 03, 2008

Now I live in a foreign country...

In late December, Russell Means, along with other Lakota activists, claimed that the Lakotah people have withdrawn from the treaties with the United States government to form a "free and independent country." It is, unsurprisingly, as of yet unrecognized, but Means and his companions envision it as a libertarian state, with no federal tax (individual communities can levy local taxes if they so desire), and any one within its borders--which include portions of what is "currently" North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana--is welcome to become a citizen of the Republic of Lakotah should they renounce their U.S. Citizenship.

Gil Scott-Heron once said that "the revolution will not be televised." Well, now the revolution has an email address ( and a webpage (

I first heard talk of this new nation when I came home for Christmas Eve services at my old Quaker Meeting House. The peace circles my mom travels in are abuzz with the news, and activists nationwide are suddenly eager to invite members of the Lakota community to their conferences. It strikes me that few in these circles have a very deep understanding of what is going on here.

Living on the reservation, I am witness to the difficulty life that the Lakota face on the reservation. The Republic of Lakotah website lists a collection of statistics documenting this deprivation. Though these numbers are higher than some I've seen--I would be curious to see the sources here--in "spirit," as much as statistics have spirit, they are accurate: this is a troubled community. The website describes these statistics as evidence of "colonial apartheid conditions imposed on the Lakotah people." These are strong and loaded words, words that I hesitate to accept immediately; but looking up the definition of colonialism and apartheid, and reflecting on what I know of the history in this region, they are accurate. So this is a grand and fascinating gesture in the face of these years of oppression.

But it's only a gesture. I'm no expert in the legal aspects of nation building, but from all I can gather, the four appointed representatives of Lakotah weren't appointed by anyone but themselves. The documents on the website constantly speak for an unnamed "we," which is really only clarified by who it does not include: the B.I.A. government and "those 'hang around the fort' Indians who are unwilling to claim their freedom." But it appears that a substantial portion of this new nation's citizens do not even know to claim their freedom; in a blog post, rapid City Journal writer Bill Harlan points out that as he walked around the Lakota Nations Invitational, a major basketball tournament in Rapid City that conveniently coincided with December 22 declaration, few attendees had heard of the Republic of Lakotah, and none who had were willing to talk about it on the record. Some of the legal claims seem sound, at least to my unschooled mind, but the claims of representation seem suspect.

There has been almost no coverage of these issues in national news sources. The most comprehensive article I have seen is, unsurprisingly, by Bill Harlan in the Rapid City Journal. And even here the editors decided not to run the article on the first page unless there could be some confirmation that high-ranking officials from one of the tribes supported the declaration (I'm unsure of where the article ultimately ran, but I assume it was not on page A1).

Reading the Wikipedia entry on this Republic of Lakotah, I can't help but be fascinated. The map of its boundaries look like some inset from a book by Harry Turtledove, an imagined parallel history in which the Lakota were never conquered but stood side-by-side with the modern American government.

What a wonderful world that would be (well, maybe--if the infinite other variables of economics and culture and technology and environment could be balanced out effectively; maybe I've been reading too much Tom Friedman). But, unless there is some massive constituency that has slipped my notice, it is still only speculative fiction. And troubling fiction, at that, when a few activists pose as representatives of a wider, unaware population.

When I get back to South Dakota, I will ask around and see what some of the folks in town think of all this.