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Statecraft and history as Očéti Šakówiŋ Treaty Council examines treaties in life today

An historic event took place in Rapid City on December 14-16, 2021: The third gathering of the Očéti Šakówiŋ Oyate Omniciye, the meeting of the Seven Council Fires Treaty Council.

The theme of the event was “Honor the Treaties: One Voice, One Mind, One Spirit, One Plan.”

Očéti Šakówiŋ is the name for the deliberative body that considers nation-to-nation issues and negotiates on behalf of the entire oyate/Great Sioux Nation with the United States and other global nations. The Council formally came together to undertake the business of statecraft in the 21st century.

Given this scope, the three-day event examined all the ways treaties between Očéti Šakówiŋ nations and the United States are at play in life today.

The meeting included updates from the tribal chairmen, teachings from spiritual leaders, legislative and land claim reports, international treaty issues including climate change and the United Nations, treaty issues with the United States including heath care, education and water rights, updates from Canadian relatives, and discussion on the history of Indigenous boarding schools.

Approximately 50 or more people attended the meeting, which included representatives from the signatories of the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. Family representatives came from the Oglala, Sicangu, Sihasapa, Hohwoju/Mnicoujou, Itazipco, Hunkpapa and Ohenunpa.

The meeting opened with the lighting of the sacred fire, drumming, ceremony and sacred food/wasna.

Oceti comes from love

Day One kicked off with thanksgiving for the presence of the sacred fire and an invocation of traditional ways of living.

“Očéti comes from love,” said the opening presenter, Robert, speaking about Lakota history. “We Lakota knew that Até Wí [Father Sun] gives the vibration of love and the symbol of that is our očéti, our fire. Those were sacred teachings for many, many, many years; how this love was created amongst our people. 

“We started with one fire. Then it grew, and it grew. And each time it grew, we added another fire. And we kept growing up to the seven-fire Očéti Šakówiŋ before we were interrupted by the Europeans.

“I want to share with you the importance of bringing back that teaching…that we are very loving people. These are things to bring back to our families, our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. This energy of love, of family love.”

Keynote addressed role of Treaty Council

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland was on the agenda as the keynote speaker the first day but was unable to attend. Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Tribal Relations Heather Dawn Thompson (Lakota/Cheyenne River) took the podium on the first day in her place.

Thompson gave an overview of the federal representatives slated to attend over the three days: Taylor Schaff (Lakota/Cheyenne River) from the USDA Office of Tribal Relations, Supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest Jeff Tomac, National Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region Supervisor Tricia O’Connor, and Department of the Interior Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Wizipan Little Elk (Sicangu/Rosebud).

Thompson said she and others were there because, “You sent a letter to President Biden from the Očéti Šakówiŋ Treaty Council as well as the tribal leaders. President Biden asked Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Haaland to respond to you. I have been sent here in my official capacity, on behalf of Secretary Vilsack, to begin that conversation.” She said she was honored to be in front of the group to have “these difficult but important conversations.”

In her opening comments Thompson said, “This is a unique opportunity in which you have citizens of the Očéti Šakówiŋ that understand the importance a) of these issues, and b) of Treaty Council.”

Speaking on behalf of herself and other federal employees in attendance who are also members of Indigenous nations, she said, “We honor and respect our relationships with the tribal governments. That is, our official government-to-government relationship. The Treaty Council carries so much in history and knowledge. You don’t have elected terms. You’re always going to be around. You carry this information for generations.”

Federal projects of impact to the Očéti Šakówiŋ

Following these remarks, Thompson gave an overview of projects of impact or interest to the Očéti Šakówiŋ.

The first one is a project through Thompson’s office to activate a provision included in the Dawes Act of 1877 (which instituted allotment of Indian land) to purchase Indian agricultural products and to hire Indians when the federal government is working in Indian Country. Thompson has asked the attorneys at USDA to “look into this to see if we can enforce this treaty provision.”

She then drew attention to the website for the White House Council on Native American Affairs. The council, deactivated under the Trump administration and reconstituted by President Biden, is made up of Cabinet members and staff who meet quarterly to discuss Native American issues. This is the body who hosted the White House Tribal Nations Summit in November 2021.

Thompson shared developments in several areas: sacred sites, tribal ecological knowledge, honoring treaty rights and tribal homelands.

Sacred sites

Thompson is part of the Committee on Climate Change, Tribal Homelands, and Treaties, which supports a new document on the Protection of Indigenous Sacred Sites. She said President Biden recently “put some teeth into” the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and encouraged more federal agencies to sign on to it.

Tribal ecological knowledge

Thompson shared that the scientifically conservative White House Office of Science & Technology Policy issued an “earthshattering” memo on traditional ecological knowledge in conjunction with the Tribal Nations Summit, directing all federal agencies “to incorporate traditional knowledge into their science,” according to Thompson.

“I can’t emphasize how important this is, and how earthshattering this has been for federal agencies,” she said. “This is a prime opportunity for Treaty Council, with their extensive knowledge on these topics, to influence how the federal government allocates this money…This is a powerful tool because it comes from the White House, directing all federal agencies to follow it. I wanted to flag it for you so that you can incorporate that as appropriate into your advocacy work.”

Treaty rights and tribal homelands

Thompson highlighted a new MOU honoring treaty rights, and a new Joint Secretarial Order on tribal homelands from Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack. The Order directs the work of the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to incorporate tribal values their work in tribal homelands.

The Order covers federal stewardship: When the federal government do a better job incorporating indigenous values and treaty rights into land management? co-stewardship: When and where do the federal government and tribal nations have the legal authority to manage lands jointly? and tribal stewardship: When is it appropriate to restore lands?

Treaty database

Finally, Thompson debuted the new treaty database put together by her office and colleagues at the Department of the Interior. Thompson said the purpose of the new database is to “remove that impediment from all federal employees to have more active conversations within Indian Country about their treaties.”

Going forward the database will try to list original signatories as well as present-day tribes so it will be more clear which treaties apply to which tribes. The database will also index common topics such as fishing and hunting rights.

“I have to tell you, even though I’ve worked in treaties my whole career, I found this so helpful. I was able to find a series of agricultural provisions…to help me think through which treaties have specific ag provisions. I’ve never been able to do that so easily,” said Thompson.

At the end of her presentation Thompson was presented with a star quilt for her work on behalf of the people. The presenter laughingly said, “This is a gift for you as a member of the Očéti Šakówiŋ oyate, not as a federal agent.”

This is the first in an upcoming series of reports on the recent Očéti Šakówiŋ meeting.


Recordings of the meeting can be found at:

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