American Indians tell the counter-story, which has been neglected by much of the academic world to Western ideas, which have permeated so much of the dialogue in the modern world. It is in the political dialogue that I have centered much of my work ... because it is in the political dialogue that we can disrupt the rules of the game. It is in the political dialogue that we urge ourselves toward practices that can expose a vast critical examination of what has happened to us and how we must go forward. This dialogue is now called ''decolonization.''
Politics are about power relations and how we are governed. I can think of no subject more useful to those of us who want to culturally affirm our survival; how to define and create indigenous realities; how to rise above oppression and how to value our lives.
It is my observation that the life and times of reservation-based and urban Indians - all of us who are working hard every day to improve our lives - are sort of taking one step forward and one step backward. Scholars of Indian Studies are constantly probing the relationship between the indigenous populations of this continent and its colonizers. We recognize that it is a power relationship of enormous consequence. Indians remain the most colonized people in this democracy, and colonization has brought about the loss of tribal power to affect our own lives.
One of the pragmatic realities of enforced colonialism, and one of the first strategies for making colonialism work, is the challenge of the power status of women and the dogged dispossession of women's rights. Though I've been called a feminist, I don't want this discussion to be understood as a feminist issue. It is not that. It is an issue of colonization and imperial power based in religion.
This was never clearer to me than in 2006 when South Dakota passed a bill which outlawed all abortions for all women in the state, including Native women. It was intended for the ultimate overturning of 1973's Roe v. Wade, which recognized a woman's human right to privacy, thereby assuring the right to health services concerning reproduction in the United States. We all know that the colonial-based Indian Health Service failed in this regard, but now all health organizations were to be bound by this ruling.
State political coalitions, including Native women's groups, recognizing the exploitation and extremism of the legislative measure, secured a referendum to put the legislation on the state election ballot in November 2006. Almost 70 percent of the voters rejected the state law.
As is often the case in Indian law and politics, a woman was in the crossfire. Cecelia Fire Thunder, Lakota, had two years before been elected by a substantial margin to the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe at the Pine Ridge Reservation, the first woman in modern times to achieve this status. Fire Thunder proposed putting a private health clinic on her privately-owned land on the reservation to serve the reproductive and health needs of all women and children in the region. In my view, it was the best idea for health services anybody had in this region in a hundred years.
Not everyone agreed. Within months, Fire Thunder was impeached by her own tribal council, including several women council members. Vice President Alex White Plume, a longtime member of the American Indian Movement, became temporary chairman of the tribe. People on the reservation were torn. A fellow councilman, Will Peters, probably following the ideals of the Christian school systems which have functioned on this reservation since 1860, stood in the council chambers and blasted those who disagreed with the impeachment proceedings: ''We don't want to be known in Indian country as the tribe that kills babies.'' He didn't mention that several Sioux reservation counties have the highest infant mortality rate in the U.S.
Within weeks, Oglala activist Russell Means, describing himself as an attorney, though he has no law degree, spoke at public meetings proclaiming that the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie disallowed Native women in leadership roles. He said that the treaty, which ironically had been used successfully as a defense mechanism in the Black Hills land case, disenfranchised Lakota women. He was quoted widely in local and national media. His cohort, Lyman Red Cloud, great-great-grandson of the famed chief of the 1800s who negotiated that treaty, was accompanied by white female church representatives as he gave interviews to news organizations saying: ''I would never vote for Cecelia Fire Thunder because she is a woman and cannot be a leader of the tribe.'' A former chief judge of the Oglalas and lifelong Catholic, Patrick Lee, wrote an op-ed piece saying that a woman having an abortion would be violating tribal law. He is now in retirement from the tribe, a respected faculty member of the Oglala Lakota University and teaches law courses even though he apparently fails to make the necessary distinction between tribal law and federal law and state law.
Traditionally, in accordance with tribal law, which is thousands of years old, Sioux women have always had access to abortion and birth control and reproductive rights and knowledge. You have only to read the works of the late Lakota scholar, Dr. Beatrice Medicine, to know this is true. Her book, ''The Hidden Half,'' is one of the many anthropological works which document Native women's rights and knowledge.
Is it possible that some of the contemporary speakers and leaders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe have failed to remember their traditions in this modern world? Worse yet, have they have failed to reject state law and state jurisdiction on our homelands? Our relatives of past generations who fought hard wars and difficult negotiations for the survival of the people must be mourning the moral and political tragedy of this recent attack on women, tribal government and the law.
Our relatives of past generations who fought hard wars and difficult negotiations for the survival of the people must be mourning the moral and political tragedy of this recent attack on women, tribal government and the law.
The truth is, Oglala Sioux men have never interfered in the reproductive lives of Oglala Sioux women until this moment... until this modern age when domestic violence is increasing and tribal sovereignty is reduced to signing gaming contracts with the state for casino halls. Indian men, now believing in the Christian notion of the inferiority of women, have forgotten who they are. In the old days it would have been the subject of ridicule for men to have forced the submission of women and the dispossession of their roles as creators of life. Men like Russell Means and Lyman Red Cloud would have had no authority in traditional times because misogynistic behavior on the part of men was condemned by tribal authority and not given agency by ignorant media figures and white power systems. That's where men like Means and Red Cloud get their influence, and the tragedy is that I wouldn't have said that 30 years ago when I saw the American Indian Movement as an essential political movement toward the empowerment of tribal nations.
We must decolonize entire communities held in the grip of damaging non-tribal ideologies, which are the basis for tribal/state and tribal/federal relationships that have not changed in 200 years. Among the ideologies responsible for our condition are Christianity, which has brought about a belief in male privilege so that even Native men and women harbor this belief; Manifest Destiny, which has brought about anti-Indian legislation, the superiority of white colonizers and land theft; and capitalism, an economic system based in the exploitation of resources. We must ask ourselves to what extent we have adopted, and adapted to, these ideologies and how these adaptations have been a detriment to us.
As we look at this attack on Cecelia Fire Thunder, tribal government, the courts and women, who make up half of the population in any tribe, it seems evident that ideologies embedded in American history have devastated Indian tribes in the last century and that they are now in a crisis situation. Lakotas are the survivors of Wounded Knee, the theft of the Black Hills, the survivors of the unconstitutional Allotment Act and the survivors of federal Indian policy which is a study of colonization and genocide. We are not fooled into believing that casinos are going to rescue us. They will not because the ideologies that are the basis for their contemporary dilemmas are left intact. It's possible that casinos will rescue some tribes, maybe at Fort McDowell, just outside of Scottsdale, Ariz., but not at Fort Thompson, S.D., or Wellpinit, Wash.; not at Crow Agency; not at Shields, N.D.; and not at Pine Ridge.
There is a study going on now - a three-judge panel brought together by Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele - that could lead to a new presidential election. It may even lead to the writing of a new Constitution. This is called Democracy at Pine Ridge. White Plume said his rights were ''grossly violated'' when he was removed from the ballot and Steele won a subsequent election. Little was said about the impeachment of Fire Thunder, and nothing about the attack on the court systems that followed her impeachment. Two female tribal judges have resigned in the last year. Nothing was said about the failure of the courts and the political process.
The regional BIA office deferred comment on the OST matter to the Indian affairs office in Washington, D.C. Three judges selected to serve on this panel are John St. Clair, chief judge of the Court of Indian Offenses of Wind River; John Thorne, an American Indian lawyer and Court of Appeals judge for the state of Utah; and Daniel Naranjo, a former chief judge of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, a former U.S. magistrate and an ''expert on alternative dispute resolution.''
This entire matter is being handled as a tribal dispute, not as a systems failure. Examiners of tribal governments know that the failure of a legislative function in these governments, the corruption of the court systems by heavy-handed executives and the lack of separation of powers inherent in these systems will never bring about fair and just government to indigenous peoples. These systems were set up to fail in 1934, and it should come as no surprise that they have failed. To treat this as a petty tribal dispute in need of ''alternative dispute resolution'' is like handling the Black Hills land case like it was a real estate matter, not as a historical theft with unimaginable consequences to peoples and democratic ideals.
What can be done? When we recognize the enemy, lots can be done. The enemy is not people who stand up in tribal council meetings and denounce women out of fear and ignorance. The enemy is a system of trust and dependency that makes us all powerless. We must all concern ourselves with this seeming powerlessness. We have to remember that power corrupts, and the white man in his dealings with us has proven his corruption. We have to remember that the absence of power also corrupts. That is what can happen to colonized and powerless people if we don't pay attention to the controversies that divide us. We, too, become corrupt. We are in danger of becoming the colonized and oppressed, and the corrupt people we have long feared we would become.
The first thing is to recognize that when white men took away tribal power they challenged us to fight back and recognize the weaknesses brought upon our communities through the theft of our lands, and of our rights and responsibilities as indigenous peoples. We must dismiss the notion that our weakened systems cannot be reformed. We must become political because within politics is the necessary dialogue that challenges the status quo.
We must understand that just law is a major agent of social change. When law becomes unjust, the consequence is chaos, and, therefore, we must struggle to make an egalitarian law in accordance with our Native belief systems. We must understand that treaties are the basis for our relationships with other nations, and that includes the defense of our traditional homelands. Treaties do not mean that Native women cannot have legitimate leadership roles in our self-determination efforts, no matter what movie actors and dance instructors and former AIM leaders with famous names say.
Most important, we must understand that much of what we call Federal Indian Law and State Law, as it applies to Indians, is outmoded. The Supreme Court must disavow the ''plenary power'' it claims over Indian lives. I recommend everyone read ''American Indian Sovereignty: the Masking of Justice,'' by David Wilkins, professor at the University of Minnesota. Most of all, we must continue in our efforts to dismantle much of the claimed personal, state and federal power that diminishes tribal knowledge and leadership.
When we confront injustice, defend the moral principles that our ancestors have taught us. If there is one moral principle that all indigenous peoples share, it is the moral principle of consent. Indian societies do not overpower, invade, colonize, oppress, mandate, intimidate. It is not about control and supremacy. It is about consensual problem-solving.
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Sioux) is professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Eastern Washington University and a visiting professor at Arizona State University. Her new work, ''New Indians, Old Wars,'' will be available in May 2007 from UI Press. She makes her home in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Just a note for those that may not know: Russell Means is a tool. He used to be dead on, a lead activist against the government with AIM, and then he was offered a role in a movie and since then he's turned his back on his own people to keep playing stereotypical native roles for the entertainment of mainstream Canada. I think limited fame has made him stupider too, because half of what he says now is completely wrong, such is the case with this article. The majority of tribes before colonization were matriarchal, and are still matriarchal, everything is passed through the woman, and most leaders were women, it wasn't until colonization brought over patriarchy and we started sending men over to talk because the colonels wouldn't talk to a woman in charge.