Cheyenne River elders form Treaty Council, seek recognition and funding from CRST

1868 photograph of General William T. Sherman and Commissioners in Council with Indian Chiefs at Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

EAGLE BUTTE – Harry Little Thunder (Itazipeo) is honoring his ancestors by advocating for the establishment of an office for the Lakota Oyate Tope Treaty Council (LOTTC) in Eagle Butte with funding from the Cheyenne River Tribal Council. He remembers as a child hearing his father and uncle speak repeatedly about the importance of the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaties. These along with other treaties are declared to be “the supreme Law of the Land” under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. Little Thunder’s great-great-grandfather, Chief Yellow Hawk, was a signer of the Ft. Laramie treaty.

Prompted by Philimon Two Eagle (Philimon Wanbli Nunpa), Little Thunder and Manny Iron Hawk (Titunwan Okowozu), a Lakota elder from Red Scaffold, began traveling together all over the Cheyenne River Reservation two years ago talking to relatives about the need for a Treaty Council office. All expenses for the travel came from their own personal funds. Two Eagle, the Executive Director of the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council centered in Rosebud, SD, for the past seven years, is serving as a consultant, mentor, and partner with the LOTTC. 

Little Thunder and Iron Hawk searched for at least two more people who would agree to serve on the LOTTC with one member for each of the four traditional Oceti Sakowin bands. They explained that a Treaty Council is an entity separate from and complementary to the Tribal Council. They were successful in enrolling two additional elders to serve on the LOTTC, Ivan Looking Horse (Sihasapa)) and Emanuel Red Bear (Oohenupa), and were recognized by the Oceti Sakowin Oyate Treaty omniciye (meeting) at He Sapa (Black Hills) in May, 2021.

According to Little Thunder, the three primary goals of the LOTTC are: (1) reuniting the 7 bands of the Oceti Sakowin; (2) the return of ancestral lands and all federal lands to the Lakota; and (3) the preservation and restoration of the Lakota language.

The four members of the LOTTC wrote, signed, and submitted a letter to the CRST Tribal Council on March 10, 2023, “a request that the Tribal Council dedicate sufficient time and resources in its meetings, at least one-half day, or call a special meeting or hearing, to hear from the Treaty Council and deliberate and decide the matters we have submitted to it. …

“The Treaty Council has attempted, unsuccessfully, to raise issues regarding the recognition and support of the Treaty Council on April 20,2022, June 2022, August 3, 2022, December 19, 2022, and December 28, 2022, in Council and Committee Meetings. These were efforts by the Treaty Council to establish a Treaty Office on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to enable the Treaty Council to engage in the preservation and restoration of our Lakota ways and traditions. We presented an accommodating budget and two (2) resolutions to support and coincide with the action of the establishment of a Treaty Office. We were informed by Tribal officers that there were no funds available for this …

“The keepers of our sacred traditions are entitled to have a Treaty Office with an operating budget to fulfill treaty rights, benefits, wants, needs, lands, & violations for current and future generations. …

“… The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe needs to establish a treaty office to protect our Nations and its people’s rights and interests of the 1868 and 1851 Treaties. …”

Since the March 2023 letter from the LOTTC was submitted to the CRST Tribal Council, there has been no formal response from the Tribal Council, its Executives, or from Tribal Chairman Ryman LeBeau. However, the four members of the LOTTC met with Chairman LeBeau and Vice-Chairman Robert Walters on April 27, 2023.

According to Little Thunder, Iron Hawk, and Looking Horse, LeBeau and Walters listened and ended the meeting with an agreement that they were willing to work with the LOTTC to set up a Treaty Council hearing with the Tribal Council “very soon,” but since that April 27 meeting there has been no further action or response from the Tribal Council or the Chairman. Little Thunder says, “We approach the Tribal Council in the Wolakota way, the way of respect, honor, and harmony. We’re waiting at the middle of the bridge…”

At press time, Chairman LeBeau has not responded to requests for comment on this issue.

The four LOTTC members also met with BIA Superintendent Steve Wilkie on April 20, 2023. According to Little Thunder, Wilkie was cordial, supportive, and stated that there is a possibility that the BIA could assist with one-time funding to help establish the LOTTC office for Cheyenne River.

The original Sioux Nation Treaty Council (SNTC) was established in 1894 by He Dog shortly after the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.  At that time, any Native American speaking of the Treaties was imprisoned, killed, or sent to Canton, an insane asylum specifically for Indigenous people. He Dog feared that, under such harsh oppression, the Lakota would forget about the Treaty.  The work of the SNTC was to educate Native people quietly and secretly down through the generations. Only in recent years have more people become aware of the historic and still ongoing work of the SNTC (www.siouxnationtreatycouncil.org).

In contrast, Tribal Councils were created by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) as a mechanism to manage the day-to-day business of the reservations. According to the National Library of Medicine, (www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/452.html), the IRA offered federal subsidies to tribes that adopted constitutions like that of the United States and replaced their governments with city council–style governments.

The new constitutions under the IRA called for the election of council members by geographical districts, an idea completely foreign to many tribes. The transcripts from hearings on the IRA quote American Indian elders questioning the format of the IRA governments. Traditional Indigenous leaders of almost every tribe strongly objected to this method of organizing and criticized the IRA as simply another means of imposing white institutions on the tribes.

Another important difference between the Tribal Councils and the Treaty Councils is that the Tribal Councils only have jurisdiction within reservation boundaries. Treaty Councils are not bound by reservation boundaries and focus on much broader issues.

Speaking on a 2021 podcast posted on social media, Two Eagle said, “The Treaty Council operates on a different level from the Tribal Council. We are not trying to usurp anyone’s authority. The Treaty Council is focused on inherent treaty rights and inherent sovereignty based on thousands of years of history, language, and culture.”

He says pointedly, “The IRA people (i.e., the Tribal Councils) are our relatives. Assimilation pits our people against one another…. We must work together to move forward.” He says that if people come to the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council meeting with a complaint about the Tribal Council, he tells them, “Take your complaint to the Tribal Council. That’s not what we’re here for.”

The Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council in Rosebud works in conjunction with the Tribal Council and has two Tribal Council members included on the Treaty Council. The Rosebud general fund provides the funding for the Treaty Council. According to Two Eagle, all treaty council meetings are conducted according to the “Wolakota Code of Behavior,” which emphasizes respect (especially for elders), peace, and unity, and avoidance of confrontation, making enemies, gossip, jealousy, squabbling among relatives, and belittling people in public.

At press time, the LOTTC is moving forward with plans for a public hearing tentatively scheduled for June 14, 2023. They are hoping that the members of the Tribal Council will attend. The location and exact time of the hearing have not been chosen but will be published when details are confirmed. The hearing will be open to the public.

The following expert witnesses are expected to speak at the June 14 hearing: Phil Two Eagle, Andy Reid, Andrea Carmen, Steve Newcomb, Cedric Good House, Bill Means, Claude Two Elk, and Justin Pourier.

Referring to the need for a Treaty Council, Iron Hawk says, “It’s time for the tiospaye to wake up! Our survival depends on it.”

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