Gathering of Oceti Sakowin: Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate hosts an historic meeting on the Great Plains

Published in Indian Country Today in May 2008.

Hankinson, N.D. — Day One of an historic two-day meeting of the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, hosted by the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, was a joyous family occasion. Tuesday, May 13, opened with a posting of the colors by the welcoming community’s Vietnam Veterans Kit Fox Society, led by Lincoln DeMarrias, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and prayers that were presided over by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota and 19th-generation keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe.

Chairman Michael Selvage, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, then greeted approximately 100 representatives of Dakota, Lakota and Nakota communities, who had traveled to North Dakota from throughout the Great Plains. “Our ancestors once lived here, as we do today,” Selvage said. “Their homes, gardens, hunting grounds and ceremonial places were here. When they passed on, they were laid to rest in these sacred lands. The earth itself is intertwined with the flesh, blood and bones of our ancestors. We are the caretakers of these sacred places, and in this spirit, we say ‘welcome home.’”

He then referred to the central matter before the group: discussions in preparation for the following day’s meeting with a representative of the U.S. Department of State concerning the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline. The line would carry heavy crude oil from oil sands of northern Alberta across seven U.S. states to Oklahoma. The State Department has signed a permit for construction of the pipeline, and work is slated to begin this week, even though mandated government-to-government consultations with Native nations — particularly in regard to protecting traditional cultural sites and burials — are described as “ongoing” by the State Department.

“We cannot be ignored,” said Selvage. “We are the Lakota-Dakota-Nakota Nation. We signed treaties that were written in blood.”

Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Pam Halvorsen, Lower Sioux Indian Community, said, “This is about protecting the past for the future.” Her fellow THPO Diane Desrosiers, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and the organizer of the meeting, noted that preservation officers were in many ways on the front lines of the conflict, dealing with the many agencies that have projects affecting indigenous lands.

The eminent Oglala lawyer Mario Gonzales, at right, explicated the historical basis of today’s battles with an informative lecture, “The art of legalized theft of Indian land and resources,” which explicated the complex shell game of the treaty process. In his talk, Gonzales brought the treaty issues up to date with a report on a law firm that is attempting to bypass the refusal of tribes to accept payment for the sacred Black Hills by finding individual members it can persuade to take the $800 billion now sitting in a government account. The firm would, of course, receive a handsome fee if its efforts were successful.

Among those Selvage welcomed to Sisseton-Wahpeton were a delegation of Dakotas from Canada. They, too, described concerns about the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, along with extremely serious issues with the Canadian government, with which they have no treaties.

Chief Frank Brown, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, described the Dakotas’ recent refusal to sell their aboriginal land rights in Canada, and Stella Isnana, Standing Buffalo First Nation, reported that her community would be in court in Regina, Saskatchewan, on June 3, fighting yet another pipeline. “We’re not treaty people,” Isnana said. “We’ve done so much research and hope that in going to court, we’ll clarify that it’s our land and get a treaty or self-governance. We’re following what the Haidas [of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the west coast of Canada] have accomplished in their dealings with the Canadian government.”

The overriding theme of the day, though, was unity among the Oceti Sakowin. Historical information was shared; values were reiterated. Chairman John Steele, Oglala Lakota, put forth a concrete way of showing children they are part of one large extended family. The Oglalas recently received 5,000 Black Hills acres that Steele described as “the land of our origin stories, the places where our people met for ceremonies as directed by the constellations.” He suggested putting every Lakota, Dakota and Nakota child’s name on the deed, saying, “If our children have something together in the sacred Black Hills, it will remind them they are all one.”

Summing up the optimistic spirit of the gathering, Rueben McClosky, Sicangu Lakota, said, “The spirit is moving.”

This is the first of two articles on the meeting of the Ocetic Sakowin at Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. Photos by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.