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The 1493 Doctrine of Discovery: Charmaine White Face, Oglala Tituwan Oceti Sakowin

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Charmaine White Face, or Zumila Wobaga, is Oglala Tituwan Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation). She is the spokesperson for the 1894 Sioux Nation Treaty Council and co-founder and coordinator for Defenders of the Black Hills, which received the International Nuclear Free Future Award for Resistance in 2007 in Salzburg, Austria. She is an author, teacher, organizer, scientist and great-grandmother.

She spoke with The Sopris Sun in May about the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery and its impacts on Indigenous people. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What is the 1894 Sioux Nation Treaty Council?
In 1868, our nation made the last treaty with the United States and it was very specific about the land area where we would be living. That land area is all of western South Dakota and parts of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. 

But when they discovered gold in the Black Hills, which is almost in the middle of the treaty territory, they proceeded to decimate our economy, which was the buffalo. They slaughtered almost all the buffalo in the whole United States.

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Then they put us in prisoner of war camps, that’s what they call American Indian reservations. I happen to come from POW Camp 344. That’s the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And they call it the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Well, we were a band of a big nation, not a tribe. We were just a part of a big nation. 

There were many massacres but the most famous one is the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. We had signed this treaty in 1868 and in 1890, they massacred more than 300, mostly women, children and elders, because by then most of the men were already gone. My great-great-grandmother, my great-grandfather were all there and they escaped. So I am a descendant of survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre. 

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We didn’t have the word “chief.” There was a “headman.” We were a matriarchy, too. That’s another thing people don’t know. The older women were the leaders of the people. The headman was chosen, not elected, not a popularity contest. They were chosen for their ability and their care for the people. 

We learned that it was always the white men, the white soldiers, the men, who would speak with us. In our culture, there’s a respect thing going on. The women talk to the women. The men talk to the men. So the men would talk to these soldiers, and then they would come back and talk to the women and ask for advice. But if you remember, by that time, we were fighting for our very survival — even up to today. 

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So in 1894, this headman named He Dog got together with some other men and they established the Sioux Nation Treaty Council. In our way, that means all the adults who belong to our nation, all had a say-so in this. But the United States government had already started in the 1880s, for us here in South Dakota, taking kids away to the boarding schools to change them into white people. Well, you can’t change us into white people. But, you know, to brainwash us, in other words, so that we would follow the culture and the value system of the white Americans.

It was forbidden to talk about the treaty. Our whole culture was forbidden to talk about the language and our spiritual beliefs. We don’t even have the word “religion” in our language; it’s our spiritual beliefs. It’s our relationship with Creator and all that is.

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He Dog was a spokesperson and knew that whenever they were going to talk with other American leaders, that it would be men talking to men. [But] they would go home and talk to their wives and their moms and their grandmas and their aunties and everybody else, and find out, you know, what should we do, now? 

Since 1984, we have been sending our people to the United Nations. [We] were there when the first discussions and decisions were being made about having a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. My question has always been, don’t the Universal Human Rights cover us too?

Did conversations about the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples begin in 1984? 
They began in ‘84 with the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, a committee of the United Nations, where all indigenous delegates would meet. The United Nations had appointed different specialists in different fields who had already written about Indigenous “populations,” as they called us at that time. So it was made up of “experts” on Indigenous people, and that’s who met with these indigenous representatives who came from all over the world to meetings in Geneva, Switzerland. Our representatives would come back, tell everybody what happened, get input, and then go back to the next meeting [in Geneva]. That went on for a long time. 

Then, in 1994, the sub-commission approved the original Declaration. The working group approved of it first and then the sub-commission approved of it next. The next one to approve of it before it was sent to the General Assembly was the Commission on Human Rights. But, when the sub-commission brought it to the Commission on Human Rights, the United States pushed it off and said, “We have to have more debate.” They had already worked on this for 10 years but the United States wanted more debate! The Kansas Group — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States — all speak English and they’re all colonizing governments. They all pushed it off into an intersessional working group so [the declaration] would not go into the Commission on Human Rights.

Backing up a little bit, why did the original people all over this country go to the U.N. in the first place?
I can’t speak for any other nations. I can only speak for us. We are a nation. We have an international treaty with the United States. Our treaty is very specific because it gives a very specific land area. We had international treaties with other countries before that. 

Our first treaty was with France in 1658. So see, we were around even before there was such a nation as the United States. And we were having international treaties with other nations — France, Great Britain, Canada, and then the United States. So of course we would go to an international arbiter in an international place where we could get this settled. We can’t go to the courts of the enemy, which is the United States justice system. They’re the enemy! They’re the other country that is a party to this international treaty. And that’s why a lot of Indigenous all over the world go to the U.N. [The U.N.] calls itself the family of nations. We should be a part of it. We should be sitting at the table along with everybody else. 

Are original people from around the world considered nations in the U.N. yet?
Yes and no. Originally, they called us “populations,” right? Like populations of fish, populations of flowers. We were considered a “population” and there was a big long fight over that.

At the U.N., we are “peoples.” I’ve been going for the last 20 years and I’m fighting for “nations.” We are not “populations.” We are not “peoples.” We are nations. I am a representative of our nation. 

How would you define the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery that was repudiated in March?
Repudiated! Everybody can repudiate the Doctrine. I do. I repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. It doesn’t do a thing. The Pope repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery doesn’t do a thing either.

Repudiated is not necessarily revoked. They did not revoke the Doctrine of Discovery. And even though that happened 500 years ago, what it caused is still affecting us today. And it’s not just the land issue. The Doctrine of Discovery gave the United States, through the Johnson v McIntosh case, the right to take any land and all that we have. Like the Louisiana Purchase. they gave away half of the United States and we’re sitting in the middle of it! You know, we’re a nation! How dare you! 

This Christian ideology is giving legitimacy to theft, to torture, to murder, to genocide. And the consequences are happening today. Biologically, whenever children or young people experience trauma, it creates [DNA methylation]. It is passed down through the generations. So the trauma my parents and my grandparents experienced in boarding school has been passed down to me and now to my children and my grandchildren.

Those are all consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, which legalized the superiority of colonizing governments to do whatever they wanted to do.

Tell me more about generational trauma, as you’ve witnessed it today, 500 and some odd years after the Papal Bull. 
As far as DNA [methylation], that’s where the boarding schools come in. The boarding schools forbade teaching any part of our culture. Where I live in South Dakota, if anybody talked about the treaties or sang the songs or had a ceremony or spoke our language, they would be killed. Killed or imprisoned. 

The easiest example I can give you is this: My parents were born in the 1920s. They were little children at Holy Rosary Mission, a Catholic mission. One of their little friends was beat to death when he was 8 years old, and they witnessed it. He was beat to death with a harness, you know, the kind you put on horses, for saying one Lakota word to his friend. So, what did that do to my parents? What did that do to their DNA? My dad was 6! My mom was 8! We can’t ever, ever say one Lakota word. If we do, we die! 

[DNA methylation] is a survival technique. My parents needed it for their own survival. So then they have me and it’s in my DNA. Unless I’m in ceremony or unless I’m someplace safe, I cannot speak our language.


Tags: #Charmaine White Face #Doctrine of Discovery #Great Sioux Nation #Oglala Tituwan Oceti Sakowin #Zumila Wobaga
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