Charmaine White Face, or Zumila Wobaga (Oglala Tetuwan), proudly claims an Indigenous lineage stretching back for thousands of years. When she was a little girl, her elders told her that she looks like her ancestors looked before American-European colonizers invaded and occupied their land. From her ancestors, she inherited and carries forward a legacy of resilience, wisdom, and profound spirituality.
While still a very young child, White Face’s grandmother taught her about the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 between the United States government and the Oceti Sakowin, also called the Great Sioux Nation. Her grandmother’s teaching prepared her to become an internationally known and respected treaty activist for her people.
White Face says that in everything she does, she “lets the Spirit lead…. (The colonizers) could never take away our spirituality and our ability to pray. All our ancestors are still with us, helping us. We can pray to the ancestors for help whatever we are doing.”
Though fiercely determined, her demeanor is calm, peaceful, and composed. When asked how she avoids becoming bitter, she says, “I pray all the time.”
Since becoming the spokesperson for the Sioux Nation Treaty Council (SNTC) in 2004, White Face has spoken numerous times at the United Nations in New York, NY and has traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, more than 35 times to speak before UN groups there. After decades of tenacious advocacy, two separate UN committees – the Advisory Committee on Human Rights and the Decolonization Committee – recently added the SNTC message to their websites. White Face considers this a major step forward. She said that until now, the U.S. has managed to block such acknowledgement from UN entities.
The nineteenth century invasion by European-Americans of the Oceti Sakowin homeland devastated the people and destroyed the buffalo, their primary economic source. Facing fierce resistance from Native peoples, the US government asked the Oceti Sakowin for a peace treaty.
In 1851, and again in 1868, the Oceti Sakowin agreed to treaties for peace called the Ft. Laramie treaties, and although they did not agree to relinquish one square inch of territory, large tracts of land were nonetheless taken, and the 1877 Black Hills Act finally took the heart of Lakota territory, the sacred Black Hills. According to the website of the SCNT, the people of the Oceti Sakowin originated from the mouth of Wind Cave in the Black Hills. The Black Hills were so sacred that they were used for ceremonial, prayers, medicinal, and burial purposes only.
Although the Black Hills and adjoining areas are sacred to the indigenous nations of the region, their present-day attempts at reclamation are not based on religious claims but on the provisions of the Constitution. The occupation of Indigenous land by the US government is in direct violation of its own law, according to White Face. According to the treaties, anyone residing within this Territory without the express invitation of the Oceti Sakowin is trespassing.
On March 3rd, 1871, the U.S. Congress passed a law which said that treaties made prior to that date would not be changed or abolished. From that date to this, since the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was made prior to1871, all American laws passed within the 1868 Treaty Territory are illegal. To enforce any American law that violates the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 is a violation of the March 3rd Act of 1871.
White Face references Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “This Constitution, and … all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby…”
The Sioux Nation Treaty Council was established in 1894 by He Dog shortly after the Wounded Knee Massacre. At the time, any Native American speaking of the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 was imprisoned, killed, or sent to Canton, an insane asylum specifically for Indigenous people. The work of the Treaty Council was to educate Native people about the treaties quietly and secretly down through the generations. Only in recent years have more people become aware of the historic and ongoing work of the SNTC.
In an October 2022 letter to President Joseph Biden in response to his Proclamation regarding Indigenous Peoples published October 7, 2022, White Face boldly declared, “…Remember, your colonizing government is only a little over 200 years old. We have a civilization that is more than ten-thousand years old and know a few things about Human Rights.
“…in order to reach the gold and other resources in our Territory, your government totally destroyed our economy (the bison) and put us in Prisoner-of-War camps which now are called American Indian Reservations.
“… we recommend that your government follow the United Nations Decolonization procedure for returning our land and reinvigorating our form of government. This would be true Self-Determination which we had for millennia before the invasion and occupation by your government.
“We are our own Nation with an International Treaty with your nation, the United States. … We are not a tribe. We are a Nation.
“We pray that you will keep your word, honor and intention and truly uphold and enforce the entire 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. If you do so, we will finally be liberated and free after more than one-hundred and fifty years under your illegal invasion and occupation.”
White Face sent a copy of this letter to the UN Secretary General, the members of The UN General Assembly, the Decolonization Committee, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council.
White Face first became active as an organizer thirty years ago as a volunteer on the Board of Directors for the South Dakota Indian Education Association. She was also an administrator for the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, developing tribal laws, managing departments, and administering federal programs. Over the years, she continued volunteering her organizing skills, then worked as a professional organizer for a national environmental organization.
Woven throughout, she has been a political columnist. For over twenty years, her editorials and essays have appeared in magazines and collections in the United States and Great Britain urging political reform, social justice, and environmental protection and restoration. Her highly acclaimed book “Indigenous Nations’ Rights in the Balance: An Analysis of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” is available from Living Justice Press (livingjusticepress.org/).
Through her published work, the SNTC recognized her passion for the sovereignty of the Great Sioux Nation. She assumed her duties as Spokesperson for the SNTC in 2004 and continues tirelessly to this day.
Now 75 years old and living in Rapid City SD, White Face is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. When asked what she would say to young people, she responds quickly, “Ask God every morning, ‘tell me what to do.’”
White Face says that she has experienced racism since her first day at grade school. “The saving grace was that (my grandmother) had taught me also who I was as Oglala Tituwan Oceti Sakowin (Oglala Sioux) and about our way of spirituality.”
Donations may be sent by check or money order to: Sioux Nation Treaty Council, PO Box 2003, Rapid City, SD 57709. All royalties from the sale of White Face’s book go to the SNTC.
(Contact Grace Terry at email@example.com)