Charmaine White Face
Charmaine White Face is an Oglala Tituwan woman, grandmother, writer,
activist, and Coordinator for Defenders of the Black Hills. According to the
Defenders’ website, this volunteer group works “to preserve, protect, and
restore the environment of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty territory”.
This interview with Ms. White Face was conducted with QME editor
Suzanne Sunshower, via e-mail, in August 2008. Some helpful links have
been provided; new windows will open on pertinent background
information that may enhance reader understanding of certain issues.
Further investigation by readers, of these issues, is encouraged.
I first became aware of the Defenders of the Black Hills around the Bear Butte issue, so I began our
interview with that…
Part I The Black Hills
It is my understanding that many Native American people believe the Black Hills region, and Bear Butte
in particular, is sacred ground that is under threat by several forces. Briefly, is the Black Hills region
supposed to be protected by treaty rights?
CWF: Definitely. The Black Hills are protected by both the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 which were both ratified by Congress to be protected by Article VI of the US
Constitution and the March 3rd Act of 1871.
Is Bear Butte sacred to more than just the Great Sioux Nation peoples?
CWF: Yes, one elder said that people from more than 60 nations from North and Central
America would do pilgrimages to pray in the Black Hills and at Bear Butte.
Do Native youth, elders or veterans, still use Bear Butte for religious ceremonial purposes?
CWF: Yes, this is one of the places that has been continually used, although often times in
secret, from the late 1800s until 1978 when the Indian Religious Freedom Act was finally
passed by Congress.
Is the growing Sturgis Bike Rally the primary threat to the Butte?
CWF: Urban sprawl is the main threat which includes growing housing projects and their
infrastructures. Some have developed campgrounds, race tracks, shooting ranges, and now
helicopter rides which generate the most revenue during the Sturgis Bike Rally. However,
the Rally only impacts the area for about one month per year.
Is legislation the best way to protect this sacred land?
CWF: It would have to be federal legislation. The prices for the land are so outrageous that
even though we have a land trust fund to help begin buying the land, the prices are too
high. The most protection we can see from a human perspective would be federal legislation
as a national park with a no-development area a few miles around the base of the Butte.
Can people outside of South Dakota who want to help this cause write or petition members of the SD
legislature in this matter?
CWF: It would be better if there was a national move to help protect this place with federal
legislation and that would require Congressional help from outside South Dakota. We have
approached the SD legislature many times, this last time asking only for a no alcohol zone
around the top part of the Butte. The majority of the committe only treated the request with
total contempt. The SD Congressional delegation will not go against the state legislature
that is why we will need help from outside of SD.
Part II Radioactive Contamination
Defenders of the Black Hills members also monitor abandoned mines and affected waters on reservation
lands. Are you finding contamination in the lands and waters?
CWF: We monitor the entire Treaty territory, not just the reservations. There are no
abandoned mines that we know of on the reservations. However, there are more than 1,000
abandoned Uranium mines within the Treaty territory and these are affecting the entire
region. We have found contamination in the Grand and the Cheyenne Rivers. We hope to
get more water samples of both surface and ground water, but the tests are expensive and
we operate mostly by donations, so our sampling ability is slow.
What are members doing to protect the People – have you proposed legislation, waged lawsuits. staged
protests, or warned communities?
CWF: We have proposed tribal legislation and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen have
approved a resolution declaring all the 17 reservations in the Region to be nuclear-free areas.
We also have opposed legislation that would allow uranium mining. We have opposed the
SD Board of Minerals and Environment in court for the granting of an In Sit Leach mining
permit. Although we lost the court battle, we won in that the SD Department of
Environment knows that we are watching and we influenced the Water Board to gather
much more comments on regulations for underground extraction wells.
What are some effects and/or evidence of contamination that have been found among Native people living
on the lands and using the water?
CWF: Native people have the highest incidence of cancer, infant mortality, and diabetes in
the Region. However, since medical researchers on a whole are unaware of the radioactive
pollution we are all experiencing, and have been for the past 40-50 years, the victims are
usually blamed for their illness. By this I mean, a victim having lung cancer is blamed for
smoking without the researcher being aware of the amount of radioactive dust and-or radon
gas we continually breathe.
The same is true of the water. Tests for uranium, radionuclides, alpha, beta, and gamma
radiation are not routinely done by state, county, city, tribal, or other local agencies. So the
sources of high incidences of kidney tumors, or colon cancer do not include radioactive
Has the bid by government and/or private corporations to control resources on Native lands led to
concerns of contamination on reservations outside of SD as well (isn’t the Navajo Reservation dealing
with something similar)?
CWF: The Navajo Nation allowed uranium mining on their reservation. The Sioux tribes
did not. The contamination on the Navajo Reservation is actually on the Reservation. In our
case, the difference is the contamination is in our Treaty Territory, and is coming onto the
reservations (which were created as Prisoner of War camps.)
A year ago a private mining company did try to come onto the Pine Ridge Reservation to
mine urainum and were escorted off the Reservation.
Did promised economic opportunity and/or incentives lead some tribal governments to agree to host toxic
dumping and/or mining on tribal lands, before all negative consequences could be considered?
CWF: There have been efforts for the past 30-40 years to open toxic dumps on the Sioux
reservations in South Dakota, but they all have been denied, as far as I know. There might
be tribal governments in other Regions that have allowed this on their lands, but not in our
PART III Environmental Racism
I was privileged to meet up with members of the Longest Walk 2 leaving for DC from Michigan, on my
way back to SD from Detroit last month. Concerns over “environmental racism” were mentioned in the
manifesto of the recent Longest Walk 2. The theme of this latest historic Walk was ‘Defend Sacred Sites
and Mother Earth’, do you think this peaceful Walk was useful in enlightening non-Native people and/or
the federal government about these religious and environmental issues?
CWF: I hope so, but until many more people get involved, I don’t expect much to happen.
Do we need to be even more vocal about these issues and use civil disobedience, or can pushing legislation
be the answer? Or, perhaps, a combination?
CWF: A combination. People need to be more vocal and especially pushing legislation for
alternative energy like wind and solar. Nuclear energy is not green nor is geothermal.
Geothermal can also contain nuclear radiation. Until Al Gore’s film, most people did not
realize what was happening to the environment, or didn’t care. He kept speaking up and
now more people are trying to change their lifestyles.
Unfortunately, there also needs to be a wakeup about “America’s Secret Chernobyl”, the
nuclear pollution coming out of the Northern Great Plains states.
People can be awakened to issues, but can the federal government?
CWF: The federal government is supposed to work “for the people.” If it is not, then people
need to look at alternatives starting at the local level. It can work but it takes a lot of
committment and fortitude.
PART IV Indianness/The Future
I recently read and appreciated your article, “Getting to the Understanding”, which explains the 7
subgroups of the Great Sioux Nation. I admit that I had been confused, even though (thanks to my
grandfather) I was taught, as a child, some facts about different tribes. Many non-Natives think Indians
are all alike. Do you find that even some Native people are ignorant about other tribes, their practices, and
CWF: Oh yes. There are many factors involved including the adoption of Native children
out of their Tribes, the colonizing influence of the educational systems, and of course the
historic ‘boarding schools’ where Native children were brutally treated to ‘wipe out’ their
Indianness. These have had generational effects but slowly and in small numbers, the trend
is gradually reversing.
When did you begin writing about Native issues, or did this naturally coincide with your activism?
When did you become an Activist?
CWF: I began writing as a columnist in the 1980s so it has been about 25 years. I don’t know
when I became an Activist and was very surprised the first time I was introduced as an
activist. My writing always encouraged people to become active on issues, and being a
teacher, I was always encouraging people to learn and do more. To me, an activist is
someone who encourages others to become active in something. If that’s the true definition,
then I always was an activist but didn’t know it.
You participated in the Prayer Fast around the U.N. Draft Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples. What, briefly, prompted this Fast?
CWF: The Chairman of the UN Working Group on the Draft Declaration told us at a
meeting of Indigenous representatives that if there was no concensus at the next meeting of
the entire group, which included the nation States, on the Original Declaration, then he was
only going to submit his own Declaration to the UN Human Rights Commission and not the
Original Declaration. His Declaration would be a document that did not have Indigenous
peoples approval. That was totally unjust and unfair to Indigenous peoples all over the
world and so I participated in a Prayer Fast to insure that the Original Declaration, which
Indigenous peoples had approved, would be submitted to the UN Human Rights
There are 45 Articles to this Draft Declaration, do you feel the Draft adequately covered the bulk of the
present concerns of worldwide Indigenous Peoples?
CWF: The Declaration that was passed by the UN General Assembly last Sept., 2007, was
not the Original Declaration but was the Chairman’s Declaration. Many concerns of
Indigenous Peoples were removed or watered down. There was a lot of maneuvering in the
United Nations to get this done.
The Prayer Fast did work but the UN Human Rights Commission was conveniently
abolished, and the new Human Rights Council only considered the Chairman’s Declaration,
not the Original. I have written an Analysis which is being put in final form and hopefully
will be available soon.
You were awarded the “Nuclear-Free Future” Award (in the Resistance category), were you surprised to
learn you were to receive it? Does the award have any special meaning to you?
CWF: I was totally surprised! I didn’t understand why we won the award until the
Archbishop of Salzburg, Austria, in his opening remarks stated that they were glad to be in
solidarity with Indigenous people in Indigenous peoples’ resistance to the silence about
nuclear contamination. Then I understood why we won the award for resistance. For the
past five years, we have been doing whatever we can to keep informing people of the
nuclear contamination that is coming out of the Northern Great Plains region.
What do you hope will be your greatest accomplishment in your work on behalf of Native peoples?
CWF: There are two things I would like to accomplish: the upholding of the Fort Laramie
Treaty of 1868 with the peaceful return of our territory, and the restoration of a healthy
environment in our territory.
Ms. White Face, thank you for your time and patience in writing this interview for QME!