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Russel Means' declaration of independence

The American Indian activist Russell Means died today at the age of 72. Obituaries have focused on his role in the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, his leadership of the American Indian Movement, and his run for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination in 1987. (He was defeated by a Texas congressman named Ron Paul.)

But Means was also behind a unique attempt at challenging the U.S. reservation system on the basis of international law. In 2007, Means visited the State Department to drop off a letter announcing the Lakota Nation's "unilateral withdrawal" from treaties signed with the U.S. government in the 19th century, effectively a declation of independence for a territory comprising parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, including the city of Omaha and Mt. Rushmore.

Means based his withdrawal on the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and also delivered letters asking for recognition from the governments of Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile and South Africa.

He spoke with the Rapid City Journal

"We are now a free country and independent of the United States of America," Means said in a telephone interview. "This is all completely legal."[...]

Other countries will get copies of the same declaration, which Means said also would be delivered to the United Nations and to state and county governments covered by treaties, including treaties signed in 1851 and 1868. "We're willing to negotiate with any American political entity," Means said.

The United States could face international pressure if it doesn't agree to negotiate, Means said. "The United State of America is an outlaw nation, we now know. We've understood that as a people for 155 years."

The State Department never responded to Means' request and the Republic of Lakotah was never recognized by any other foreign nations. The publicity stunt was also criticized by other Indian leaders, who have largely worked to gain more political autonomy within the existing reservation system. 

But Means' death is a reminder that despite the attention given to questions of sovereignty and disputed governance in international affairs, there's little discussion of the 565 semi-autonomous territories within the United States. 

MARK LEFFINGWELL/AFP/Getty Images

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