Slowly the sun rises over the reservation. The occasional tractor-trailer rumbles down Route 18, its clamor reverberating for miles in the grasslands. Sleek sedans purr by, their destination far in the distance. Pick-up trucks ramble on noisily, carrying farm equipment that will hopefully cultivate the barren land.
A landscape of beautiful desolation emerges. Yellow grass stretches to the horizon, the golden tedium broken only by the scattered clusters of trailer homes. If you squint, distant trees appear like flecks of green paint, a reminder of the sacred lands the Oglala Lakota used to roam.
Here, along with the bodies of warriors long dead, lies the residue of the darkest chapter in American history.
Here, only miles from looming Mount Rushmore, a shrine to their white tormentors, lies the blood of generations of Native Americans who stood their ground.
Here resides the spirit of the Oglala Lakota, tethered to the land, for better or worse.
Here’s the thing—people are still living here. Still eking out a living. Still exasperated. Still incensed.
Social studies teachers mention this dismal chapter, touch on it, even design lesson plans around it. But all of the lessons have one commonality—they treat this somber chapter of our past as something our country has moved on from. Here, however, outrage at broken treaties, government massacres, and more than 300 years of all-encompassing oppression is fresh. Why? Injustice still exists, and solving it is much more complicated than it looks.
Before considering possible solutions, it is necessary to understand that the anger and mistrust directed towards the government and whites as a whole is borne of centuries of abuse, neglect, and oppression. It’s easy to become embittered and despairing when the federal government:
- Broke all treaties it agreed to with the Oglala Lakota, starting with the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and continuing through the present day
- Turned a blind eye to gold-seekers overrunning the treaty-protected Black Hills
- Sent General Custer to forcefully take the Black Hills in the mid 1870’s
- Massacred 300 Lakota tribes-people (some warriors, mostly women and children) at Wounded Knee encampment 14 years later
- Passed the Dawes Severalty Act, which divided up Indian tribal lands into small parcels to be distributed individually to tribesmen (This, in effect, was a divide-and-conquer strategy that eroded tribal unity)
- Purposely sanctioned the slaughter of Plains buffalo to starve the natives and force them to acquiesce to government demands (“Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone”- Richard Dodge, aide to General Sherman)
- Prohibited natives from practicing their sacred ‘Sun Dance’ ritual until the late 1970s
- Snatched children away from their families on the reservation to place them in Christian boarding schools and state foster homes
- Drafted tribal warriors into the military during World War II, then after they were shipped off, forcibly removed tribal members from their sacred Badlands and over 300,000 acres of reservation land
- Desecrated parts of the hallowed Badlands by using them as a bombing and artillery range
Fast forward to the present: the tribal unemployment rate hovers between 80-90%, per capita income is $4000, the rate of diabetes is 8 times the national average, alcoholism is above 75%, the teen suicide rate is four times the national average, and life expectancy here (48 for men, 52 for women) is lower than any other location in the western hemisphere except Haiti.
Native children are still snatched from their families and placed in white foster homes at an alarming rate, an abhorrent practice that the state of South Dakota actually profits from. According to a report by Indian Child Welfare Act executives, 740 Lakota children are removed to foster care each year and 90 percent are placed in white homes and institutions.
Yes, because of the staggering rates of alcohol abuse and sexual assault on the reservation, some children do need to be removed from unsafe situations. However, when South Dakota receives an annual average of $79,000 per adopted Native child in foster care and politicians personally profit from providing ‘mental health care’ to natives, it can be reasonably inferred that pure altruism is not the top priority of the state.
Furthermore, the unceasing removal of native children to predominantly white foster homes and institutions is a continuation of centuries-old state-sanctioned cultural eradication. This is a blatant violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. While the families the children are placed with may be perfectly nice, the fact that many tribal parents are denied fair testimony at the removal hearings is a travesty—for the welfare of the children, for the morale of the tribe, and for justice.
Most agree that more jobs on the reservation would lead to a rise in average income, which would allow for parents to better provide for their children, raise the overall mood on the reservation, and allow tribal members to start to dig themselves out of a behemothic economic hole.
It sounds easy: entice big factories to build on the reservation, providing employment for thousands of disadvantaged tribes-members. However, even if many tribes-people would support such an endeavor, because of labyrinthine internal politics, the Tribal Council would likely shoot it down. Such ventures have been attempted before, and always fizzled out.
Similarly, in 1980, as part of a settlement that acknowledged wrongdoing in the initial theft of tribal lands, the government provided $102 million (it has now grown to $1.3 billion) in compensation to nine Sioux tribes, the Oglala Lakota included.
Surely a tribe with limited resources and a $4,000 per capita income desperately needs the money, right?
However, the tribes staunchly affirm that the ancestral lands were never for sale; therefore, no compensation or payment will be accepted. They maintain that the Black Hills always belonged to the tribes, and even if they were ‘sold,’ $1.3 billion would hardly be proper remuneration for the priceless natural resources plundered from the land. Instead, some natives want a full return of the Black Hills; others the opportunity to recuperate some stolen ground. However, with the Black Hills settled and prospering (and Mount Rushmore already engraved), neither proposition seems likely.
Can the Lakota, following the lead of countless other tribes around the country, establish a casino? Maybe if the prairie dogs of the sparsely populated plains gambled, it could turn a profit.
So what practical solutions remain?
The government cannot give back the Black Hills. It’s not feasible; there are too many homes, businesses, and livelihoods dependent today on the area.
The Tribal Council is not likely to easily acquiesce to putting a factory on the reservation. Neither will they accept the $1.3 billion waiting patiently for them in escrow—for that would mean admitting defeat.
As a start, Honda has partnered with the Oglala Lakota College to provide STEM education to Reservation Schools. This will begin to address the gaping gulf between the quality of reservation education and educational quality elsewhere in the country. It can present an avenue to prosperity for despondent youth, allowing the tribe to plant seeds for its future survival.
Without a doubt, that is an amazing step in the right direction. But is there any larger effort that can be made to simultaneously restore dignity to the tribe while also enriching its coffers immediately?
What should happen, as a compromise and as a means to further discussion, is the rekindling of the plans to allow the Oglala Lakota tribe manage the Badlands National Park.
Technically, under the current system, the tribe owns the land on which the national park rests. However, the federal government has decreed that the National Park Service should run the park, and because of a previous dispute over financial statements, the NPS has refused to release the cash it owes the tribe for revenues generated.
But why should the National Park Service run the park when the natives own the land, especially when the NPS has no intrinsic motivation to do so?
After all, the Badlands are sacred to Oglala Lakota; they can make sure the region is not besmirched nor desecrated. Such a mutually beneficial relationship would allow the underfunded NPS to reapportion a segment of its funds elsewhere, provide jobs to tribesmen, promote Native American culture, provide revenue to the tribe, ensure the land is properly and adequately maintained, and most importantly, restore some semblance of dignity to the tribe.
While it would surely be a drawn-out process, any resistance from the Tribal Council (on the topic of regarding grazing land for cattle, for example), can hopefully be overcome with a renewed determination to come to the negotiating table, an appeal to the pride maintaining the sacred lands would promote, and with outside, and preferably national, attention.
Furthermore, while it is unlikely for the federal government to get involved, if President Donald Trump were to broker a truce (which, given that he has more visibly important things to do, is improbable), it would provide a public relations victory for a man that sorely needs one. On a reservation where over 85% of voters cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton (in a state that went overwhelmingly to Trump), it would, at the very least, illuminate the softer side of a man who has repeatedly angered minority groups. At the most, it could serve as an olive branch to Native Americans countrywide who have heretofore been devastated by government policy.
Realistically, presidential intervention aside, the success of such an undertaking would produce jobs and revive near-dormant tribal culture. It would begin to right a historical wrong. Most importantly of all, it would provide hope.
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