Just south of Badlands National Park lies the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to over 20,000 registered members of the Oglala Sioux Native American tribe. The Oglala Sioux are part of the larger Lakota Nation: seven bands of Native American tribes indigenous to the land that now makes up the state of South Dakota. After departing the Badlands, Zach and I drove through this area, stopping at the site of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 during which the U.S. military killed more than 300 defenseless men, women and children of Lakota Nation.
Today, the village of Wounded Knee, in addition to the seven other communities of Oglala Sioux that make up Pine Ridge, is one of the poorest in the country. A stop at a roadside art stand afforded us an opportunity to converse with a young Lakota woman. Unprovoked, she sadly informed us of the problems teenagers on the reservation are having with alcohol abuse, resulting in many youth suicides. Just last week, she said, two female teenage classmates killed themselves while intoxicated.
Before being subjected to life on a reservation, the Lakota resided for generations in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. The Lakota call the Black Hills He Sapa or Cante Ognaka, the Heart of Everything That Is. The land was, and still very much is, sacred to the Lakota. Lakota people continue their vision quest ceremonies today and reaffirm their relationship to the land.
The Black Hills are breathtaking and, upon entering, it becomes immediately obvious why this land is sacred to so many. But the Hills have a tragic history. In each treaty with the U.S. government, the Lakota reserved the Black Hills as the heart of their homeland. A 1851 treaty as well as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 both recognized Lakota control of these lands and exempted the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. Unfortunately, this story follows the same tragic trajectory of so many in our nation’s history. In 1874, George Custer entered the Black Hills from the north and his expedition dispatched reports of huge gold deposits. Before long, hundreds of miners and settlers descended on the area, creating pressure for the illegal seizure of the Black Hills. Any attempts by the Lakota to defend their land were met with fierce military retaliation, often led by the infamous Colonel George Custer (who, sadly, now has his name plastered all over the region with cities, state parks, highways etc named in his ‘honor’).
In 1876, the federal government created a commission headed by a federal treaty negotiator, hoping to convince the Lakota to relinquish their Black Hills. In order to alter the Fort Laramie Treaty, the negotiator needed ¾ of all adult males to agree. The Lakota were insistent, however, that they would not leave their homeland. Through the Black Hills Act in 1877, the government took the land anyway. In 1923, the Lakota filed suit against the U.S. government which would result in the single largest legal award against the U.S. government in U.S. history: $105 million for the Black Hills. But the Lakota position for the last 100 years has been the same: the Black Hills are not for sale. They don’t want a settlement; they simply want their land back. To this day, the U.S. government has failed to reconcile, apologize or address the crimes that were committed.
While much of this history is hidden to the typical flag toting tourists that frequent this area, we could see remnants of it everywhere we looked. There were signs posted in every shop window boasting of “Black Hills Gold” (the Homestake Gold Mine took billions of dollars of gold out of the Black Hills and left behind toxic tailings, ponds of cyanide and a hole in the earth a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep); gaudy tourist attractions on every street corner; and perhaps the greatest insult of all – the towering Mount Rushmore, a symbol of white pride that dominates the very landscape the Lakota hold as sacred. The land we stole from them. The more we learned, the more unsettled we became about being in this region to view Mt. Rushmore on the 4th of July. As you can imagine, we were not feeling particularly patriotic.