Last November I visited South Dakota and Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian people. This tribe has an incredible history with leaders such as Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. They ruled the entire northern plains from the Missouri River to the Big Horn Mountains for nearly 200 years. They defeated Custer and the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn. One of their bands was the victim of the last great Indian massacre at Wounded Knee. Approximately 100 years later in the 1970’s they had the stand-off with Federal Marshall’s at Wounded Knee that lasted for weeks. In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government violated their 5th amendment rights (taking without just compensation) in taking the Black Hills in the 1880’s. The court awarded $17 million plus interest. The tribe wouldn’t take the money…”Our land is not for sale was their reply.”
Today there are approximately 35,000 Oglala Sioux living on the Pine Ridge Reservation (+2,000,000 acres). I was really struck by the geographic isolation of the tribe, the lack of commerce and the degree to which the original reservation ‘system’ is still in place.
Geographically, they are on the road to nowhere. No white people travel through there for anything! Very isolated. I saw 5 white people in 3 days on the reservation. 4 of them were teaching at the Jesuit Red Cloud School. One was advising the tribal council.
The lack of commerce is hard to describe. There are no private businesses to speak of. There is no bank. There is no car dealership. There is no grocery store. There is no movie theater. There aren’t 5 restaurants. It is quite unlike anything I have seen in the United States. The unemployment rate is 75%. We have a national ‘crisis’ at 9%.
The original ‘agreement’ (Treaty) between the Oglala Sioux and the Federal Government was simple. If you (Indians) agree (in the end they had no choice) to come live and STAY on this reservation, we (Whites – Federal Government) agree to take care of you. We will cloth you, feed you, provide school, provide housing, provide the basic tools of agriculture. That was the ‘deal’ and I understood this original ‘deal’ from history. What I was NOT prepared for is the fact that this ‘deal’ is still in full force today. That is how the reservation functions today. The tribe has a dilemma. They feel strongly that the government needs to keep its treaty obligations but in return that perpetuates this massive culture of dependency and lack of independent economic opportunity. We are now 4-5 generations into this cycle and the cycle plays out in extreme isolation.
I stayed at the Singing Horse Trading Post with this German woman who married an Oglala and then divorced but stayed. As she puts it, “If no one ever showed you a trumpet, why would you want to play one.”
I am going to stay connected to this tribe. I will return there. I made some good contacts. Helping in a meaningful way is not that simple because of what I have described above. I started a journal which, in time, will become the foundation of a book I am writing about their experience and the overarching themes it touches about man’s relationship with their government and finding YOURSELF in spite of your ROLE.