The Lakota Sioux, an Amazing, Longsuffering People
by Vince Hardt
The partial victory in U. S. District Court last week in the case of the Standing Rock Tribe of the Lakota Sioux nation against the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for the rapid approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline has been reported widely in the mainstream media. The court found that the tribe’s hunting and fishing rights were violated, as well as environmental standards. The court is still considering whether to order the shutdown of the pipeline.
Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, represents the Tribe. In an Email to supporters, their chief counsel Jan Hasselman gave the chief credit to the Tribe and their activist supporters, “This victory is the result of the Tribe’s inspiring and courageous fight, supported by hundreds of thousands of people like you who spoke up and made your voices heard.”
So, who are these amazing Native people, and from where do they get their strength?
Concern for the Lakota Sioux people has come to the forefront in my life twice. The first was during Wounded Knee II in 1973. I was overseas when it happened, but was following the news, as this event had attracted worldwide attention. I had checked the history and knew about Wounded Knee I as well. I visited the area in the early 1980’s, spending just one long day on the Pine Ridge – Porcupine Reservation. I was distressed by the extreme poverty and left with the feeling that human beings were being warehoused, not given the opportunity for life. The second, of course, was Standing Rock last year, which I did not visit, but was following both through independent videos and through the personal accounts of those from this area who visited and returned
On Friday, May 26, I had the opportunity to view three short films and participate in the discussion at Friday Flicks, a regular monthly program at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, IL. One of the films was especially moving, although also highly disturbing: “Lakota History: American Disgrace,” which the reader with a strong stomach may watch for her/himself here:
In spite of having followed both of the above situations, I learned some new information that I either had not picked up previously or had forgotten:
Lakota society is matriarchal. [This helps explain the leadership by older women of the Standing Rock struggle.]
The identification Oceti Sakowin [literally, the seven council fires] is used by the people of Pine Ridge as well as Standing Rock. All believe they came from Turtle Island.
The Lakota consider the Buffalo their relatives (although this has not stopped them from eating buffalo meat and using other byproducts).
The Lakota also consider us their “relatives from the four directions.”
In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court relied upon the Divine Right of Discovery to extinguish the First Nations’ title to the land. The Court relied upon British precedent and chose to ignore the contrary positions of Roger Williams in Rhode Island and of the Dutch in New Amsterdam.
From 1871 to 1910, the United States carried out the deliberate slaughter of the buffalo in order to end the Native way of life on the Plains.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Interior Secretary, leftist icon Harold L. Ickes, were involved in the further reorganization of the tribe with only minority tribal consent in 1934 – 1936.
The Indian Health Service performed involuntary sterilizations of Lakota women in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The film also recounts the more familiar history of the Treaties of Fort Laramie and the continual reduction of Lakota land, particularly once gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, carrying out the intent of the Indian Appropriation Act of 1871, [which should have been named the Indian Expropriation Act] which ceased to regard the First Nations as sovereign states, invalidating all treaties. From then on, the policy of the United States was assimilation, more accurately described as cultural genocide. This includes imposing a competitive model of individual ownership of land over the long-standing collective ownership of the Tribes.
The second film was from NPR, and basically recounted well-known aspects of the current life of the Lakota Sioux. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, probably just because of what I had just seen. The personal accounts by many younger members of the Tribe, many of whom were understandably quite bitter, was the most moving part. I suppose the order of the films was chosen to show the history first and then current conditions, and that has logic to it. Still, the first was so powerful that the second, even though it reflected the same injustices, seemed tame by comparison.
The third film showed one possible response by well-intentioned members of the outside community. It was a promotion for Re-Member Ministries, who sponsor service missions to the Lakota people of Pine Ridge. Their website is here http://www.re-member.org/default.aspx
Their initial project was the construction of wooden bunks beds for families with children, and that is still a major part of their activity, which now also includes constructing accessibility ramps, outhouses [Yes! Many of their houses lack indoor plumbing in 21st century America!] and trailer skirting. There were many testimonials, interestingly for comparison, many also by young male members of the Tribe, to the importance of these efforts to improve their lives. It did not appear that any individuals appeared in both videos, so there may be a division of opinion within the youth of the Tribe.
Such activity is at the “band-aid” level and raises the question of whether it is only covering over the underlying tragedy. The audience was largely female and over age 50, but these questions were raised quite emphatically in the discussion period. The response came from an enthusiastic member who had been on one of these trips and from a representative of the organization. She advised that they understand the greatest value of these trips to be in educating those who go there in the history and tragic present of the Lakota. This was confirmed on the film by testimonials from those who had participated, including college students.
We are faced with the same situation as usual when confronted with the suffering our society has caused. Short of starting a civil war, which the Lakota themselves are not doing, we have limited options. We care as best as we can for those who are suffering, while we also advocate politically for the changes in society that will provide a more permanent cure, and we also have to recognize the factors that limit the success, at least in the short term, of both approaches.
As also stated in the first, tragic, film, the traditions of the Lakota taught them to live, love and thrive, and they draw strength from this in the current struggle. That such an amazingly strong people of high character faced what they did, and still face, in our society, is a sad note of our history and the current status of what we like to call “civilization.”