In western South Dakota, the Black Hills are an anomaly on the plains, covered in ponderosa pines, laced in snow. The Lakota say their people originated there, emerging from the depths of Wind Cave, destined to spread out among the Great Plains where their lives would be intimately intertwined with the buffalo. The Black Hills are the most sacred place of the Lakota people – in their language, they are called Paha Sapa, ‘the heart of everything that is’.
Today, small clusters of buffalo chew grass in enclosed, white-owned pastures in the Hills, remnants of the imposing herds that once roamed the plains. The Lakota are concentrated on beleaguered reservations, sections of dried-up prairie that together make up a fraction of the territory they were promised in treaties made with the United States in the 1800s. The 1868 treaty of Fort Laramie was the most robust and legally binding treaty ever made between the United States and an Indian nation, promising them control of nearly half of modern day South Dakota forever. But when gold was discovered in 1874, the US reneged, taking back the Black Hills and most of the ceded land.
‘Our kids are all bent and wilted blades of grass that everybody just steps all over. Maybe some day they will rise and stand.’
The largest of the Lakota reservations, and the second largest Native reservation in the US, is Pine Ridge – a piece of prairie larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Pine Ridge and the neighboring Rosebud reservation occupy the two poorest counties in the US. Their grassy brown, rolling hills are spotted with trailer homes with plywood covered windows, surrounded by broken-down autos and garbage heaps.
Ever since the treaties were initially broken, Pine Ridge has been a nexus of contention between Native peoples and the Government. I came to Pine Ridge in search of the most recent spark – a group called the Lakota Freedom Movement. Last December, a delegation informed the State Department and several embassies that their nation was pulling out of all treaties signed with the US Government and declaring independence. They announced that the new country, simply named Lakotah, would soon issue its own passports to anyone who wished to become a citizen – including non-Natives – the only requirement being they give up their US citizenship. Their country would be tax free, its political structure decentralized, and its borders would extend to the Lakota nation’s pre-treaty territory that stretches thousands of square miles, encompassing swaths of North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska.
Enter Russell Means
The declaration captured the world’s imagination. It was tracked by news agencies and provoked responses from indigenous groups around the world. A Turkish lawyer offered to be the nascent country’s ambassador in Ankara. The Nation of Islam, evangelical Christian organizations, libertarians, and the US patriot movement, all expressed interest in joining the breakaway country.
The ‘face’ of the Lakota Freedom Movement is Russell Means, the controversial activist cum Hollywood actor with a reputation for dramatizing native desire for self-determination. In 1969, he participated in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island; in 1970, he incited the storming of Mount Rushmore. In 1972, he helped seize the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington DC and in 1973, as a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), he led an armed takeover of Wounded Knee. This led to a 71-day stand-off with the US Marshals and tribal police. The declared capital of the new republic is Porcupine, a village of 407 people in the heart of Pine Ridge. I inch down an icy, snow-packed road on the edge of town, searching for Means’ home and ranch, now the official headquarters of the newly declared Republic of Lakota’s interim government. I open the cow gate cautiously and drive in, disregarding the sign that tells me I am being monitored by camera. A tall teepee stands next to the house, illuminated in my headlights as I approach.
‘In the 20th century we tried armed struggle again. It didn’t work,’ Means tells me, leaning back in his chair, his long silver-and-black hair pulled back into a ponytail. ‘We tried protesting. We tried petitioning. We tried voting for democrats. We tried the courts. We tried every way imaginable to try to get some kind of redress,’ he says. ‘We are at risk of disappearing as a people… The colonial apartheid system does not work for us.’
Means says their declaration of independence was motivated by the UN’s adoption, in September 2007, of the non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous peoples have ‘the right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’. The US was one of the four countries that voted against the Declaration.
Means insists the Lakota Freedom Movement’s declaration of sovereignty is legally sound, citing Article 6 of the US Constitution – which calls treaties ‘the supreme law of the land’ – and The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which the US signed.
The main controversy around the Lakota Freedom Movement is over who exactly it represents. Means claims it has the backing of more than 12,000 Lakota people. But not far from the end of his driveway, I ask the cashier and a couple patrons at the village store what they think of the declaration of independence and they look at me blankly: they’ve never heard of it. But although most contend they were never consulted before the delegation visited DC, no-one I meet opposes the action – if only because it has brought attention to issues of poverty on the reservation.
Survival, gas and houses
On top of a small hill a lone trailer looks over the town of Oglala, a town of just over 1,000 people. A man, who asks not to be named, invites me inside. He is better off than most. Unlike the 87 per cent of people on the reservation, he is employed, working for the reservation’s Prairie Winds Casino. He also lives alone, while many of his neighbors pack three or four families into a one family home to make ends meet. But even though his job sets him well above the reservation’s $6,128 per capita average, he still has to heat his house with an electric stove, regularly has mornings without water because his pipes freeze, and gets frequent visits by the power company threatening to cut off his electricity. When I ask him about the Lakota Freedom Movement, he shrugs his shoulders. ‘Here being political is secondary to trying to survive,’ he says. ‘Nobody here has the drive to do what it would take to get real independence. People are worried about getting gas and houses.’
Some don’t understand the Lakota Freedom Movement’s logic for wanting to withdraw from treaties. While the President of the Pine Ridge indigenous council has so far declined to comment, governments of neighboring reservations have distanced themselves from the Lakota Freedom Movement’s strategies, albeit carefully. ‘These individuals are not representative of any Indian nation I represent,’ wrote Rodney Bordeaux, the president of the Rosebud reservation, in a joint statement with the president of the Cheyenne River reservation. ‘The US’s theft of Sioux land has placed the Sioux people in abject poverty on the reservation, but our grandfathers fought and died for these treaties. Without these treaties, the US Congress and the multinational corporations that control it will attempt to steal the remaining treaty lands and sovereignty we have left,’ Bordeaux argues.
The Pine Ridge government itself is a point of controversy. Many distrust that it will act in their best interests. ‘The tribal council will mold the hand to fit the glove of the US so they can get whatever money they can,’ says Arlette Loudhawk, 48-year-old Oglala resident. ‘They give away our jurisdiction without even asking us.’
I want to protest, I want to get militant
When I ask Arlette what she thinks of the Lakota Freedom Movement, she says she is grateful people are doing something. ‘I want to protest. I want to get radical. I want to get militant,’ she says. ‘What have I got to lose?’ She is angry that the conditions her children are growing up in are so bleak – the youth suicide rate of Native Americans is 150 per cent that of the average for youth in the United States and nearly a third of teenagers on Pine Ridge don’t finish high school. She is angry that she has to live off food rations. She is angry that her nation is gripped by alcoholism, a disease that affects Native Americans six times more that the general American public. She is angry that only 15 per cent of Lakota speak their language, putting the average age of its speakers at 65.
She is also angry that she is dying of cancer when, with appropriate healthcare, she could have been cured. As it is, she has an estimated five years to live because she had to wait six months to be seen at the reservation’s hospital. Her situation is not unique. Over the years, the Government has gutted the Indian Health Services – created from old treaties that promised to provide Native Americans with quality healthcare, education and decent housing in exchange for taking vast swaths of land. It is now funded at less than $2,000 per person a year, half of what federal prisoners get for healthcare. With such poor medical services, the infant mortality rate on Pine Ridge is the highest on the continent and nearly three times higher than the national average. Arlette’s main wish is that the youth will be inspired to act. ‘Our kids are all bent and wilted blades of grass that everybody just steps all over. Maybe some day they will rise and stand.’
‘On the wall hangs a banner that reads, in bold red letters: ‘The Indian Wars Are Not Over.’
Her 24-year-old son, Russell Blacksmith, gives her hope. He became a tribal lawyer at the age of 18 so he could take his people’s struggle for sovereignty and treaty rights to the courts. ‘Our ancestors were visionary enough to think ahead for us, when they signed [the Fort Laramie] treaty.’ He calls it ‘the basis from which we stand’ and wants people to fight for their land because, if they don’t, there might be no reservation left. ‘Once we lose our land base, we lose our spirituality, we lose our songs and we lose our dances.’
‘Our reservation is being checker-boarded,’ Russell says. Today, white people control most good land and a part of the reservation has become an Air Force base. By 1970, nine-tenths of reservation land was owned or leased by white people or people with a low percentage of indigenous blood. With Pine Ridgers too dispossessed to buy cattle or work the land, most landowners lease or sell it at extremely low rates to white ranchers.
Russell emphasizes that the entire process is illegal by treaty law; something he wishes his people understood better. Article 12 of the 1968 Fort Laramie Treaty says that no portion of the Reservation can be ceded without the consent of 75 per cent of the Native adult male population. Russell tells me that if I want to understand the struggle over sovereignty, I should visit the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. On my way out of the Reservation, I stop and look out over the valley where around 146 men, women, and children had lain frozen in the snow in 1890, shot down by the US Calvary. The mass grave is now surrounded by newer graves with crosses, artificial flowers, fading plastic Madonnas and small strips of white, yellow, red and black cloth indicating the Four Directions.
One Lakota woman told me, when she was a kid attending a conservative mixed-race school in Pine Ridge town, her teachers would take them to Wounded Knee, but they never told the children about the massacre. When she got older, in 1973, she was happy to see AIM take over the site with rifles in their hands to demand that their corrupt government step down while armored personnel carriers, helicopters and snipers surrounded them for over two months. Today there is a visitor center, run by one of the delegates of the Lakota Freedom Movement. I am hoping to find him, but the lot is empty and the building is closed. I approach the locked doors and peer through the glare of the window at the sparse interior. On the wall hangs a banner that reads, in bold red letters: ‘The Indian Wars Are Not Over.’
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