The Heart of Everything That Is
Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Outsiders know them as the Sioux, but they call themselves the Lakota — “the Allies.” They once claimed as their own more than 48 million acres in what is now the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, lands “set apart” by the United States government in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Sioux.” That treaty was violated six years later when an expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Lakota’s sacred Black Hills. After the massacre of Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn in 1876, Congress forced the Lakota to relinquish the Black Hills and to settle on reservations by threatening to cut off their food rations — a choice the Lakota remember as “sell or starve.”
The Lakota were not just defeated in battle and deprived of their lands. They were broken as a people. In 1882, the federal Indian agency banned their religion because Indian agents and army officers recognized it as a source of continuing resistance to white occupation; the government prohibited the sun dance, the vision quest and the seven sacred ceremonies. The children of the Lakota attended government schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language.
The Lakota have been a defeated people ever since. Today their poverty is visible on a country road as a Lakota family passes by, its old Comet station wagon chugging along uncertainly. Or in the rickety frame houses of a remote settlement. One cold night on the Pine Ridge reservation I rode alongside a young man as he delivered a load of firewood to an elderly woman whose woodpile was exhausted. She lived in a sagging cabin, hardly bigger than a boxcar, without electricity or plumbing. It was heated by a wood stove, lit by a coal-oil lantern. Pine Ridge is in fact the poorest corner of America, the per capita income of the county the lowest in the nation.
When I first visited Pine Ridge as a young reporter more than fifteen years ago, I experienced the culture shock of visiting a third-world country — only this poverty was right here in abundant America. I was stunned by the harshness of life on the reservation, by the despair in the faces of the young people in the village streets. Some were beautiful faces, recalling the picture-book Indians that children study in school; others were pocked and bloated, with the vacant eyes of young addicts. And as I came to understand more about the Sioux on later visits, the more skeptical I became that any government solution could erase their problems. It was not only the economic barrenness of the reservation or the imperious bureaucracy governing their affairs that crippled the Lakota, for they were a divided people, trapped in bitter arguments, uncertain of their own future.
The Pine Ridge reservation was like a welfare state. Nearly everyone was dependent on the government, and the ambitious quarreled over the scraps of poverty politics. Full bloods resented mixed bloods. “Assimilationists,” trying to adapt to white culture, were stubbornly resisted by “traditionalists,” who clung to old ways. The 80,000 Lakota still living on or near the reservations were pitted against each other by history. Rivalries among the eight reservations — Pine Ridge, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, Rosebud and the others — were compounded by the differences among the original Lakota tribes: the Oglala, the Minneconjou, the Hunkpapa and the rest. The more I understood these complicated arguments, the more dismal the future seemed to me.
I think now that I was wrong. Something was stirring among the Lakota even then — a vague but powerful sense of their own heritage. Some young people were taking up old ways and talking to elderly shamans about old secrets. Children were encouraged to study Lakota and to learn the rituals once outlawed. At the time, this cultural revival struck me as a pleasing development but hardly significant alongside the grave conditions on the reservations. When I returned to Pine Ridge after many years, though, I sensed an exciting difference. All of the old arguments continue, the bitter quarrels endure. Yet the Lakota seem to have begun to find a fragile basis for unity, a way to rise above the old arguments of history.
At the heart of this nascent struggle for unity are the Black Hills — the sacred ground the Lakota lost 110 years ago, the core of their spiritual inheritance. After decades of litigation, the federal government finally agreed in 1980 to make restitution to the Lakota for the vast lands confiscated from them a century ago. The United States at that time awarded them nearly $105 million for the Black Hills of South Dakota and offered another $39 million for the surrounding lands in other states.
But these Indians have done something astounding. In the money-mad Eighties, they have refused white America’s conscience money. Nearly $200 million dollars—counting interest—sit uncollected in Washington, D.C. For some Lakota families, cashing in would mean thousands of dollars. But even the poorest people on the reservations — where the median annual income is $3,500 — won’t touch it. The Lakota want the Black Hills back.