This week, I watched a film called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee because I hadn’t seen it in a while, and it’s actually relevant again. This may seem like an odd film to watch for a war reporting course, but I think it is necessary to remember how “news coverage” in this country began. (Today, you and I would refer to it as “propaganda.”) I find it only appropriate and a tad ironic to address this topic as our nation’s “birthday” approaches.
If you don’t know the story of the Sioux, you’re far from alone. There’s no reason for you to know the story, because unless you’re like me and you’ve spent the last decade in a relationship with a guy whose grandfather is a Potowatomi Chief, it is not talked really about. (We can add this to the same rug under which those pesky bits of American history like Japanese internment are swept.)
See, we Americans like to remember the story of the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag sharing the feast we call “Thanksgiving” today. We teach our children about Pilgrims sailing in on the Mayflower and having a peaceful meal, but that’s just the prologue. The rest of the story involves natives helping white men survive brutal winters in exchange for their diseases and a couple centuries’ worth of extermination.
Clearly there’s a lot of history here, so this will probably get pretty long. By 1876, a huge majority of Indians had been forced off their land and thrown on a reservation. Red Cloud and his people resided on the Great Sioux Reservation in the Dakota Territory, while other leaders like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse stuck to their traditional way of life, because for them, assimilation meant defeat.
But now we’ve discovered gold in the Black Hills, so that’s a huge game changer. (Any time Americans discover a resource, we can’t wait to kill people for it.) But first we try to get them off that valuable land and stick them somewhere else, like a drought-infested reservation where crops won’t grow and game is scarce. Because after all, if the Indians starve to death, that’s just fewer Indians we have to murder. (Duh.) Speaking of murder, the Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand) also happened in 1876. You guys are going to laugh at headline of the Tribune Extra from July 6, 1876:
GEN. CUSTER AND 261 MEN THE VICTIMS. [Really? Not a single Indian victim?]
NO OFFICER OR MAN OF 5 COMPANIES LEFT TO TELL THE TALE. [So who’s telling this one?]
3 DAYS DESPERATE FIGHTING BY MAJ. RENO AND THE REMAINDER OF THE SEVENTH. [Desperate!]
VICTIMS CAPTURED ALIVE AND TORTURED IN A MOST FIENDISH MANNER [Fiendish!]
WHAT WILL THE CONGRESS DO ABOUT IT?
Bury My Heart basically walks us through the aftermath of this battle through the life of Charles Eastman, whose real name was Ohiyesa, but he was forced to change it upon moving to a reservation as a child. He was also forced to go to church. And wear different clothes. And abandon his language. (There’s no word in the Sioux language—or any other native language—for “land ownership”. Owning the earth was a foreign concept.)
Life on the reservation wasn’t ideal. Food rations keep getting smaller. Children die every day of influenza, whooping cough, and the measles. Sitting Bull gets murdered. And eventually, 90 million acres of Indian lands are taken and sold to whites. (Where was all that in the newspapers?)
So fast-forward a couple hundred years to 1980 and the Supreme Court finally admits that the seizures of Indian lands in 1876 violated the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Justice Blackmun wrote, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”
But the Court didn’t want to just give the land back to the Sioux, because, I don’t know, that would just be too decent or moral or something. Much like popular American parenting styles, we just kind of tried to throw money at it to make it shut up. (Because now that we took all the gold and carved a bunch of white dudes’ faces into the mountains, we wanted to pay them for it.) But since the Sioux don’t believe that land can be bought and sold because the earth belongs to no one, they refuse to accept payment for it and the government’s fund just keeps growing—to more than $800 million now. So even though the tribe could really use it, they’re probably never going to take it.
Then something happened. Last year the Reynolds Family, who used the land that the Sioux know as “Pe’ Sla” under the name “Reynolds Prairie Ranch” put it up for sale. The Reynolds always “let” the Sioux have their ceremonies there (on their own land–how nice!), but there was no guarantee that the next “owner” would continue to, so they were afraid their culture would die. For all the Sioux knew, the highest bidder may have had plans to stick a Wal-Mart there.
So here’s the Sioux, who consist of some of the nation’s poorest people, scrambling around to get $900 million together in a month so they can have just enough for a a down payment for this piece of the Black Hills…that technically already belongs to them…but they won’t accept money for it…so now they have to pay money for it. (Yes, this is real.)
Luckily, though—and to bring all of this full circle back to the journalism aspect—the New York Times and so many other news sources raised enough awareness about the issue that the Defenders of the Black Hills organization was born. The Indian Land Tenure Foundation and all of the Sioux Nations pitched in—the Oglala Lakota, Rosebud, Shakopee Mdewakanton, etc., along with some celebrities like P Diddy and Bette Midler—donated to get the Hills back. They made their first initial payment on January 10, 2013. But how is paying money for their land any different than accepting money for it? Isn’t that still acknowledging that land can be purchased? So some Sioux don’t agree with it. But at least a Wal-Mart won’t go up there now.
The President of the Oglala told CBS, “I’m still against buying something we own, but I’m thrilled the tribes are buying it.”
I really hope they raise the rest of the money, but since it’s illegal to a collect debt on Indian Lands, I actually think it’d be kind of funny if they just didn’t bother. Sovereign nation.
Bottom Line: Even though historically, we’ve portrayed American Indians as being savage, uncivilized, shaman-types who will scalp any white man who crosses the red, barbarian warrior’s path, the press seems to have redeemed themselves to some degree on this one. Clearly the publicity the Sioux received last year aided a good cause. Now if we could only get all that other information out there…
Here are some fun facts from the book Eastman (the basis for Bury My Heart’s main character) wrote in his book in 2010:
- The death rate for Natives on reservations for ages 15 to 24 is 60% higher than the overall population, and for ages 25 to 44, it’s 80% higher.
- Violent crime is 250% higher on the reservation than the overall population.
- Alcoholism, tuberculosis, diabetes, pneumonia, and suicides are much higher on reservations than the average population.
- 60% of Indian women will become victims of violence during their lifetimes.
- 26% of reservation-dwelling Indians live below the poverty line—the highest of any racial group.
- The Rosebud Sioux’s reservation has an 83% unemployment rate. The Oglala Lakota has even fewer resources than the Rosebud Tribe.
- 6 of the 7 counties with the lowest income in the U.S. are on reservations in South and North Dakota (because of limited employment due to remote geographic locations, inadequate education, and no access to investment capital).
In 2000, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued an apology to Native Americans, stating that “The BIA stated in its apology to Native Americans in 2000, “Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals, or any of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again…”
But that’s kind of obvious since there aren’t really any Indians left to attack anymore.
Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills? Real nice, guys. Real classy.