It's All About the Land
The Issue Behind Wounded Knee

by Ian Record
Anne Pearse Hocker
The many issues surrounding the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973 and the ongoing predicament of the Lakota, and most other indigenous peoples, evolve from makoce, the land, the earth. Once a relationship that fulfilled all of the Lakota's needs, it required only respect and allegiance in return. But for the past few hundred years, the Lakota have been fighting a life or death struggle to protect their mother, surviving each successive onslaught with a cultural and spiritual resilience that can only be maintained by her continued existence. If the makoce should die, so will the people.

For the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation, this continuing struggle to preserve their land has affected every aspect of daily life, from the reservation’s staggering rate of unemployment to the effort to restore the sacred Black Hills. The U.S. government’s long and sordid history of regressive federal policies towards indigenous peoples have forced the Oglalas into a position of "degenerative contradiction," by forcing them to negotiate in a system of land ownership that is intrinsically foreign to their traditional customs and beliefs.

The continuing assault on the remaining Lakota lands has steadily eroded the tribe’s social foundation, the “tiospaye” (pronounced teeOSHpayay), the traditional extended family and community living structure. In the years preceding reservation boundaries, groups of Lakota often lived, hunted, and fought in small bands of tiospaye, including the followers of Bull Bear and Smoke, and later Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, American Horse, and Young Man Afraid Of His Horses. Temporary or permanent alliances were made between the groups, depending on immediate needs.

The genesis of the current state of land loss and fractionalization on Pine Ridge can be traced to the aftermath of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which recognized title to most of the state of South Dakota and parts of  Nebraska and Montana to the Lakota people for their “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation.” Named the Great Sioux Reservation, the region included the Paha Sapa, or the Black Hills.

Trouble quickly developed, as an onslaught of white miners flooded the Lakota homeland, fueled by Col. George Armstrong Custer’s reports of gold in the Black Hills. Several famous battles between the Lakota and the U.S. military ensued as the U.S. government began to realize the vast economic potential. Less than 10 years after the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty, the U.S. government officially abrogated it, reclaiming the Paha Sapa. Known as the Black Hills Act of 1877, the legislation appropriated all of the Black Hills, along with nearly 34 million acres of surrounding territory, in exchange for “all aid necessary for civilization” and subsistence rations for as long as necessary for the survival of the Sioux.

With the Lakota and most other tribes settled on reservations, the U.S. government shifted its federal policy from exterminating Indians to assimilating them into mainstream American society.

The General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887 guaranteed all heads of households, wives, dependents and orphans individual tracts of land in hopes of transforming the Lakota and other tribes into sedentary, agricultural societies. There were far more “allotments” than Lakota, however, so in 1889 Congress passed the Sioux Act, which divided the Great Sioux Nation into a half dozen non-contiguous reservations and declared the vast remainder “surplus” land, to be opened to white settlement. At fifty- cents an acre, most homesteaders could easily
afford to stake their claims.

The areas in question included large chunks of Lakota land that would eventually become white settlements, then later counties, with allegiance to the state of South Dakota. Land, central to the spirituality and free-range mentality of the tribe's traditions, was fenced off from Lakota families within their own reservation, and the noose became steadily tighter.

The Lakota’s grip on the land was loosened even more during World War I, when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior arbitrarily forced fee patents on many Indian allottees, converting much of the land on Pine Ridge from protected trust status and exposing it to control and acquisition by non-Indian ranchers. Meanwhile, Pine Ridge’s newest BIA agent was enforcing his own idea of free enterprise, opening up a large amount of the allotments to leases and essentially demolishing the tribe’s reliance on livestock for subsistence. Many Oglalas were forced to lease the land to non-Indians as their primary means of income. Other allotments were simply leased away without the permission of the allottees.

The Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 ended the federal policy of allotment and temporarily froze all reservation land transactions, but much of the damage had been done. Many of the communal loyalties and bonds inherent to traditional life had been demoralized or destroyed, fragmenting the connections essential to maintaining the tiospaye.

The post-World War II termination policies provided the perfect vehicle for those who wanted to see more Oglalas leave the reservation and their lands behind. Unoccupied and “unused” land was easy to lease, and the money from the leases was held in trust by the BIA, to be distributed to the landowners. The BIA is currently facing a class action lawsuit for about $2.4 billion of this trust money, which cannot be accounted for. The federal relocation programs of the 1950s exposed even more land to non-Indian control, as many Pine Ridge residents were lured away from the reservation with false promises of economic prosperity in major cities.

The destruction of the tiospaye intensified in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as cluster housing projects were created in many of the villages on Pine Ridge. Cluster housing, introduced as part of an attempt to reduce federal and tribal spending on utilities, concentrated many of the reservation’s residents in densely settled clumps of  new housing and severed the connections many families had to particular pieces of land traditionally held by their tiospaye. The allotments abandoned by the new cluster housing tenants were immediately swept up by Indian and non-Indian ranchers, who today use the land primarily for grazing purposes.

While allotment was abandoned long ago as a federal Indian policy, it remains a crippling political, economic and social reality for the Oglala. Today, Pine Ridge contains about 3 million acres, a far cry from a little over a hundred years ago when it boasted almost ten times that number.

The map detailing the reservation’s land status resembles a checkerboard and provides disturbing evidence of the fractionalization of Pine Ridge. It depicts a shrinking number of units held in trust by Oglalas, and an increasing mass of grazing units controlled by ranchers as fee patent units that have been lost to other ownership. Many allotments have come to include so many heirs that reaching any kind of consensus concerning land usage is nearly impossible. Most well-intentioned plans to revert land back into the protected trust status meet with considerable resistance from the BIA, ranchers and county governments, or dissolve because of a lack of necessary financial resources.

“The whole situation has been and still is mismanaged,” says Mario Gonzalez, an Oglala who served as general counsel to the Oglala Sioux tribe from 1979 through 1988. “We live under colonialism on the Pine Ridge reservation, colonialism in every aspect of the word. The federal government controls the way the people govern themselves, how they live, and how they use their land. The state of South Dakota represents another layer of colonialism, constantly pushing the federal government to extinguish tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction on the reservation, and pushing the government to place Indian people under state jurisdiction and control.”

Gonzalez represented the tribe during the high court battles over the Black Hills in 1980, when the Supreme Court affirmed an Indian Claims Commission award to the Lakota tribes $102.5 million for the Black Hills. The court ruled that the U.S. government had violated the just compensation clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S.Constitution. Not surprisingly, the award continues to be rejected by the Lakota tribes, who cite the need to protect the religious sanctity of Paha Sapa, and the cultural and economic self-sufficiency of their people.

According to Gonzalez, the powers that be — the federal government and the state of South Dakota — have learned to become more patient in recent times. Their strategy, Gonzalez believes, has created a situation
he calls “creeping jurisdiction".

“The state and its constituency have come to understand the benefits of taking over tribal sovereignty, jurisdiction and land slowly over a period of time, where Indian people don’t even notice what is happening,” says Gonzalez, who currently serves as the attorney general for the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. “When they move too quickly and are too obvious, people typically rise up and fight it.”

Oglala Sioux Tribal Vice President Milo Yellow Hair, a former AIM activist who left college to join the 1973 occupation, struggles daily to maintain his philosophical balance from his position “on the other side”. Yellow Hair applauds the efforts of individual reservation families to recover lands, but remains convinced that the tribal government can do much more to preserve the land and rekindle the tiospaye.   “There’s only 380--some people who control all the leased land on this reservation, which is over a million acres. So what did we create? Something like out of the Middle Ages. Like a serfdom with principalities,” said Yellow Hair.

Advocating a fundamental reformation of the reservation's political system, he asserted the key to stopping fractionalization may lie in increasing the voice of the reservation's outlying districts and decreasing the power of the central tribal government in Pine Ridge Village.

Paul Robertson, a non-Indian resident of Pine Ridge who instructs at Oglala Lakota College, is working with the Lakota Land Owner’s Association, a group gathering testimony from Oglala Lakota landowners about the problems they are experiencing with land ownership, protection, access and control. Their efforts are designed to redress the landowners’ grievances that Robertson called a “concerted, sustained effort”  to separate traditional Oglalas from their trust and fee patent lands.

“Most people agree that they don’t have control over their own land. If you own land on Pine Ridge, you are more likely to be a tenant than an owner. It’s almost a hardship if you own land here,” Robertson said, adding that the boom of grazing units keyed by commercial ranching interests is driving the tiospaye and communal use of land right out of existence.

“We have many people who have been trying to revert their land back into trust, but it is very difficult. They meet a lot of resistance. The potential for conflict is great,”  Robertson said. It is his belief that the years during World War I marked the “beginning of the end” for control by the Lakota of their own land on Pine Ridge. “But when the people are able to use the land in the traditional communal Lakota fashion, they can overcome all of the other deleterious effects.”

A promising example of this renewed focus on communal land use involves Robertson’s brother-in-law Ed Iron Cloud, who successfully procured a land unit of more then 1,000 acres on which to run buffalo. Taking advantage of a clause in the Oglala tribal constitution that give first preference to any Pine Ridge community that wishes to lease grazing units, Iron Cloud approached the Knife Chief community in Porcupine with the plan to run buffalo. The community’s subsequent endorsement of Iron Cloud’s proposal met with resistance from the white rancher who was dislodged from his lease.

Others that have been working to develop comprehensive programs to stem the tide of Lakota land loss and deterioration of the tiospaye are Tom Cook and Loretta Afraid of Bear. Tom, a Mohawk from Akwesasne, arrived on Pine Ridge in 1973 to cover the Wounded Knee takeover as a member of the Indian press and never left. His wife, Loretta Afraid of Bear, is an Oglala from a strong tiospaye in Slim Butte, located in the southwestern part of the reservation. With the help of several grants, the Cooks have  pick up the threads of many failed attempts at individual and communal gardening projects, resulting in more than 200 families harvest fresh produce on their own land.

The Cooks have joined many other supporters in researching the benefits of producing industrial hemp communally on Pine Ridge, using the stalks and seeds of the plant for fiber and oil products. Supporters of the plan feel hemp is aptly suited for both the climate and the economic cooperative efforts of a tiospaye support group, which has pledged to provide the financial resources to purchase the necessary and expensive harvesting equipment. A Canadian program has already been established as a model, and has attracted a Chinese investment interest in both the raw and finished textiles. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council has voiced interest, as have many groups throughout the United States, but the federal government, as well as those holding grazing permits, are opposed to the idea.

“At this time we are looking at total, continuing disenfranchisement of the people from their land", Cook said. "With the present economic realities, there is little or no chance to raise wheat or raise cattle, because the profit margins are so small. Indians can’t amass the capital to raise these farm crops, unless they go back to the coop and get
involved in a new industry like we’re talking about."

“If you use your land, you can develop it and keep it. But if you don’t use it, you tend to lose it. You become alienated from it, move off, and pretty soon it’s just something you sell for money."

It is all about land, and who controls it. The makoce is there for the Lakota people, and she depends on her tiospaye for protection. "So that the people may live," Tom Cook said quietly.
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