‘We love being Lakota’: native autonomy in Pine Ridge
‘The Native and the Refugee’ documentary project explores the similarities between the struggles and experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians.
By Matt Peterson & Malek Rasamny, photo by Chris Huber for Rapid City Journal.
In December 2014, we visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in what is now South Dakota. We chose to begin our project at the archetypal site of struggle for land, sovereignty and autonomy among natives in the United States. It was the Lakota people, including warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who put up some of the most historic fights against the US military forces in the nation’s expansion westward.
In the 1876-1877 Black Hills War, the US intervened militarily on behalf of settlers searching for gold in the Lakota’s most sacred site, now known as the Wind Cave National Park. It was in this context that the Battle of Little Bighorn took place, when the Lakota famously defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. Pine Ridge was later the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which that same 7th Cavalry killed hundreds of Lakota in its struggle to disarm and forcibly relocate them to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In 1973, Wounded Knee was the site of a 4-month standoff and occupation organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) against both the federal government and local tribal council. In 1975, two federal agents were killed in a shootout at Pine Ridge, for which AIM member Leonard Peltier remains held as a prisoner at the US Penitentiary Coleman in Florida. To add insult to injury, the presidential monument Mount Rushmore currently stands within what’s called the Black Hills National Forest.
The traditional Lakota territory includes parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. The Lakota historically were a semi-nomadic tribe that would follow herds of buffalo for food. In order to force them onto reservations, the US military encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo in the Great Plains, resulting in their almost complete extinction.
It was through the destruction of their food supply — and not through any victories in battle — that the United States was able to force the Lakota into a position of economic subservience and dependence. Through a series of treaty violations, the borders of “Great Sioux Reservation” declared by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty were reduced to the present situation in which the Lakota are now spread out over a number of non-contiguous reservations including Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Crow Creek.*
The current unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is between 80-90%, and life expectancy is 50 years. Despite being one of the poorest areas on the continent, the Lakota refuse to accept a 1980 government settlement now totalling $1.3 billion in compensation for the theft of the Black Hills. They insist that no amount of money can be exchanged for the return of their sacred land to its rightful inhabitants. They are currently leading the resistance against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would be built directly through Lakota territory.
The histories and particularities of the Native American and Palestinian struggles are indeed quite different, but what they share is the experience of settlers moving to take over and control their traditional lands, later assisted by a military force which facilitated and justified the resulting displacement. The reservation and the refugee camp then become the essential sites to locate this history, identity, and struggle for land and sovereignty.
We met with veteran members of the American Indian Movement, and Owe Aku, Bring Back the Way to hear about the present situation on Pine Ridge, and to discuss their horizon for autonomy.
We Love Being Lakota is the first in a series of videos and texts from the documentary project ‘The Native and the Refugee’, which connects the struggles taking place on Indian reservations in the United States with those in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East.
In February and March, this video was presented at T Marbouta in Beirut, Lebanon; at the Jordanian Women’s Union in Amman, Jordan; and at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank. It was produced in collaboration with Adam Khalil.
Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny will return to Akwesasne, Pine Ridge and the Navajo Nation this Spring to continue working on The Native and the Refugee. They are based in Ridgewood, New York.
* For an in-depth account of the Lakota’s struggles to maintain control of its land over the last 200 years, read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014, pp. 186-191).