This is the first installment of a multi-part series looking at lands that were ethnically cleansed of Native Americans, focusing on what has become of those lands today, and what has become of the people that lived there.
The Sioux call themselves the Lakota, Dakota, and (historically) Nakota, all of which mean “allies”. The word “Sioux” is derived, via the French, from an Anishinaabe word meaning “those who speak another language”. They are a large and complicated nation, divided into many sub-tribes, which have evolved and moved over the centuries. Originally from the Minnesota region, many of them moved west hundreds of years ago, pressured by Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and ultimately white expansion. They were traditionally divided into seven groups, sometimes called the Council of Seven Fires. It was the Lakota, or Teton Sioux, that first moved out onto the High Plains, further subdividing into seven more groups. This is the primary group that fought Red Cloud’s War, in which the Lakota (with Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho support) effectively defeated the US, culminating in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which created the Great Sioux Nation (GSN). (Note: Most of the Dakota bands followed a different historical path. In the aftermath of Little Crow’s War in 1862, they were removed from Minnesota onto a variety of reservations, where they suffered from high rates of starvation and disease.)
The boundaries of the GSN, combined with the Unceded Lands, encompassed nearly 90,000 square miles, including parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. According to the treaty, it was “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians and no unauthorized person shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in.” The terms also defined Hunting Grounds beyond the GSN, which encompassed large portions of Colorado and Nebraska, plus a tiny corner of Kansas. It lasted about eight years.
In 1874, after trespassing white pioneers reported gold in Paha Sapa, the sacred Black Hills near the center of the GSN, President Ulysses Grant ordered Generals Sheridan and Custer to lead an expedition to confirm the rumors. They did, and immediately published it in prominent eastern newspapers. Despite no Lakota attacks on the resulting flood of trespassers, Grant contrived a war to “open the country” to white gold prospectors. This led directly to the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Custer’s Last Stand), the eventual surrender of the Lakota, their imprisonment on reservations, the assassinations of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and the massacre at Wounded Knee a generation later.
Originally, the US wanted one thing from the GSN: gold. Looking back from the present across the entire area, one economic operation dwarfs all others: the Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills. Opened in 1876 during the contrived war, the mine helped create the Hearst family fortune. Delved 8,000 feet deep, it is one of the largest and deepest gold mines in the world. It’s fair to say the occupation of the GSN and removal of the Lakota was motivated by this sole enterprise. Thus the GSN was essentially a “banana republic” to be toppled, like Guatemala toppled for the United Fruit Company in 1954 (with the ensuing genocide of its indigenous people) or the covert coup in Iran in 1953 to protect British Petroleum (BP).
But the GSN did not persist even as an American puppet state. It was taken over by the US federal government by 1877 and eventually absorbed into various states of the union (in 1889 and 1890), while the Lakota languished on reservations.
The Great Sioux Nation Today
Today, 17% of the GSN is comprised of five Indian reservations (Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Crow Creek). There are several more reservations to the south and east. Another 11% is federal lands (including Black Hills National Forest, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Custer National Forest, and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument). The Homestake Gold Mine makes up less than 1% of the land mass. The remaining 71% is in private hands, primarily white farmers and ranchers.
Driving across it, one sees a lot of open country. It’s the kind of place where you fill your tank when you can because you don’t know when you’ll get to the next town. Despite the low population density, it is still probably higher than it was in the 1800s. At the time the Sioux had a population of about 25,000, or about 0.28 people per square mile, which is relatively high for a nomadic society that engaged in little farming. Hunting buffalo was central to their subsistence, culture, and lives. The population of the GSN today is roughly 420,000. The buffalo herds are gone and the area is used primarily as range and pasture, plus some crops (hay, corn, soybeans, and wheat). Range and pasture land is worth $600 to $1500/acre; cropland is worth almost double that.
In 1923, the Lakota filed a claim against the US for the illegal seizure of their lands. The case was eventually resolved by the US Supreme Court in 1980 in favor of the Lakota. The Court ruled that the Lakota were entitled to compensation in the form of money for the value of the land, plus interest going back over a hundred years. This came to over $100 million. The Lakota, however, assert that “the Black Hills are not for sale”, and to this day have refused the money. The funds sit in a US government account, collecting interest, and now total over a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money, over $50,000 for every Lakota household. However, it doesn’t compare with the value of the land today ($46 billion, assuming a modest value of $800/acre) or the value of the gold removed from the Homestake Mine (over $45 billion). Furthermore, most of the Black Hills are federally owned, and thus could simply be turned over to the Sioux.
The Homestake Gold Mine ceased operations in 2002, but its massive pit remains. Its deep tunnels are used for scientific research. On the west side of the Black Hills lies the Wyodak Coal Mine. Built in 1923 to supply power for the Homestake mine, it is now the oldest continuously operating surface coal mine in the nation. There was some uranium mining in the Black Hills in the 1950s—and more is proposed but is currently on hold.
Over a century after the confinement of the Lakota, there is only one town of significant size inside the GSN: Rapid City (population 68,000, with up to 125,000 in the “metropolitan area”). The other “large” towns within the GSN are Gillette (32,000), Sheridan (17,000), Spearfish (10,000), and Sturgis (7,000). Bismarck, Mandan, Dickinson, Pierre, and most of Casper lie on the other side of river boundaries, just outside the GSN. Subtracting these few urban areas (totaling about a third of the population), the population density of the vast majority of the GSN today (about 95% of it) is only about 3 people per square mile, relatively low for an agrarian society. It’s fair to say that the white settlers have not really swarmed over the land and occupied it in large numbers. They took the gold and the coal and now do some ranching and farming in the rest of the area.
There are actually more Lakota living in the GSN today than historically. Today’s population of over 56,000 Native Americans is about double what it was in 1880 when they were imprisoned on the reservations. Remarkably, the Lakota are pretty much still where they were in 1880. The land remains extremely segregated. Of the fifty counties within the GSN, thirty of them are more than 95% white. In fact, the GSN now includes several of the whitest counties in the entire US. Ten of the remaining counties are more than 50% Native American. This is because three-fourths of the Natives live on the reservations. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, while less than 4% of the landmass of the original GSN, holds 50% of the Native American population within the GSN today. They are packed in. The population density at Pine Ridge is over 8 people per square mile, much higher than in adjacent white agricultural lands and 16 times higher than historically. Within Pine Ridge, the population is actually concentrated into a smaller portion of the reservation. During World War II the US Department of War took over 500 square miles for use as an artillery range, which to this day is littered with unexploded ordinance. Contrast this with the population density of the federal lands, mostly national forests and grasslands, which is near zero. Looking at a population density map color-coded by ethnicity, Pine Ridge still looks like a Native American concentration camp.
Pine Ridge today is comparable to the poorest of Third World countries. Per capita income is under $5,000, compared to a national average of about $27,000. Unemployment exceeds 80%; alcoholism is only slightly lower than that. 50% live below the poverty line; infant mortality is five times the national average; diabetes and tuberculosis rates are eight times higher; the teen suicide rate is four times higher. 13% of homes lack plumbing; elders freeze to death each winter. Life expectancy is under 48 for men and 52 for women, lower than Haiti. Worldwide, only war-torn Sierra Leone has lower numbers. Through the early 1970s, Pine Ridge essentially was a banana republic, its tribal officials in the pocket of US political and business interests. When a faction on the reservation protested, they suffered several hundred political assassinations. The unrest culminated in the Wounded Knee occupation of 1973 and the Oglala Shootout of 1975, resulting in the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier.
There is one more aspect of the GSN today that is difficult to ignore; it is peppered with names that honor the white conquistadors and remind the Natives of their occupation. These are names that wave like Confederate flags in south Chicago, sending a message to every Lakota man, woman, and child that they are second-class citizens. There is Custer National Forest, Custer city, Custer County (two of them), Custer State Park, Sheridan city, Sheridan County, and Grant County. This list could go on. Most of the Custer monikers are literally in the middle of the Black Hills. In an egregious example of adding insult to injury, the faces of four US presidents, including Grant, are carved into the sacred cliffs of the Black Hills. (It was Grant who contrived the war to steal the land; it was Theodore Roosevelt, also carved into the rock, who said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”) This was a conquest and a genocide that is celebrated today in place names, subtly continuing the repression from generation to generation, giving permission for continued repression and discrimination. In an example of erasure, the massacre site at Wounded Knee is not a national memorial, but is instead owned by a private white landowner who will only sell at an inflated price (which some consider to be a “ransom”).
Despite these historic and present trials, the Lakota of the GSN today continue to preserve their ethnic identity and are striving to restore their pride and traditions, as well as meet their economic and social needs. There are Lakota language schools for children, initiatives to combat teen suicide and promote community health, and a wide range of programs to assist tribal members. In short, despite confinement to a small fraction of their original land, the Lakota remain in the GSN, resilient, adapting and surviving.