A world of extremes at Pine Ridge
WHILE DEMOCRATS and Republicans are trying to "figure out" a compromise to raise the debt ceiling and cut programs for the poor, the Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the poorest areas of the U.S., are going to suffer no matter what.
Pine Ridge is the home of the Oglala Lakota tribe, which is part of the great Sioux Tribe. On the "rez," you can find Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre in which the U.S. Calvary brutally killed hundreds of Lakota men, woman, and children. This was the U.S. government's final way of dealing with the "Indian Problem" after breaking countless treaties.
The most well-known broken treaty is the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which promised to the Lakota the Black Hills (where you can find Mount Rushmore), and hunting grounds in much of Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. Of course, this was before the white man discovered rich minerals in the Black Hills that they wanted to exploit from the earth.
The U.S. government systematically forced the Lakota to change their way of life by trying to make them farmers and own land, lifestyles totally foreign to the Lakota. They were also forced onto secluded and barren reservations where hunting the sacred buffalo was regulated and living off government rations was the new way of life for the hunters.
Later, the Eisenhower Administration moved to force Indians into the cities in order save the money that was spent on the reservations, which created new Indian Ghettos throughout western cities. Reservations became even more desolate and depressing, leaving glimpses of the third world in the richest country in human history.
In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of activity on Pine Ridge and throughout the U.S. with the American Indian Movement (AIM). They demanded reparations, fully funded programs for education, health and other basic needs, and claimed back the land that was stolen from them. This got it put right on the government's terrorist watch list.
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IN THE 1970s, Pine Ridge was run like a Latin American dictatorship. The U.S. would funnel money to Dick Wilson, the tribal council president, who basically made the rez a very scary place, outlawing AIM and having the Guardians of the Olgala Nation (GOON) Squad hunt them down with nightly shoot outs. The GOON Squad worked with the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
The blood of hundreds Native American activists were on their hands just within the course of a couple years. As tensions rose between AIM and the FBI, there was a shoot out at Oglala on the rez resulting in the death of two FBI agents and one Native American.
The FBI wanted "justice" for its agents no matter what and, to make a long story short, of the three people who were tried, two were found not guilty, but Leonard Peltier, an AIM activist, was convicted for two consecutive life sentences.
As more and more documents have come out through the Freedom of Information Act over the years, it is clear that there was very little evidence against Peliter and that he did not get a fair trail. Peliter is still, to this day, a political prisoner of the U.S. There is so much forgotten history to cover--I would strongly recommend reading In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's war on the American Indian Movement for a chance at relearning this part of our nation's past.
Today at Pine Ridge, you will see a world of extremes with unemployment upwards of 85 percent and the life expectancy the second-lowest in the Western Hemisphere. The average annual income on Pine Ridge is about $4,500 a year. Many of the social ills of society are enhanced, with alcoholism, diabetes and teen suicide rates at depressing levels. You will find many homes without plumbing, electricity, or heat.
Yes, all of this in the richest nation in the world. But you will only find these things if you are looking. And many do not look. Many do not wish to see. Many wish to let the surviving residents go unnoticed. But we cannot.
On July 28, Attorney General Eric Holder is coming to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre and will talk to tribal leaders about the Law and Order Act, an act Obama signed into law last year to increase the "public safety" on reservations. In reality, this increases the police presence and judges on the rez, rather than helping create jobs and a higher standard of living. If the U.S. government really cared about the safety of our indigenous brothers and sisters, it would adhere by the 1868 Fort Larimie Treaty and give reparations to the Lakota people.
A Lakota friend of mine said to me, "I would like to go up to Eric Holder and just say, 'Let my people go.'" That is the general feeling on the rez: give us our land, give us our sovereignty.
As we fight for social justice for workers in Wisconsin, for Palestinians, for teachers and for all those oppressed around the world, we need to fight alongside our Native American brothers and sisters for their own self-determination and the reparations they are owed.
Brian Ward, Washington, D.C.