“When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world. The sun rose and set on their lands. Where are our lands now? Who owns them?” -Sitting Bull
The Black Hills of South Dakota, the spiritual home to the Oglala Sioux, are a stunning range of pine-covered mountains whose crystal blue lakes and towering jagged peaks embody the stereotypical vision of pristine American wilderness. However, directly to the southeast, within the current borders of the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge reservation, the landscape could not be bleaker. The life expectancy on the reservation is ten years lesser and the suicide rate quadruple that of the national average. More than half the adults struggle with alcoholism, and 25% of children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. The arid land left to the Oglala Sioux is inhospitable to agriculture, contributing to a staggering 80% unemployment rate. 90% of the Oglala live below the poverty line, making it difficult to afford essentials like food or heating—a life or death concern when temperatures plunge to -32°C in winter.
These statistics beg the question: Why then, have the Oglala Sioux repeatedly refused a $1.3 billion settlement from the United States government as compensation for the unlawful creation of the 1874 borders which have separated the Oglala Sioux from the Black Hills for nearly 170 years?
Those borders in fact came into existence when westward aiming settlers, attracted by the promise of “free land,” moved into territory which the Native Americans of the Dakotas had inhabited for centuries. Their arrival led to the hasty top-down construction of borders which confined the Sioux Nation to increasingly smaller areas beginning in 1851. The Oglala Sioux were initially protected by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which granted them the right to remain in the Black Hills and barred settlement of their homelands by non-Native Americans. A mere six years later however, gold was discovered on Oglala Sioux land, and the US government subsequently seized the territory. By 1889, the Greater Sioux Reservation had been reduced from 21 million to 10 million acres, and the border agreements which placed the Black Hills within Oglala Sioux territory and preserved the tribe’s sacred ties to the region had been virtually defenestrated.
It wasn’t until 1980 that a landmark United States Supreme Court decision finally ruled that the Gold Rush era border reconstruction and subsequent seizure of the Black Hills (now divided into national parks) had been illegal. As compensation, the Court decreed that the Oglala Sioux were to be awarded a 102 million settlement—with the understanding that accepting the settlement would entail permanently withdrawing from the dispute over the Black Hills. The trust is now worth over 1 billion, but the Oglala Sioux continue to refuse the deal, maintaining their stance that they will not settle for anything but their homeland itself.
The Oglala Sioux’s rejecting such a massive sum is impossible to fully understand until analysis of the contestation of Native American reservation borders extends beyond control of natural resources to include the unique cultural and spiritual losses sustained by Native Americans. For the US government, it was primarily economic gain which prompted the dismantling of the Fort Laramie Treaty borders and the later imposition of ones which placed the Black Hills outside the Oglala Sioux reservation. Those borders, however, were restructured because the US government wished to gain access to the gold deposits within the Black Hills, not because it considered the land to be inherently valuable. With this historical perspective in mind, it follows then that the US government’s offer of financial atonement reflects a belief that the monetary value of the Black Hills is equivalent to the land itself—a perspective fundamentally at odds with that of the Oglala Sioux.
It is vital to note that in the eyes of the Oglala Sioux, the reservation borders drawn by the government in the latter half of the 19th century are merely artificial lines drawn by outsiders who had no legitimate authority over the land. To agree to financial atonement for the Black Hills would therefore be an acquiescence to the colonialist notions that Oglala Sioux land had been available for purchase in the first place and that their right to set their own territorial borders was up for negotiation.
The subsequent refusal to accept the 1.3 billion as recompense also stems from the conviction that the Oglala Sioux will only be able to heal from the cultural and physical trauma sustained during the violent enforcement of colonial borders if they are reunited with their spiritual homeland. The 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee, during which 150 tribe members (including dozens of women and children) were massacred by US soldiers, was particularly devastating to the Oglala Sioux, who still bear the scars. As reservation leader White Plume declared to National Geographic in 2012, “The Whole Sioux Nation was wounded at that last terrible massacre [at Wounded Knee], and we’ve been suffering ever since…there is just so much historical trauma, so much pain, so much death…When we honor our customs, and when we perform ceremonies, and when we listen to our ancestors, then we have everything we need to heal ourselves within ourselves”. The Black Hills—and the burial sites, sacred waters, medicinal plants, and ceremonial grounds present within them—therefore can be understood as essential not just to the Oglala Sioux ceremonies but to their broader healing and cultural reclamation.
Ultimately, the Oglala Sioux have refused the US government’s payment for the Black Hills because it can never restore to them the sacred places, stolen over decades of violent border manipulation, which are fundamental to the reemerging Oglala Sioux identity. To solve the crises endemic to the Pine Ridge reservation, it is then perhaps time for the United States government to implement an ironically familiar yet radical solution: a restoration of borders according to the wishes of the original Native American inhabitants.