Blogger Template by Blogcrowds

U.S.-Lakota Relations

Wednesday, January 02, 2008
If you've been living under a rock, or just preoccupied with the holidays, you may have missed the news that a portion of the United States in the middle of the country is no longer part of the country. To catch up, start by remembering your U.S. history — in particular the parts of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries where invading hordes of syphilitic, pox-ridden Europeans ran the indigenous peoples of North America off of their native lands and destroyed the basis of a developing economy. For the Lakota Sioux nation, a seminal event in the history of American aggression was the December 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in which American Cavalrymen killed at least 150 Lakota Sioux, 62 of the women and children. By the mid-20th century, indigenous government of all tribes had been restricted by treaty and acts of Congress to minimal, often undesirable, tracts of land dispersed throughout the country in the reservation system.

Flash forward to February 1973, when members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee, and the United States laid a 71-day siege that ended more or less peacefully, but not without casualties. AIM leadership was protesting then-current president Dick Smith of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, whom they claimed was more closely aligned with the interests of the United States than the Lakota Nation. Then, last month, an AIM-led political coalition announced the Lakota withdrawal from all treaties with the United States and an intent to establish a new Lakota nation which would issue its own passports and seek diplomatic ties with foreign governments. This action cuts a hole in the northern part of mid-west America.

The Oglala Lakota face serious problems: the vast majority (more than 95%, by some estimates) of the population on the reservation have incomes below the poverty line, and unemployment is rampant; medical care is scarce, but the Lakota have higher than average rates of diabetes, obesity, and alcoholism; life expectancy on the Pine Ridge reservation is 48 years for men, 52 years for women. These are overwhelming crises which scream for intervention, and it is easy to think of the Lakota in only those terms; it is easy to think to oneself, "Oh, those people. They're poor, and life is hard for them." One often follows that sentiment with the subtly racist, "they're going to need our help if they're going to get better."

Indeed, recent events have brought these thoughts to the forefront. Here's an excerpt from a column in the Edmonton Sun:
Among them [i.e., conditions justifying secession from treaties] are high mortality rates among Lakota, skyrocketing drug and alcohol abuse, high rates of incarceration, disturbing disease rates, shameful poverty, low rates of housing, high unemployment and, finally, threatened culture.

These are all serious issues that need to be addressed.

The problem is sovereignty is not the answer and the American government is not responsible for many of the problems, although colonialism likely created the conditions. In fact, separation might exacerbate them. Just as in Canada, a sudden withdrawal of federal assistance to indigenous communities would make many social problems worse.

And later:
Once individuals are empowered, they can bring respect and dignity back to their families and communities.

While the author isn't entirely wrong, he rather misses the point about cultural poverty that Ruby Payne, in her book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," makes clear: poverty is relative, and those in generational poverty must reject cultural norms and give up, at least temporarily, their relationships in favor of wealth building. This columnist suggests tacitly that the poor in Pine Ridge lack respect and dignity, which tells us something about the columnist. To the extent that this columnist is speaking from a middle-class cultural background, it tells us something of the middle class, as well.

The problems facing those living in Pine Ridge arose over the course of centuries, and likely won't be resolved in anything less than several generations. Importantly, although the United States helped create the conditions that caused the long-lasting economic depression among indigenous North Americans, these problems can't be solved by unilateral U.S. action, nor is it clear that U.S. help will ever be fully accepted. Centuries of history have taught them to fear Americans, even bearing gifts.

Instead, we should do what we should have done centuries ago, and start treating the Lakota and other native American nations as truly sovereign, independent nations. It is true that the U.S. and Lakota nations are not, and likely will never be, true equals; the U.S. has a larger population, wealthier economy, superior military, and far greater global political presence. However, these same things could be said of the comparison between the U.S. and Viet Nam, the U.S. and Belgium; the U.S. and Ecuador; the U.S. and Israel; the U.S. and Kenya. This dignity and respect we think is missing in the Lakota is, in reality, missing only in our view of the Lakota, and will be restored when we acknowledge the respect and dignity the Lakota deserved long before the United States was born.


  1. OH Bee Juan said...

    An off-the-cuff observation (after seeing what was said by the Lakota representatives):

    The current plight of the Lakota seems no different than that of many other minority groups in this country. The only difference is the path they've travelled.

    This is a bit insensitive, but I'm not sure why they're anymore jaded than the rest of us.

    I'm awaiting edification.

    2:47 PM  

Post a Comment