For thousands of years, the Lakota People existed in harmony with the land and roamed a massive expanse of the Great Plains in North America - encompassing the general area that includes modern day Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and parts of Colorado. Occasionally, Europeans, Spanish and eventually citizens from the newly formed United States of America would travel through the lands of the Lakota. Although there was some conflict, the relationships between the Lakota and the newcomers were more often than not based on trade and respect.
But, as more settlers arrived to the area, they did not understand the Native American relationship with the land and how they lived. Many efforts were made to co-exist, and treaties were signed to address the influx of white settlers into the area - including the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which set aside the Black Hills (He Sápa) and surrounding area for the Lakota people in perpetuity. However, as soon as gold was discovered in the Black Hills, this treaty was no longer honored. The US Government began sending large numbers of soldiers and settlers to the region who constructed many fortifications, cleared the land, built homes and farms, fenced widespread areas and brought non-native animals to the land that introduced new and deadly diseases to the food sources of the Lakota.
Soon, soldiers began forcing the Lakota, and all Native tribes, onto Indian reservations, and many of the great leaders of the Lakota – Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud – saw their People's Way of Life being destroyed and led efforts of great resistance and fighting. This included the Battle of the Greasy Grass (widely known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn) in 1876, in which General Custer and the 7th Cavalry were defeated. Following this defeat, the United States military redoubled its efforts to confine all Native Americans to the reservation system, ultimately quelling any armed resistance with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. The betrayals, missteps and acts of vengeance and violence conducted by the US government against the Lakota and all Indigenous tribes are directly responsible for creating a culture and People struggling to find a way to live in the Modern World while reteaching itself a traditional way of life that led them to such heights for so long. The Lakota people remain committed to the return of their Sacred Black Hills, as well as a return to the wisdom and traditions that nurtured their societies' survival for thousands of years.
THE LAKOTA PEOPLE
Among the 574 federally-recognized Native American tribes in the United States, there are seven bands of the Titowan (Lakota) division that constitute the Great Sioux Nation. The Oglala people on Pine Ridge make up one of these seven bands. Roughly translated to “Scatter Their Own," they are recognized for their fierce passion and dedication to the preservation of their culture.
The Lakota are a proud and generous people whose ancestry can be dated back thousands of years. Known for their gifted horsemanship, rich culture, strong sense of community, and connection to land & Spirit, the Lakota people have become a powerful and prominent presence on the Northern Plains. Their great Headmen - Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Black Elk and many others - provided wise and strong leadership, though always seeking guidance from the women, as theirs is a matriarchal society. Despite a history of genocide, broken treaties and extreme poverty, the legacy of the Lakota people is not rooted in their suffering; but rather in their strength, their wisdom, their traditions and their ways.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota borders Rosebud Indian Reservation to the east, Badlands National Park to the north and the Nebraska state line to the south. Tribal headquarters are located in the town of Pine Ridge. The reservation covers 3,000 square miles and is roughly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The total population is difficult to pinpoint, but has been estimated to be around 20,000 people. It is a stark land with a big sky, beautiful grassy plains and rolling pine-covered hills and ridges. Pine Ridge is the home of the Oglala Lakota, and it is a powerful place – the land of Crazy Horse, Black Elk, Red Cloud, the Badlands, the Wounded Knee Massacre site, Whiteclay, the AIM standoff and sacred ceremonies rooted in traditions passed down from thousands of years ago. It is a land that attracts Christians, Buddhists, Jews, New Agers, those looking to heal and to be healed and countless others... from across the world.
The families with whom we work on the Pine Ridge Reservation often live in multi-generational homes, some with 18 to 30 individuals living in houses meant for 3 to 4 people (Oglala Sioux Tribe). The shelter provided by these homes is often inadequate; rot due to black mold, damaged siding, and leaky roofs can make life in the brutal winds and low temperatures of winter even more difficult for a family struggling to stay warm.
Amidst harsh winter conditions, many families burn firewood or propane to heat their homes. When the firewood and propane run out, some resort to burning furniture or shoes. Food insecurity is a common experience, with parents and grandparents often wondering where the next meal for their children will come from. Extremely high rates of suicide plague both adults and youth on Pine Ridge, and alcoholism and drug use affect daily life for many.
In recent years, gun violence and violent crime have increased across Pine Ridge - a stark reality on a reservation whose police and ambulance services are severely understaffed and unable to respond to every emergency call (South Dakota Public Broadcasting). While the nature of these challenges is complex, nearly all are deeply connected to the widespread impact of colonization, land dispossession, cultural genocide, and discrimination faced by the Lakota and all tribal nations dating back to first contact with European settlers.
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