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If people know anything about the Lakota nation, known to Americans as the Sioux, then it is the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which the Lakota dealt the United States Army a humiliating defeat, completely destroying the Seventh Cavalry of General George Custer. This battle, however, was merely one chapter in the continuing struggle of the Lakota people against the ongoing colonialism practiced by the United States government.
The Lakota, a semi-autonomous people whose reservations occupy huge Areas of North and South Dakota have defined themselves over generations by stubbornly clinging to their culture, language and values against the forces of cultural assimilation wielded against them by the United States government.
In the 1860s, conflict arose as settlers entered the Lakota homeland, which covered a huge swath of the American Great Plains. A nomadic people, the Lakota lifestyle centered around hunting the massive herds of bison. The Lakota signed treaties protecting their homeland in 1851 and 1868, but the United States government broke them before the ink was even dry. After the disaster at Little Big Horn, the American army hungered for revenge and it responded with a campaign of terror, beginning with the Wounded Knee massacre, in which soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Native people, including women and children.
The sovereignty of the Lakotas depended on bison, and the American government embarked on a program of systematic extermination of these herds, In a three-year period, hunters butchered more than three million bison, close to 3,000 animals a day. Their food source gone, the Lakota were forced to end their armed struggle and live on reservations, which was often the poorest and most desiccated land.
The Lakota were to experience even worse horrors than the destruction of their traditional way of life. Their very culture was targeted for extermination. The American government mounted a nearly 100 year-long calculated assault on the Lakota as the state tried to force them to assimilate. The government banned the Sundance, the Lakota’s most sacred ceremony, with its days of fasting and ritual bloodletting and they were forbidden to openly practice their religion. However, perhaps most devastating to the Lakota psyche were the boarding schools, in which generations of Indians were forced to assimilate into white culture. Lakota children were severely beaten for even speaking their native tongue. As a result, many Lakota began to doubt the worth of their indigenous culture and lack of cultural pride still is an issue haunting many Lakota today.
The Lakota still struggle to cope with the attempts to destroy their culture. Their reservations are the scenes of grinding poverty. The Lakota have tragically high rates of unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, family abuse and suicide. There is a severe housing shortage on the reservations, which has magnified the effects of the covid pandemic on the Lakota.
Lakota culture, though, proved difficult to exterminate and their faith survived. Central to that faith is the belief that nature is our mother and that humans should live in harmony with nature. This belief manifested itself in 2014 when the Dakota access pipeline was announced. The 3.78 billion dollar underground oil pipeline was intended to run for 1,172-mile-long (1,886 km) across Lakota lands. The Lakota immediately objected to the project because it not only threatened the Missouri River, their water supply, but also would destroy sites of cultural, historic and religious significance to the Lakota.
In the Spring of 2016, The Lakota mobilized to protest the pipeline, but it seemed like David fighting Goliath. The protests, which lasted months through sub-zero winter temperatures, were organized by Lakota teenagers on the Standing Rock Reservation. In the vanguard of the protesters were women who defied mace attacks, arrests and strip searches. The police used teargas, bulldozers and “military-style counterterrorism measures” to suppress the protesters, but the Standing Rock protests attracted tens of thousands of Native Americans from across the continent, becoming the largest Native American demonstration against the government in over a century. The rallying cry of the protestors in Lakota was “Mni wichoni! Water is life!” The protests became a cause célèbre, drawing media attention from around the world, as international environmentalists supported the Lakota defiance.
President Donald Trump supported construction of the pipeline and spoke out in favor of crushing the Native American protestors, but in a shocking decision on August 5, 2020, a district court ruled in favor of the Lakota. ” Mike Faith, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, expressed delight at the verdict, “Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline.”
Trump, though, was not finished in his battle with the Lakota and would continue disrespecting them. Trump deliberately chose to target the Lakota by celebrating the July 4th holiday of American Independence at an inflammatory site: Mt. Rushmore, where massive heads of American presidents were carved into mountains the Lakota hold sacred. “Wherever you go to connect to God, that’s what the Black Hills are to the Lakota,” said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of NDN Collective, an Indigenous activist group. Prospectors seized the land during a gold rush in the 1870s, violating the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which recognized the Black Hills as Lakota property. In 1980, A Federal Judge sided with the Native Americans in a suit to reclaim the Black Hills but awarded them a monetary settlement in lieu of the land. The Lakota, offended by the decision, have never touched the money.
The statues were carved by a white supremacist with strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, called the monument a “brand on our flesh” that needed to be removed. He said,” Visitors look upon the faces of those presidents and extol the virtues that they believe make America the country it is today. Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal.” Washington and Jefferson were both slave owners, and Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Lakota men in Minnesota after an uprising of 1862. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are.”
Trump’s arrival again spurred Lakota protests and at least fifteen activists were arrested for blocking the highway leading to Mount Rushmore. One of the activists, Michael Patrick O’Connor, said he came because he wanted to express his outrage at the desecration of his people’s sacred lands and his frustration at a president who has failed the people of America. “I couldn’t find any reason not to be up here,” he said. “I felt like I owed it to the grandmas and grandpas, owed it to the people who suffered before us to do something and to come here because our people were gathering.”
Good Voice Elk, a spiritual advisor for the Lakota, was among the older protestors. He said this was by no means his first protest. “I grew up in protests,” he said. “The seventies were really bad, and those kids, now they are the leaders.” Protesters ranged in age from senior citizens to children as young as 10. One girl was brought by her father from the Ute Mountain tribe in Colorado so she could experience Indigenous communities coming together.
Nick, Tilsen, the leader of the non-violent protest, has been singled out for retribution by local officials. He is facing felony charges that bring his potential prison sentence to 17 years. Tilsen is just the latest victim in the American government’s attempt to crush Lakota resistance. Despite the heavy-handed response to the protests, it’s hard to imagine the tenacious Lakota giving up anytime soon.
Defend, Develop, Decolonise collective: https://ndncollective.org/
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