Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why Pine Ridge: forgotten history & invisible survivors

Yesterday was the 4th of July, the day in which we celebrate our nation's independence from the tyrants of the British Empire. Of course, this independence did not include poor whites, black slaves and the Indians*, who were being driven from their land. Therefore, this day can also be looked at as a day of mourning as genocide and westward expansion of the country continued. The history that is rarely taught to it's fullest extent is what has brought me back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for the second time.

Pine Ridge is the home of the Oglala Lakota tribe, which is part of the great Sioux Tribe (a racist term dubbed by the french, meaning "enemy"). 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 being the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which promised to the Lakota the Black Hills (where you can find Mt 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 claiming back the land that was stolen from them. This got them right on the Terrorist Watch List. In the 1970s Pine Ridge was run like a Latin American dictatorship would operate. 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 of deaths 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 Indian. The FBI wanted justice no matter what and to make a long story short two Indians were found not guilty but Leonard Peliter, an AIM activist, was convicted for two consecutive life sentences. As more and more documents came out through the Freedom of Information Act there was very little evidence against Peliter and 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, and 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 our nation's past.

Today on Pine Ridge you will see a world of extremes with unemployment upward to 85% and the life expectancy the second lowest in the Western Hemishere. You will find many of the social ills of society 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 Indians go unnoticed. But we cannot.

Rach and I are about to start our month long jobs on the Rez with the organization Re-Member. Re-Member is not only about helping build houses, out houses, bunk beds or wheel chair ramps (though they provide these needed resources to hundreds of Lakota families every year). They are about building relationships between current-day Lakota and Americans, and re-teaching the history of the indigenous people of this land. Re-Member brings volunteers every week from March-October for an immersion service program. Most volunteers can't help but return to this incredible organization and place. We are two of those volunteers. Since we went in 2009 we have been advocates for the Lakota and the oppressed of the world. Please check them out at re-member.org and consider coming out to do a week-long program (I swear it will change your life) or donate money to the cause.

Though Re-Member's does not and cannot "fix" everything on the Rez, it is making strides in bridging gaps--resource gaps, relationship gaps, and knowledge gaps. In my opinion, a more sustainable solution would be reparations, a sovereign nation for the Lakota, and a formal apology by the US government. But right now what Re-Member is doing is materially benefiting the Lakota people and we can only hope that this helps bring back the fighting spirit of Crazy Horse and the belief that things can be different.

*notice that I am referring to the indigenous people as Indians rather than Native Americans or American Indians. This is how they refer to themselves on the rez.

If you are interested in learning more check out these resources:

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (all about the fight in the late 1800s)
Indcident at Oglala (about the Peliter case)

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen (about the Peliter case and AIM in the 1970s) The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexi (compilation of shot stories that reveal reservation culture)
Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance by Leonard Peliter (a easy poetyic read)

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