As of last Friday (November 30), the papers are signed and the deal is done. The Great Sioux Nation has purchased Pe’Sla.
This is a huge victory for the Lakota people. For them Pe’Sla, a patch of prairie in the Black Hills between Lead and Hill City, is sacred – it plays a central role in their creation story and has been a site for Lakota ritual since time immemorial. And as of last summer it was set to be auctioned off for commercial development. A last-minute bank loan and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fundraising have allowed the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota to purchase almost 2,000 acres of Black Hills land for $9 million.
This is deeply ironic, because according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, belong to the Lakota anyway.
After its defeat in Red Cloud’s War, the U.S. government set aside all of western South Dakota and part of Nebraska to create the Great Sioux Reservation, which would belong to the Lakota “as long as grass grows or water runs” (words that come not from the Fort Laramie Treaty itself, but from a speech by noted Indian-hater Andrew Jackson – you get the idea).
But then gold was discovered in the Hills in 1874. Never one to care much for legal niceties when vast mineral wealth was at stake, the federal government proceeded to abrogate their treaty with the February Act of 1877, unilaterally seizing the Black Hills and beginning the “reservationization” of South Dakota.
More than 100 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1877 Act was unconstitutional. The next year, the Court awarded the Sioux nation $106 million in damages. They refused to accept: the Black Hills were not for sale.
Except that up until last Friday, they were – a small part of them at least.
The even bigger irony here is the fact that traditionally, the Lakota did not have a conception of private land ownership – the idea of owning the Black Hills was as foreign to them as owning the air they breathed. But they were forced to adopt that conception by contact with the dominant Anglo-American civilization. That civilization explicitly promised them the Black Hills by legal treaty. It then proceeded to tear that treaty into thousands of little figurative pieces.
So now the Lakota have spent $9 million purchasing a small piece of land that already, according to U.S. law, belonged to them in the first place.
A friend who was otherwise thrilled to hear the news of Pe’Sla’s purchase asked a rather probing question: wouldn’t that $9 million have been better spent on economic development on the reservations, on providing better access to healthcare, better roads, better schools? After all, Buffalo, Shannon, and Todd Counties, the respective hearts of the Crow Creek, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud Reservations, all rank among the top 5 poorest counties in the U.S.
The Lakota didn’t traditionally have a concept of private land ownership. But they certainly have a sense of the sacredness of land. That’s why they’ve been at the forefront of campaigns to protect the Black Hill’s natural resources and precious environment for decades. The question is, then: is sacred land worth more than economic development? Was buying Pe’Sla a mistake?
That’s where irony reenters the picture, as it so often does in the twisting story of Lakota-Anglo relations. The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, which handed out individual parcels of land to tribes culturally accustomed to communal possession of land, allowed sale of prime reservation real estate to whites, and left the Lakota structurally impoverished on some of the most barren farmland in the region.
As a middle class white male who grew up in Deadwood, on land that legally belonged/belongs to the Great Sioux Nation, whose father worked at one of the very mines whose existence legitimated land theft in the first place, I don’t presume to to tell the Lakota how they should spend their money. Indeed, I see this as the tragedy of the whole affair: the Lakota have been placed in a position where they must choose between spending money on community uplift (because White people did keep their promises) and protecting sacred land from commercial development (because White people didn’t keep their promises).
It would almost be funny if it weren’t so damn infuriating.
But the overbearing weight of historical irony has not kept the Lakota from greeting the purchase of Pe’Sla with mighty satisfaction, as well they should. And so I’ll let one of them, tribal president-elect Bryan Brewer of the Oglala Sioux (who incidentally did not take part in the purchase), have the last word: “I’m still against buying something we own, but I’m thrilled the tribes are buying it. I’m very happy about it.”
[Note: I welcome comment and correction from my Native friends if I’m way off base on any of this. I don’t claim to be an expert in these issues, but simply a lifelong (white) South Dakotan trying to make sense of an historical reality that in many ways defies all such attempts.]
—Tom Emanuel is the Executive Director of the SD Peace & Justice Center