Saturday, 16 January 2010

Sacred Land & Broken Treaties

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one. They promised to take our land and they took it.

Mahpiya Luta (Red Cloud), a member of the Lakota Nation, isn't being funny. But the Lakota people have a sense of humor when they say, "Doksa, Black Hills," which means "I will pay you when they give us money for the Black Hills."

I've spent the last two days reading about the loss of sacred land to the green and westward expansion of Americans. I have read about battles and treaties, promises made and broken, forced migration, forced relocation, an ever decreasing plot of land, plus the loss and desecration of a sacred site.

As far as I can tell, the Black Hills are the equivalent of Mecca for the Muslims or Jerusalem for Jews and Christians (and to a lesser extent, as the third-holiest city, for Muslims).

The Black Hills are at the center of Lakota beliefs. It's so sacred that they won't kill animals found in the Black Hills. No blood is to be spilled there. It's a place for Wakan Tanka, the great mystery, the great spirit, the great sacred, the spirit essence or force that pervades all beings and nature. It's a place for vision quests, for receiving the spirits. It's a place for rites of passage, for sun dances, for healing. It's where medicines grow. And it's not just sacred for the Lakota: "More than 60 indigenous nations had been traveling to the Black Hills for millennia to conduct spiritual ceremonies, gather medicines and lodge poles." ( One account I read said that his people are afraid to go to the sacred sites in the Black Hills for fear that they will become tourist attractions. Another account says that every time they bulldoze, they uncover remains of their ancestors or of sacred sites.

These hills have been so scarred by the activities of white men or wasicus, from mining for gold to blood spilled in battles to remove the Indians to paving roads and cutting down trees, building and invasive species, that the Lakota now believe prophesy that the Black Hills will have to burn to be saved. There is no putting a band-aid on it, they have to start from scratch.

And, because the US doesn't recognize the land as belonging to them, there is nothing they can do about it. They claim that the US violated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 which granted the Lakota the land from West of the Missouri River to the state line of South Dakota for the "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians." Nine years later, the US went back on that treaty when gold was found in the Black Hills and through a Congressional Act in 1877, the US took the land back and subsequently pushed the Lakota people into smaller areas, attacked settlements, murdered men women and children, and eventually relocated all of the Indians to reservations where they wouldn't be in the way of "progress".

Many years later, the Supreme Court decided that the Lakota should be paid for the Black Hills because they weren't paid a just amount in 1868, so they offered money, but the Lakota didn't want to sell. They didn't want money, they wanted their land back. So Congress put the money in a trust and it still sits there today as the Lakota fight to protect their sacred land, to regain ownership of the land. They are some of the poorest people in the United States, with high unemployment and underemployment rates, with poor healthcare. The money (close to $500 million now) could make a big difference from them, but money doesn't matter and can't buy the sacred.

I'm encouraged by the story I read that said every now and again a local paper takes a pole about the money and the majority of responses say not to take the money. Thank goodness some folks have a sense of what's important.

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