Wounded Knee Commemoration:
A report from Pine Ridge
The last few days of February have been observed on the Pine Ridge reservation every year since 1973 by a four directions walk onto the gravesite at Wounded Knee with speeches, food and powwows. This year, which marks 40 years since the occupation or Siege at Wounded Knee, was marked with the same, although more people came from around the world because of the anniversary. I brought my 85-year-old father who (along with my mother, myself and my siblings) have spent the last 40 years working as allies of the Lakota people. He was honored for his work as the legal coordinator for the Wounded Knee Defense/-Offense committee, and arrests coming out of the same struggle since then. We spent three days meeting old friends, honoring those who have left us, and celebrating the new generations both emerging and established.
We all learned that much has changed in the last 40 years, but much is still the same.
What has changed? There is a burgeoning private sector that is beginning to provide some employment on the reservation. There are restaurants, a couple of hotels and even a coffee shop in Pine Ridge. There are not enough jobs, and what few there are seem to be concentrated in Pine Ridge and not spread out in the districts, but change did seem to be in the air. The speed laws were being enforced, and I was told that there are some elected tribal officials that are addressing the needs of the people.
What is still the same? The states of South Dakota and Nebraska still have not come around to even recognizing that Indian people are part of their state. The “us versus them” mentality that perpetuates the poverty, alcoholism, diabetes, domestic and child abuse, racism and economic and cultural apartheid is as bad as it’s ever been.
Examples? Sure, here are a few, and only a few, examples. Indians pay the same taxes as anyone else in this high sales tax/no income tax state. A few years ago the Pine Ridge government borrowed $40 million dollars from the Mdewakanton Dakota in Minnesota to build a casino, hotel, restaurant and conference center on the reservation. Rather than getting an award (as did the people who built the privately owned casinos in Deadwood) for bringing another attraction for tourists and employing hundreds of residents, the state put barriers in the way. The casino is large enough for twice as many slot machines as they have, but the state in its compact will not allow the tribe those machines. The governor said that the Indians will compete with “their” casinos in Deadwood, as if the citizens in Pine Ridge are less entitled to jobs than the (mostly) white citizens of Deadwood.
Another example: The people of Pine Ridge have decided, through their tribal government, to outlaw alcoholic beverages on the reservation. This is in recognition of the cost of alcoholism on the health of the people. The state of Nebraska has responded by licensing dozens of liquor stores and bars in border towns so that a few of its residents can become millionaires off the suffering of Indian people. Bootleggers are seen daily filling cattle trucks and pickup trucks full of beer, wine and whiskey at these drive-through stores, just 100 feet from the reservation border. The town of White Clay Nebraska has a population of 40 people but has six liquor stores and 10 bars. The young people of Pine Ridge held daily demonstrations in White Clay during the week I was there, asking the town or the state of Nebraska to respect rather than subvert the laws of the reservation.
As we read about the Supreme Court arguments on the Voting Rights act, we know that among the “Southern States” that are protected from illegal discriminatory voting laws, are the two counties in South Dakota that contain the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. South Dakota is on par with Mississippi and Alabama in its efforts to restrict the voting rights of its citizens.
Although the citizens of South Dakota in a statewide referendum in 2006 voted to restore abortion rights in the state, the legislature is doing everything it can to restrict them. It could not increase the waiting period, but it did pass a law that says the weekends and holidays do not count as part of the five-day waiting period.
As other states are decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana, in South Dakota you can now be convicted of possession for THC in your bloodstream.
The imminent sequester of federal spending will affect reservation lives severely, because the reservation system requires that health care, police protection, housing, schools, and even roads are within the Department of Interior (most of whose jobs are our parks).
There is not nearly enough housing for the people on the reservation. Families of 17 people often live in two bedroom houses. You cannot get a mortgage to build a home on the reservation. There is no place for a new family to move to and there is no rental housing available anywhere.
All over the reservation are young people working with hope and dedication to improve their lives. We toured Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, which is organizing to control their own lives and build a sustainable healthy community. Native American Natural Foods (NANF) is a company developing healthy foods from traditional recipes and providing employment.
There were posters for activist training on the reservation.
As we went to memorial services for Russell Means and others who have died in the last few years, as we took care of elders who had organized most of their lives, we met young people, calling themselves AIM grassroots and Thunder Valley and NANF, picking up the staff of leadership.
But the system to separate the Indians from the rest of the population is still firmly in place. During the ceremony at the Wounded Knee gravesite, which included prayers, speeches, recognitions, songs and a lot of people hugging, kissing and shaking hands as they greeted old friends, a few people shot some guns in the air. This was done to recognize the veterans who were buried there and probably for some of them, to celebrate. Later I saw the headline of the Rapid City Journal. I read “Gunshots Once Again Ring out at Wounded Knee.”
As I realized that many people will not read beyond the headline, the joy of the last few days was tempered. Hope for the future was chilled by age-old preconceptions and prejudice.