As the pandemic
rages, Native people seek to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
I never would have thought to compare buffalothat mighty
member of the bovid family that roams and stampedes across the prairieto
a Walmart, until I heard an interview with Bamm Brewer of South
Dakotas Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Brewer is a buffalo rancher and member of the Oglala Lakota tribe
that lives on Pine Ridge. Reporter Fred de Sam Lazaro of the Under-Told
Stories project, based at the University of St. Thomas in St.
Paul, Minnesota, recently spoke with Brewer for a PBS NewsHour segment
on the tribes mission to regain control of vast tracts of
its ancestral land in South Dakota.
De Sam Lazaros story begins with video footage of buffalo
racing across open land on the reservation, their dark brown bodies
stirring up clouds of dust among the rolling hills of muted green
and pale gold.
Then the camera cuts to Brewer, in sunglasses and a Crazy Horse
Rider T-shirt, talking with de Sam Lazaro. The buffalo was
significant to our ancestors because it provided everything,
Brewer notes, before linking the animal to the superstores known
for cheap but perhaps indispensable goods.
The buffalo was like the Walmart: food, clothing, medicine,
and also a sacred being, a symbol of power for our people.
|Tribes like the Oglala Lakota
endured genocide, the loss of their Native lands, and the subsequent
isolation and poverty that comes with life at Pine Ridge.
But the buffalo, adds de Sam Lazaro, also became a symbol
of loss. The expansion of white European settlers into the
West wiped out much of its prairies and grasslands and led to the
near-extinction of the buffalo who thrived there.
Tribes like the Oglala
Lakota endured genocide, the loss of their Native lands, and
the subsequent isolation and poverty that comes with life at Pine
Ridge. But they are still here, and Brewer and other leaders are
part of a renewed effort to reclaim the land illegally
taken from Indigenous people by the U.S. government.
Under a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Native tribes are owed
more than a billion dollars for the land in South Dakota, including
the Black Hills, that was part of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Tribal leaders have continually rejected this attempted payoff.
They want the land insteada concept likely foreign to many
Westernized minds. But Brewer, like other Native Americans, wants
his grandchildren to be able to grow up without the kind of poverty
that has inhibited generations of Oglala Lakota people.
This point is echoed by Nick Tilsen, who was also featured in de
Sam Lazaros report.
Tilsen is a young Oglala Lakota leader and entrepreneur. He is
president and CEO of the NDN
Collective, a redevelopment and advocacy agency based in Rapid
City, South Dakota, on the eastern edge of the Black Hills.
In July, Tilsen was arrested while leading a protest at Mount Rushmore
during a campaign stop by President Donald Trump. He is facing multiple
including a felony count of robbery for an incident in which a state
troopers riot shield was taken and spray painted with the
words land back.
What Tilsen and others are advocating for, according to de Sam
Lazaros report, is Indigenous-led development to reduce
the near total dependence on appropriations from Congress, managed
by various federal agencies.
The NDN Collective takes
in millions of philanthropic dollars each year and uses the money
to support groups and issues including the reallocation of land
and the blocking of mining and pipeline construction built for the
benefit of the fossil fuel industry.
The urgency of these efforts has intensified due to the unmitigated
of COVID-19 across South Dakota. The states Republican governor,
Kristi Noem, has actively resisted taking steps to control the pandemic,
even as it raged
through a meatpacking plant near Sioux Falls and otherwise pushed
the state to the brink of a health-care collapse.
In July, while Tilsen and others were blocking the road outside
Mount Rushmore, Noem was indulging
Trumps fantasies about adding his face to the other Presidents
depicted on the monument.
Rather than model a cautionary approach, Noem has encouraged
South Dakota citizens to defy infectious disease experts and gather
together, albeit perhaps in smaller-than-usual
groups. On Saturday, as South Dakota set a new record for daily
deaths due to COVID-19, Noem urged
residents to hit the shopping malls.
|This crisis is disproportionately
impacting the states Indigenous residents.
I have written
before about Noems disastrous lack of leadership regarding
the pandemic, but I think it bears further examination. Currently,
for example, half of all people who take a coronavirus test in the
state are testing positivea staggering share.
This crisis is disproportionately impacting the states Indigenous
residents. Democratic state representative Peri Pourier, a member
of the Oglala tribe whose district includes the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation, spoke about this recently for an MSNBC
We are losing our elders, our knowledge keepers, all the
fundamentals that make us Oglala, Pourier told reporter Ali
Veshi. She said the current and historic neglect and marginalization
of Indigenous people in South Dakota has left the community vulnerable:
People are scared.
We are Lakota. We believe we are all related, Pourier
told Veshi, contrasting this to what she called Noems endless
hammering that personal responsibility trumps any obligation
to call for mask mandates or to temporarily close businesses.
The pandemic offers an opportunity, albeit a tragic one, for us
to reconsider some important questions. Are we all responsible merely
for ourselves, as Noem keeps insisting? Or are the Lakota leaders
right in saying that we are all related and thus responsible for
If we follow the Lakota worldview, then giving land back to help
sustain and nurture future generations would seem like a logical
next step, once the pandemic is brought under control.
Under-Told Stories is a journalism project focused on consequences
of poverty and the work of change agents addressing them. We produce
content for highly respected news organizations and, in collaboration
with educators, engage students on pressing issues of our time.