Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Dakotas

Most persons' impression of the Dakotas is Mt. Rushmore, which Alfred Hitchcock fully exploited in the movie North by Northwest.  The monument was dedicated in 1941 by Franklin Roosevelt, but had been started 14 years before under the Coolidge administration.  Like so many things about the Dakotas, it was a deeply contentious issue, as the national monument is located in the Black Hills, long regarded as the strong hold of the Lakota (or Dakota) Indians.

The French called them the Sioux, having first encountered the Lakota in the mid 17th century.  It's unclear where this term came from.  The conventional theory is that it is an abbreviation of the Chippewa term Nadowessioux, which is what they called the Lakota.  It supposedly meant "little snakes."  Seems like the Chippewa and Lakota didn't get along very well.  Unfortunately, the name stuck.

To the Lakota, Mt. Rushmore is the very emblem of their long-standing grudge with the federal government.  A sore eye, or should I say four sets of eyes, that represent all the broken treaties down through the years resulting in the infamous "Sell or Starve" Act of 1877 that formally turned over the Black Hills to the US Government, leaving the Lakotas with scant reservations, largely as a result of their bold act of defiance in the Battle of Little Bighorn, led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, among others, the previous year.

Buffalo Hunt, engraving by Charles Vogel, ca. 1840
The Dakotas came into the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and grew to include present day Montana and most of Wyoming by the time of the Civil War.  The huge territory proved too difficult to administer under one government and was first divided in 1868, which confined the territory to its present day boundaries of North and South Dakota, admitted separately into the Union in 1889 because of the far flung capitals, Yankton and Bismarck.  It also served the Republican Party, as it added up to six instead of three electoral votes in the new states.

The disputes with the Lakota hadn't ended however.  The Black Hills was a lawless area personified by the town of Deadwood, which became synonymous with the "Wild West."  Just about every famous cowboy, outlaw and cowgirl passed through this town at one time or another on their way West, notably Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.  Their western romance had been the stuff of legend ever since they first met in the 1870s.

The Dakotas weren't all dark tales.  Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her experiences crossing the Great Plains in the 1880s in Little House on the Prairie.  That homestead was in De Smet, South Dakota, and one can visit it today.  Her father had filed for a homestead like many other Americans at the time, heading to the interior of the country to literally carve their homes out of the sod.  They had to endure grueling winters and a short growing season, but yet they somehow survived and prospered.  Her stories inspired the television series in the 70's, and have been beautifully packaged in a Library of America box set.

The Black Hills gold rush of 1874 had brought all these new fortune seekers and settlers into the region, setting off a volatile chain of events that culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  Dee Brown's book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee recounted the event through the eyes of the Lakota.  It brought to an end the reign of the Lakota in the region, who now find themselves confined to scattered reservations throughout the Dakotas.

Wounded Knee 1973
The incident inspired the creation of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s, which made the Oglala Lakota reservation their home base in the 1970's.  This resulted in a second bloody insurrection in which two FBI agents were killed on the reservation and Leonard Peltier stood accused of the murders.  His trial and conviction was the subject of  Peter Matthiessen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Michael Apted's documentary Incident at Oglala.  Even Kevin Costner took up the Lakota's lost cause in Dances with Wolves, setting it against a post-Civil War backdrop of the late 1860's.

In the 90's, as in the 70's, attention was called once again to the bitter conflicts that defined this region and the native American situation as a whole.  This was the time I passed through South Dakota, taking in the Badlands, as I passed from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, much like Roger Thornhill did in North by Northwest, but the delicate situation was not lost on me.  Peltier still remains in federal prison, despite no concrete evidence he was anywhere near the scene of the crime of 1975.

The Lakota reservations had come to personify the plight of the American Indian.  These were desolate outposts with degrading poverty and alcoholism, which had been poorly administered for decades by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and corrupt tribal officials.  Ian Frazier offers a gripping account of life On the Rez, referring to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Not only had the Lakota lost most of their land, they were forced to live in the shadow of the Black Hills, which they had long regarded as their sacred land.  The land dispute has lingered for decades.  The Lakota won a nominal claim in 1979 for roughly $100 million in reparations, but continue to fight for title to the land to this day.

This long running dispute tends to cloud one's impression of the Dakotas. The two states remain sparsely populated, dominated by vast open ranges.  North Dakota has boomed in recent years thanks to new oil reserves, inspiring trailer parks like this one, as well as overnight millionaires, but this new discovery has proved to be a two-edged sword, especially for farmers who literally find their land being mined from under them with no right to the reserves.  They can take a lesson in humility from the Lakotas.

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