The Black Hills are a small, isolated range in South Dakota. Near heavenly, the hills seem to glow during dawn and dusk. In 1868, after long conflicts between the Lakota-Sioux Nation and United States Settlers, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed and, presumably, agreed upon. The territory allotted to the Lakota was expansive, spreading over Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, including the Black Hills.
With the discovery of natural resources within Lakota territory, came an influx of white settlers to get their believed to be rightful share. This broke the treaty. In response, settlers were attacked by the Lakota people, breaking the treaty from their end as well. This led to the Black Hills War, which the United States government chose to resolve by complete seizure of the area in 1877.
The United States was supposed to have paid the Lakota for the land, but they refused to accept the funds. The Treaty of Fort Laramie required that a 3/4 vote from tribal leaders be required to change the treaty. Only a handful supported it, not enough to fill the 3/4 requirement. Labeled as “hostile” by the United States government, for their noncooperation, the Lakota were cut off from Congressional appropriations for their subsistence. The support came at the threat of starvation. All of these combined factors void the transaction, rendering the seizure illegal and in violation of international treaty law.
Lawsuits were made and disputed for half a century, and in 1980, the Supreme Court agreed that the seizure was illegal and immoral, and that the Black Hills belong to the Lakota people. On the walls of the community museum atop Wounded Knee memorial, it is written that the supreme court said of these violations:
“A more ripe and rank cases of dishonorable dealings will never in all probability be found in our history”.
To this day, the Lakota have refused to accept the funds which would solidify the 1877 seizure. Funds that with interest add up to over a billion dollars. Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the most impoverished regions in the western hemisphere. Unemployment is at 80%, alcoholism is pervasive, and violence is a part of every day life.
White Clay, Nebraska is a town that exists on the illegally seized land, which belongs to the Lakota nation according to the Fort Laramie Treaty. Even though the reservation is dry, more homeless Lakota live on the streets of White Clay than the white bar and shop owners. There the liquid genocide continues.
Uranium development has leaked into the water supply, causing birth defects and cancer. And the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to run conveniently in between the scattered, smaller, Lakota reservations assigned after the violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty.
It is important to understand and acknowledge the historic Lakota conflicts in the Black Hills area, when addressing the Keystone XL debate. Often protested from an environmental standpoint, this brief history illustrates a major social justice conflict as well. The settlers’ towns have existed for over a century now, so white descendants of those settlers call the region theirs. For example, the sheriff of Shannon County, Nebraska, who guards the town of White Clay, considers the region his home. In his mind, he is defending the laws of his country that he loves and was raised in. Therefore, seizing the area belonging to the Lakota according to the Fort Laramie Treaty wont be easy or straight forward.
It is not difficult for the average student sitting in a history class to be horrified at the genocide of the native people of this continent. What goes unaddressed is how the genocide and systematic abuse continues today. So when it comes to indigenous sovereignty and solidarity, one who would consider themselves an ally to the indigenous people of this continent will have to acknowledge first that the Black Hills belong to the Lakota people. Second, that the Keystone XL pipeline and further development of the region is unlawful and not within the United States jurisdiction.