In some of my travels earlier this year, I was exposed to more of the history of the American West; particularly our series of battles and treaties with the Native American population. Earlier this week, as I gazed towards the east, towards the Great Plains, I pondered people that society often overlooks. Quite possibly the most overlooked people in our society today are the Native Americans. In that vein, I took advantage of an opportunity I got to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Southwestern South Dakota. This is one of the poorest places anyone can find within the United States, and a place where a lot of people in the West go to do charity work.
The drive up to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is primarily through the Nebraska panhandle, through an area I am mainly familiar with through storm chasing. With a little bit of extra time, we got a chance to visit a couple of roadside attractions near Alliance, NE. The primary attraction there is a place called Carhenge. Carhenge is a replication of Stonehenge with old cars that was built by some rancher a couple of decades ago. Apparently, ranchers have nothing to do in the winter, and often end up bored. So, from time to time, they come up with something creative, which explains why we also saw this roadside attraction, only a couple of miles further up the road.
As we travel north and approach the border of South Dakota, the empty and largely flat land typically associated with Western Nebraska gives way to some rolling hills and pine trees. This first begins to appear near the Niobrara River Valley, a river that actually produces some of Nebraska’s most interesting scenery. In fact, farther down this river, just east of Valentine, NE, is a place called Smith Falls, a waterfall with a 75 foot drop, which is really not to shabby at all.
On the road we came in on, Nebraska highway 78, we enter the Indian Reservation as soon as we cross the border into South Dakota. On the border, there is a town called Whiteclay, NE, where Native Americans largely go to buy liquor, as for some strange reason it can’t be sold on the reservation. The town of Pine Ridge, the main town on the reservation is a mere couple of miles into the reservation. There, I met the people who assist with coordinating the volunteer efforts of those looking to help. They have an office, which looks like a small house from the outside. Inside, I see a map showing the poorest counties in the United States, a good amount of Native American artwork, and a calendar, with plenty of appointments for people to visit and help written on it.
Out of respect, I took a limited amount of pictures on the Reservation. However, I did take a couple of pictures, one of one of the houses we were working on, and one of the neighborhood. At some point, I was under the impression that Indian Reservations are places where people still live in tepees and chase buffalo off of cliffs. But, in reality, they live in towns much like how the rest of us do. We always kind of romanticize the idea of Native Americans as nomads who hunt and gather their food, but history does show that is not always the reality. Particularly in the Southwest, ruins of villages from long before any European Explorer arrived can be found in places like Taos Pueblo and Mesa Verde National Park.
The town did look obviously poor. Many of the yards had broken cars and many of the homes were in disrepair. In that sense, it kind of reminded me of some of the poorer parts of Chicago that I had seen, on the West and South sides. I did definitely feel a lot less danger in being there than I had when I had ventured to those parts of Chicago. I guess I did not feel as if I was liable to get jumped, or be hit by a stray drive-by. However, the level of poverty did not feel any less.
After working on a few homes, we got to go to lunch with a couple of the people who coordinate the volunteer effort, at a place called the Lakota Cafe. I got a chance to have a small discussion with a couple of the people who coordinate the volunteer efforts, and also have some involvement with Indian affairs (with the U.S. Government). I have a ton of questions I would have liked to ask them. I really do not understand everything about our relations with the Native American tribes, as it is a topic that is not commonly discussed in depth. These reservations are sort-of another nation, but also sort of not. Apparently there are a lot of legal controversies in situations where our federal law is different than the laws enacted by the tribes. There are also controversies over water rights, particularly for water from the Missouri River. The water rights controversies in some ways remind me of the ones along other rivers, with those downstream accusing those upstream of taking too much. However, there is definitely a component of it that relates to the treaties we had formed with the tribes (some of which we blatantly violated). Apparently, one of the treaties permits some of the tribes to take the water from the Missouri River in South Dakota.
The biggest mystery to me about our affairs with the Native Americans is why we cannot simply just live together like we do, more or less with other racial groups. I mean, we do self-segregate, but we live under the same governmental and societal structure. And this is with different groups of people with differing histories, including some that did not come here willingly. Of course, the history with the Native Americans is also unique, as they were here long before Columbus introduced the continent to the Europeans. Seeing that the reservation has houses, cars, roads, stores, etc. just like us makes it even more of a mystery to me, as the idea of a place where people still chase the buffalo would definitely not vibe with our modern day American culture, but they seemed to have opted to live in towns now.
As much as I would really like to know their perspective on this, I decided it was not my place to ask them these questions. It could have been taken the wrong way, as there are a lot of people who feel like the Native American tribes should not have their reservations, and have become a drain on society. They don’t know me, and do not know my intentions, or how I feel about anything. Nor do I really know how I feel about all of this stuff. The more I hear them describe how the law operates within the confines of the reservation, how they coordinate with Badlands National Park and such, the more confused I get.
It is the point of view of the Native Americans that their land was taken away from them, little by little, and that in a large part their culture was taken away from them. However, nearly all of the world was once nomadic hunter-gatherers. One by one, different places took to living in cities, agriculture and the like. So, can the Native American tribes be expected to do so as well? It seems like there are towns in the reservations, so I get the impression that the issue is not even necessarily about the idea of nomadically chasing the buffalo. From my visits to places like Crazyhorse, and Fort Larmaie, it does seem like we made a lot of treaties, and broke them. But I don’t know the reason why. Nor do I have anything near a good understanding of that history.
I was born nearly a whole century after the last “Indian War” happened. I did not chose to come to a new continent, nor did I chose how we relate with the Native Americans. The only other time in my life I even encountered Native Americans was in Wisconsin in 2004, when we were protesting a professor by the name of Ward Churchill for making outlandish claims about the victims of 9/11. The Natives stood alongside us, as they felt Professor Churchill, only something like 1/16 Native American was stealing their identity to make a political point. So, while it is natural for me to feel that we did historically treat these Native Americans well, I also wonder how much I can personally be expected to feel responsible for something that was done by people who only really have one thing in common with me; their race?
In the end, the conclusion I came to today is that I am in no place to take a position on any of these issues, as I simply don’t understand them. I have become tired of people taking strong, decisive political opinions, often deriding those who disagree with them, based on incomplete understandings of facts and history. I believe that people should at least understand the uncertainty around their points of view before they start saying things that could potentially upset others. At this point in time, I am applying the same standard to myself with regards to this particular issue. To take either side, even if I were to take the side of the Native Americans due to what appears to be a failure on our part to honor the treaties, at this point in time would be disingenuous. And, I believe that the Native Americans would think this to be so even if I did take their side with what little knowledge I have of the true history, and the true reasons why thins are the way they are at this present point in time. All I can do is listen, to all points of views, learn more, and be willing to help out those in need.