One of the most important keys to the success of any Plenty project, has been finding someone in the community where the project is to take place, who possesses a clear vision of the need, a way to address that need and who, at the same time, has earned the trust and respect of their community. No project in the history of Plenty has ever flourished without the involvement of such a person or persons. These people are unique, but not so rare as you might think. One quality they all seem to share is a kind of cultural transcendence — they are in and of their own culture, but they possess a maturity of vision that elevates them out of any cultural chauvinism. They recognize the need and benefit of multi-cultural cooperation.
Tom and Loretta Cook, who have spearheaded programs at the Oglala Lakota Reservation in South Dakota that Plenty has been privileged to support, are two such people.
I first visited Tom and Loretta at Pine Ridge in 1981 when they laid out their dream of establishing a self-sufficient community in Loretta’s ancestors’ homelands in a region of the Reservation called Slim Buttes. The previous year, they had taken a first step by moving a small trailer out onto the land near the place where they planned to construct a house. It was a dramatic location on a flat treeless piece of dirt overlooking the White River, which wound through a patch of trees about a quarter mile below. One Saturday they headed into town to do their laundry and buy groceries. When they returned that afternoon the trailer was gone. Soon they noticed pieces of it, as well as their clothes and other belongings, hanging from the trees along the river. While they were gone, a tornado had wiped out their new home.
On another day during that first visit, we attended a memorial celebration put on by the family of a woman who had died a year before. Many speeches were made, and later we were treated to some traditional Lakota singing and drumming. At the end of the entertainment, the family of the woman who had died conducted a “Giveaway,” another Lakota tradition in which great quantities of gifts — blankets, baskets, food, and clothing are given away to the community. It was during this affair that I met an elderly Oglala woman. Her face was the color of the earth and her eyes sparkled with flashes of humor and irony. I was telling her how magnificent I thought the country was around Pine Ridge, with its vast open spaces and huge sky and brilliant, jeweled nights. “Yes,” she sighed. “That is what they all say, and then they never come back.”
Since that time lots of us have gone to Pine Ridge, meeting and getting to know many of the fascinating people who live there. We have provided consultants, volunteers, and money. Small potatoes, perhaps, when you see what they are up against. But the faith and commitment made by the people of Pine Ridge makes the money stretch, and the projects develop their own momentum as more community members see the results.
According to the terms of the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty, the Great Lakota (Sioux) Nation was deeded a tract of land that included all of present-day South Dakota lying west of the Missouri River — about half the state. Also, according to the treaty, no land was to change hands without the signatures of three-quarters of the adult male Lakotas. Then gold was discovered in the Black Hills, which led to a gold rush, which led to Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn in 1876.
Inevitably, the Fort Laramie Treaty was broken to suit the appetites of white settlers and prospectors for land and gold. In 1887 the United States Congress passed the Dawes Act. The idea behind it was to break up tribal land holdings and issue allotments to heads of Indian families and begin to assimilate Indians into American society. After the allotments were distributed, undistributed land was classified as surplus and made available to white settlers. In1989 the Lakota nation was divided up into five smaller reservations. Nationwide, the Dawes Act resulted in U.S. confiscation of two-thirds of all the land Indians owned by treaty before the Act. Ninety million acres were taken. In 1903 Congress passed legislation that disallowed the use of the Courts by Indian tribes to protect their lands. The 1946 Indian Claims Commission Act restored Indian tribes’ access to the courts to make claims in land cases, but limited the form of compensation to money. It further stipulated that any tribe that accepted monetary compensation for a claim thereby relinquished the right to enter the claim at any time in the future. In 1980 the United States Supreme Court awarded the Lakotas $105 million as compensation for the “taking” of the Black Hills. That amount represents about one-tenth of one percent of the land’s current economic value in minerals and timber alone. No tribe in the Lakota nation has agreed to accept the money, underscoring their conviction that “the Black Hills are not for sale.” Today, the sacred Black Hills, the Paha Sapa of the Great Lakota Nation, are just a dark horizon for the 18,000 Oglala Lakota residents of the 50 x 100-mile Pine Ridge Reservation. The poorest of the poor in America are America’s Indigenous People. The record of the treatment they have received at the hands of the cavalry, the pioneers, the Congress, the courts, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is a litany of shame.
A Secretary of the Interior during the Reagan Administration wanted to believe that the sorry state of affairs on U.S. reservations today was “an example of failed socialism.” The fact is, when Indians lived tribally and communally, they flourished. What we see on reservations today is the result of failed paternalism and of a relentless campaign to decimate and subjugate a culture that is viewed as anti-progress because its members place a higher value on the land and the environment than on extracting resources for making profits. Anti-progress because its world view is based on an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, a view that might reflect badly on the excesses of the industrial revolution or the arrogance of the arms race.
We’ve been fortunate, indeed, blessed to have lived among and worked with Native Americans who are so good humored and generous, patient and resilient, and yet so dirt poor and oppressed by poverty and unfair treatment and neglect that it made our hearts cry. America as a nation needs to openly come to grips with and understand its history with the people who were living here when the first Europeans came uninvited and imposed themselves as if they owned the place.
The point is we need each other. The riches of Native Americans cannot be rated by Dun and Bradstreet. Theirs is an inheritance that has been nurtured and cherished and handed down from generation to generation since before history. In all of civilization there is no other treasure so grand, so utterly precious. The Indians don’t claim it. It can’t be bought, and it can’t be sold.
For our part, we can use our practical technologies and economic assistance to help these people recover some of the self-sufficiency that has been taken from them. The least we can do is lend them a hand — not from guilt, a useless commodity, but out of a recognition that the fate of the world is at stake. Let’s put our minds together with those who still remember why the world is worth saving.