It’s a landscape of beautiful desolation. Grasslands stretch to the horizon, the golden tedium broken only by the scattered clusters of trailer homes. If you squint, distant trees appear as flecks of green paint, a reminder of the sacred lands the Oglala Lakota used to roam.
Here, along with the bodies of warriors long dead, lies the residue of the darkest chapter in American history.
Here, only miles from looming Mount Rushmore, a shrine to their white tormentors, lies the blood of generations of Native Americans who stood their ground.
Here, in a place currently burdened with a tribal unemployment rate between 80-90%, per capita income of $4000, a rate of diabetes eight times the national average, and a life expectancy (48 for men, 52 for women) lower than any other western hemisphere location excepting Haiti, people are still eking out a living.
Here resides the spirit of the Oglala Lakota, tethered to the land, for better or worse.
Here, outrage at broken treaties, government massacres, and more than 300 years of all-encompassing oppression is fresh. Why? Injustice still exists, and solving it is much more complicated than it looks.
Writings on the Memorial of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
What should be the first step in addressing this injustice?
From a cultural aspect, the continuation of the centuries-old practice of removing Native children from their families, an abhorrent process that the state of South Dakota actually profits from, is detestable. According to a report by Indian Child Welfare Act executives, 740 Lakota children are removed to foster care each year and 90 percent are placed in white homes and institutions. This blatant violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act is a perpetuation of state-sponsored cultural eradication.
Yes, because of the staggering rates of alcohol abuse and sexual assault on the reservation, it does not seem unreasonable to remove children from treacherous situations. However, when South Dakota receives an annual average of $79,000 per adopted Native child in foster care and politicians personally profit from providing “mental health care” to natives, it can be reasonably inferred that pure altruism is not the top priority of the state.
Additionally, while the families the children are placed with may be perfectly nice, the fact that many tribal parents are denied fair testimony at the removal hearings is a travesty — for the welfare of the children, for the morale of the tribe, and for justice.
So, as a first step in preserving Lakota culture, parents should be ensured of a right to testify at the removal hearings of their own children, and laws should be enacted de-incentivizing the state of South Dakota from performing forced removals.
From a fiscal perspective, the obstacles impeding the long climb out of a behemothic economic hole appear exponentially more insurmountable.
On a superficial level, it seems easy: tout low labor costs to entice big factories to build on the reservation, providing employment for thousands of disadvantaged tribes-members. However, even if many tribes-people would support such an endeavor, because of labyrinthine internal politics, the Tribal Council would likely shoot it down. Such ventures have been attempted before, and always fizzled out.
Similarly, in 1980, as part of a settlement that acknowledged wrongdoing in the initial theft of tribal lands, the government provided $102 million (now $1.3 billion) in compensation to nine Sioux tribes, the Oglala Lakota included.
Surely a tribe with limited resources and a $4,000 per capita income desperately needs the money, right?
However, the tribes staunchly affirm that the ancestral lands were never for sale; therefore, no compensation or payment will be accepted.
So what practical solutions remain?
The government cannot give back the Black Hills, as many tribes-people wish. It’s not feasible; there are too many homes, businesses, and livelihoods dependent today on the area.
The Tribal Council is not likely to easily acquiesce to putting a factory on the reservation. Neither will they accept their portion of the $1.3 billion waiting patiently for them in escrow — for that would mean admitting defeat.
What should happen, as a compromise and as a means to further discussion, is the rekindling of the plans to allow the Oglala Lakota tribe to manage the Badlands National Park.
Technically, under the current system, the tribe owns the land on which the national park rests; however, the federal government has decreed that the National Park Service operate the park.
But why should the National Park Service run the park when the natives own the land, especially when the NPS has no intrinsic motivation to do so?
After all, the Badlands are sacred to Oglala Lakota; they can make sure the region is neither besmirched nor desecrated. Such a mutually beneficial relationship would allow the underfunded NPS to reapportion part of its budget elsewhere, ensure the land is properly and adequately maintained, provide jobs to tribesmen, promote Native American culture, provide revenue to the tribe, and most importantly, restore some semblance of dignity to the Lakota people.
It would surely be a drawn-out process, with resistance from the Tribal Council (regarding grazing land for cattle, for example) conceivably hindering the process. However, with a strident appeal to the pride that preserving the sacred lands would promote coupled with outside (and preferably national) attention, a resulting determination to come to the negotiating table could bear fruit.
The success of such an undertaking would produce jobs and revive near-dormant tribal culture. Combined with child removal reform, it would begin to right a historical wrong. Most importantly, in a bleak and neglected region, it would provide hope.
Adam Ginsburg is a politically passionate high school senior and the co-founder of the 3rd World Airports podcast. When he's not engaging in or observing political debate, you can find him fruitlessly rooting for his beloved Knicks. He is found on social media at @aginz3.