October 8, 2023 Essay: A Checkerboard of Community and Culture on the Cheyenne River Reservation

Sep 29, 2023

Where do I begin?

To speak of community, we imagine our church, neighborhood of city blocks, schools, clubs, and so on. For the Lakota people, community is much more encompassing than buildings or lines drawn on a map. The Lakota way is more comprehensive. Their community includes outlying areas, farms, and homesteads of rural dwellers and those living outside modern technology’s limits. For the Lakota, community is the people and the total environment, regardless of the closeness or distance from the city center.

In 1890, The Lakota were the last Indigenous People to retreat to a Reservation. What happened? The Massacre at Wounded Knee in Pine Ridge in December 1890 killed 150 women and children. This horrific massacre, thought to be retribution for “Chief” Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse winning the Battle of Little Big Horn with General Custer and his calvary, compelled the Lakota to resign themselves to a Reservation or face extinction from the U.S. Calvary that would not let them live in peace on their Spiritual land.

The Cheyenne Agency was established, and every month, rations were distributed at designated sites to be picked up by each family. This action forever changed Lakota social and family structure. They were hunters of the American bison or buffalo, not farmers. From 1870-1900, federal policies changed. “It was reasoned that if a person adopted “White” clothing and ways and was responsible for their farm, they would gradually drop their “Indian-ness” and be assimilated into White American culture. Then it would no longer be necessary for the government to oversee Indian welfare in the paternalistic ways it had previously done, including providing meager annuities, with American Indians treated as dependents.” (Dawes Act 1887, National Archives)

St. Ignatius’ recent service trip to build Tiny Homes with the National Y Alumni on the Reservation, Dana Dupris, an elder, described his ordeal of boarding school. “First thing they do is they make you form lines, and then they cut all your hair off. Then they pour powder on you because they say we’ve got bugs. Next line, they pour kerosene on you to kill all the, whatever, bugs. Then they give you a brush, and they tell you, “Go take a shower, scrub your elbows and knees, ankles, wherever there’s dirt,” or I guess darkness because they want to scrub Indian off us. Then when we’re done scrubbing ourselves, we get inspected, and if they find some dark area, we’ll have to go and scrub. A lot of times, you scrubbed until you’re bloody. Your elbows or knees are bloody because that was the whole idea: control.”

In 1887, the Dawes Act allowed non-Native people to purchase land on the Cheyenne River Reservation. The U.S. government allotted 160 acres of communal land to individual Lakota tribe members and sold the “excess” to white homesteaders. The trust land allotted to Lakota became a “fee patent” holding subject to property tax. Land was sold off once more by the Lakota land trust holders because they could not keep up with the payment of property taxes. They were forced to sell their land to white settlers, which led to the widespread loss of Lakota land.

Loss of land has inhibited the Lakota from creating a sustainable economy and accessing resources (such as water) necessary for survival and growth. Today, the greater part of land suitable for commerce and most fertile for agriculture and ranching is not in trust for the Lakota. This land is owned by the white cattle ranchers, who benefit from the best parcels of land. Recently, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe gained majority control (51 percent) of the land within the Reservation. They were able to purchase 24,000 acres of deeded land.

We are a nation of immigrants who brought traditions, cultural foods, and religion to the “New World.” We have forgotten the indigenous people were before the white European explorers and who also had traditions, culture, food, and spirituality woven into their lives…into their world.

What would this “New World” look like if the white settlers had adapted the Indigenous culture, traditions, and spirituality of the land? In celebration of Indigenous People’s Day/Columbus Day, let us Remember.

— Jean Santopatre, Pastoral Associate