What’s Yours Is Mine No Treaties, No Boundary Lines

Illustration by Robert Hunt

The recent Dakota Access Pipeline saga reminds us of the long ongoing struggle for Native American rights.

Major General George Armstrong Custer
Hundreds of protesters gathered at Red Warrior Camp to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Dakota Territory, July 1874

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer clinched the reigns of his regal brown-and-white sorrel horse, then squinted hard into the distance. Ahead lay a dark patch sprawled across the ascending Dakota landscape . . . the Black Hills, land sacred to the Lakota Sioux tribes.

It had been a hard ride, nearly two weeks before Custer and his troops along with significant support personnel had ventured out from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Nebraska Territory. Custer’s orders from territorial commander Alfred Terry were to explore the region and appraise locations for a possible fort.

Rumors of mineral riches, among the abundant natural resources of the Black Hills, were also whispering in the wind.

Custer, clad in a buckskin jacket and sporting a wide-brimmed hat atop his now-shorn golden locks, turned and peered back over his shoulder. Behind him, stretching out over a mile in length, was a formidable yet curious expedition force including 10 companies of his beloved 7th Cavalry, two companies of blue-clad infantry, and savvy scouts—in all, more than 1,000 troops. This was no minor expedition; the menagerie included 110 canvas-capped wagons pulled by powerful mule teams, Gatling guns and cannons, newspaper reporters, photographer William Illingworth, and a 10-man scientific corps that notably included two miners. To feed the diverse procession on this foray into Sioux land, 300 head of cattle trailed in the dust behind.

Custer wiped a gloved hand across his mustache, clicked his boot spurs into the flanks of his mount and rode toward the Black Hills. Destiny followed him.

A decade earlier Custer, then in his 20s, had been a decorated Civil War hero. The youngest general in Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army, his reckless bravery, success, and flamboyance had given him national celebrity. Following the Union victory Custer headed west to a controversial future, even experiencing a disciplinary military court banishment, before General Phil Sheridan brought him back to the plains and a reinstatement leading the 7th Cavalry as part of the government’s brutal campaign to subjugate the Western tribes. Conflicts with the Sioux and Cheyenne and now the expedition into the Black Hills would prove pivotal in the painful saga of Manifest Destiny philosophy confronting the country’s original inhabitants.

Custer himself, in spite of his military acclaim, would perish in the “Greasy Grass” of Montana’s Little Bighorn in less than two years’ time. But for now, optimism buzzed through the ranks of Custer’s camp. By mid-July one of the expedition’s miners, diligently panning along French Creek in the Black Hills, discovered gold. Custer quickly sent a dispatch courier to Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory, where the electrifying reports were telegraphed to General Terry.

The report attested to the natural beauty of the Black Hills but the key words jumped off the page.

“Gold has been found at several places, and it is the belief of those who are giving their attention to this subject that it will be found in paying quantities. I have on my table 40 or 50 particles of pure gold . . . most of it obtained today from one panful of earth.”

The Black Hills and life for the Lakota Sioux would never be the same. Gold—the very word causes rationality to be cast aside as gold fever and greed blind the conscience. The news flashed across the plains like a grass fire. Fortune seekers and starry-eyed prospectors, like unwanted insects, were already descending upon the Black Hills even before Custer’s trail-weary expedition returned to Fort Abraham Lincoln after the 60-day and 1,200-mile trek. By 1876 more than 7,000 miners had violated the Black Hills.

Hovering over the excitement of discovered gold was a troubling fact: the military expedition’s involvement in seeking the evidence of mineral riches and the miners who encroached upon Sioux land were not supposed to be there at all. The Black Hills were Sioux land guaranteed by the legal treaty signed at Fort Laramie in 1868 after the conclusion of the Powder River War.

Alarmed at encroachments into Sioux territories, the legendary Ogala Sioux chief Red Cloud with warriors including Crazy Horse had forced the U.S. army to abandon forts along the Bozeman Trail leading to the Montana gold fields and vacate Lakota lands, essentially defeating the U.S. government.

Red Cloud stood tall for his people, defied pressure to sacrifice land, and walked out of previous negotiations when his demands were not met. Land-grabbing government officials vainly tried to get other less-prominent Sioux leaders to sign “sham treaties” saying their signatures represented all the Sioux people. However, Red Cloud’s position forced the negotiators to recognize that such leading chiefs as he, Sitting Bull, and Spotted Tail had the real power in the Sioux nation behind them. Agreeing to Red Cloud’s demands, the U.S. government’s legal Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 explicitly established the Great Sioux Reservation, as it became known . . . setting aside all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the Black Hills, “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupancy of the Sioux.” To the Sioux the Black Hills were a sacred place, and a source of fresh mountain streams, timber and healing medicine plants. In this treaty the United States government pledged “by its honor” to keep the peace and “solemnly agreed” that no unauthorized persons “shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in [this] territory.”

Furthermore, the 1868 treaty contained a clause specifying that three fourths of adult Sioux males needed to sign off on any alterations to the treaty (Article XII of the treaty) stated: “No treaty for the cession of any portion or part of the reservation herein described which may be held in common shall be of any validity or force as against the said Indians, unless executed and signed by at least three fourths of all the adult male Indians occupying or interested in the same.”

Yet this would be callously brushed aside when the U.S. government pushed ahead with a campaign known as “sell or starve” that forced the Sioux to relinquish more land in late 1876. The short-lived summer victory over Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn resulted in dogged Army pursual and crackdowns.

The great Sioux leader Sitting Bull, whose bands never signed the treaty, and his people sought shelter across the border in Canada, while Crazy Horse would resist before desperation too forced him to surrender. By then the tribes were diminished, the vast buffalo herds that once thundered across the Great Plains by the tens of millions were decimated, and the proud Sioux were dependent on government rations.

Facing starvation and forced back on reservations, the tribes came under pressure from the government, which was once again to take over more Sioux territory. The one-sided, vilely opportunistic abrogation known as the Mannypenny arrangement was signed by only 10 percent of adult Sioux males, blatantly ignoring the three-fourths specification that was stipulated in the legal 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that the U.S. government had pledged to honor.

Consequently, the treasured Black Hills were unfairly relinquished. Encroaching miners and industry reaped the substantial financial mineral wealth of the area, while the Sioux received nothing from the natural resource bounty. Poverty and extreme conditions have plagued the reservations for more than a century; the pain has never gone away. Sioux activists, such as Russell and Pearl Means, have peacefully, eloquently, fought to bring attention to land rights, broken treaties, and to address the unjust manipulation of their people.

The Sioux tribes have consistently maintained that the government usurpation of the Black Hills was illegal and the land wrongfully taken from them. In 1980 The United States Supreme Court decided that the Sioux were indeed right, and a compensation payment of $102 million was offered, but the Sioux have never accepted the money. The trust value of the funds set aside in the U.S. Treasury now exceeds $1.3 billion, still the Sioux nation will not take the cash, stating that the land was never for sale.

The Sioux elders are wise to refuse this compensation; they know that in no way does the amount represent the economic value that has been stripped from the Black Hills for more than 140 years. It is a mere fraction of the wealth in gold, minerals, and timber resources that have enriched others for so long. They also know that a short-term payoff would soon be gone and then so would their claim to the sacred Black Hills, the spiritual center of the Sioux nation. The Sioux don’t want money—they want their land back, and they continue to contest the issue on legal fronts. “Our land is more valuable than your money,” as Crowfoot, a Blackfoot tribe chief, once said.

Custer’s blue-clad 7th Cavalry, as well as Generals Sheridan, Terry, and Sherman, are gone, but new antagonists have taken their places: big business, industrialists, mineral and oil companies quick to compromise the future health of the land and its inhabitants for short-term financial gain, while government bureaucracy is slow to confront the sins of the past in regard to the native peoples of this ruggedly magnificent country.

In the same callous spirit, the federal government seized thousands of additional acres from the Sioux during the 1950s and 1960s to construct dams across the Missouri River Basin. The reservation never recovered from the resulting negative economic impact. The land, utilized for hunting and fishing by the tribe, was flooded and devastated, burial sites were desecrated, families were displaced.

The words of Red Cloud, who later regretted signing the 1868 treaty, spoken following the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre of disarmed Sioux by the U.S. Army, echo down to us today . . . “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one—they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

Standing Rock, South Dakota, December 2017

Thousands of Sioux, joined by other Native American tribes, and their supporters are braving the frigid Dakota snows in the largest gathering of native people in a century. In multiple camps forming near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, tepees, huts, and tents jam the landscape. They have been there for more than six months, gathering in prayer circles, supporting each other and taking a stand as the powerful Dakota Access Pipeline builders invade their land, threatening the water supply and their sacred sites. Eventually approximately 10,000 protesters would come to support the Standing Rock camps in opposing the 1,168-mile pipeline that will transport crude oil from North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa into Illinois.

This time it is not the 7th Cavalry or thousands of miners descending upon the Sioux, but an ominous river—the “Black Snake,” containing millions of gallons of black crude oil coming their way like a subtle avalanche in the building of the controversial $3.7 million Dakota Access Pipeline.

The pipeline was originally marked to be constructed north of Bismarck, North Dakota, but public outcry that a potential leak would destroy drinking water pushed the project further south, to the Standing Rock area. It is now being built on land that was formerly included as part of the Standing Rock Reservation and under the Missouri River. The pipeline travels dangerously near the reservation’s main water source and sacred sites.

It could be disastrous to area residents that already deal with alarmingly high poverty and unemployment levels.

To the tribe, it is another in a long line of injustices, as the federal government took the land by forced cessation, and no compensation was received. Now the danger of potential pipeline leaks lies at the door of the Sioux nation as well. Ironically, an even prior agreement, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, defined Sioux territory as the land on which the current Dakota Access Pipeline is being built. Another key point is respect: the Sioux feel they were not adequately consulted regarding the construction of the pipeline.

“Whether it is gold from the Black Hills or hydro power from the Missouri River or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity,” stated Standing Rock Sioux tribal chair David Archambault in a timely New York Times op-ed.

Fittingly, the first camp, Sacred Stones Camp, in the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline was established in April 2016 on property owned by respected Sioux historian/storyteller LaDonna Bravebull Allard and her family, near where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri River. “This river holds the story of my entire life,” she says, remembering the 1950s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while building the Oahe Dam, dredged the mouth of the Cannonball River and flooded the land, desecrating burial sites.

The reverence for the land and water by Native Americans is not confined to this country. All over the world, nations are facing a crisis, as the need for clean drinking water is ranked high on the United Nations’ list of global concerns. Standing Rock supporters pointed out that the danger of contamination is real, and federal reports have shown that there have been more than 2,000 “significant accidents involving pipelines carrying crude oil and refined petroleum products” that has resulted in near $3 billion of property damage since 1995.

As a tribal spokeswoman and historian, LaDonna embodies the legacy of the Sioux. One hundred fifty-four years ago her great-great-grandmother, then 9 years old, survived one of the bloodiest incidents ever in the troubling saga of this country’s treatment of indigenous people. Hundreds of Sioux died in the Whitestone Massacre when Brigadier General Alfred Sully’s men attacked a Sioux village. Chaos ensued and the fleeing child was shot in the hip, lying in the dirt until morning, when she was loaded into a wagon and taken to a prisoner of war camp.

“Of the 380 archaeological sites that face desecration along the entire pipeline route, from North Dakota to Illinois, 26 of them are right here at the confluence of these two rivers,” LaDonna writes in a powerful article published by Yes! Magazine (September 2016). “It is a historic trading ground, a place held sacred not only by the Sioux Nations, but also the Arikara, the Mandan, and the Northern Cheyenne.”

“When we first established the Sacred Stone Camp in April to stop the pipeline through prayer and nonviolent direct action, I did not know what would happen. But our prayers were answered.”

By September 2016 representation from more than 100 tribes and thousands of supporters were filling the multiple camps in peaceful defiance of the Dakota Access Pipeline. People even came from Scandinavia, Tibet, Brazil, and all over North America. The Bank of Norway decided to pull all their money out of the project, feeling it was violating human rights. Standing Rock had become an international call to protect indigenous people’s rights and their land. The months of peaceful protest survived some edgy moments when law enforcement used water hoses, rubber bullets, mace, and percussion grenades; more than 600 protesters were arrested during the months of the standoff. Uncomfortable televised footage of unarmed protesters confronted by lines of visor-wearing, black-clad officers armed with billy clubs troubled viewers across the country.

Chase Iron Eyes, a contemporary native Sioux lawyer and leader/activist in his 30s, symbolized the dignified spirit of the Standing Rock protest. Looking directly at the camera, he spoke to a reporter at Last Child Camp as the last protesters, both native and White banding together in support of Standing Rock, were being ordered off the property. In the background a government official’s megaphone could be heard droning that unless these last protesters left they would be arrested for being on private property.

Yet, Iron Eye’s earnest, well-chosen words cut through the irony of the last 7 months . . .

“We still seek a dignity that the powers of Creation have gifted to every natural human being on this planet, . . . “I want to thank you for showing up, showing your support, your love and compassion, sending your prayers, it means the world to us. Pretty soon it will be your time to stand with us, and we’ll stand with you.”

He was arrested along with 76 others on a cold February afternoon, under dubious charges, but Chase Iron Eyes peacefully stood tall for his people and in essence spoke for all minorities and oppressed peoples. Noting that while others might label the stance at Standing Rock “unlawful,” his people were “engaged in a prayer circle, fulfilling a spiritual purpose in a peaceful way . . . willing to stand in peace, prayer, and dignity.”

As LaDonna Bravebull Allard eloquently writes: “The U.S. government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas. And as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people. These sites must be protected, or our world will end, it is that simple. Our young people have a right to know who they are. They have a right to language, to culture, to tradition. The way they learn these things is through connection to our lands and our history. If we allow an oil company to dig through and destroy our histories, our ancestors, our hearts and souls as a people, is that not genocide?”

Heartrendingly, an executive order by pro big business incoming president Donald Trump approving the go-ahead for the Dakota Access Pipeline construction to commence was signed January 24, 2017, the last protesters departed peacefully from the Standing Rock camps by February. The dark crude oil snaked toward the Missouri River, but the world had noticed, their courage and spirit had become a symbol for indigenous people’s rights around the globe. The resistance would not end there; a flame had been lit. More than ever the light had shone on the broken treaties, genocidal forced cessations, land grabs, and years of callous disregard for the rights of Native American tribes.

“The spiritual aspect of treatymaking escapes the U.S. government,” Helen Oliff writes in her book Treaties Made, Treaties Broken. Between 1778 to 1871 the federal government entered into more than 500 treaties with Indian nations; every one of them was “broken, changed, or nullified when it served the government’s interests.”

Then, ominously in the closing months of 2017, as workers continued construction, disaster struck. Dangerous leaks of black crude oil oozed from the “Black Snake.” An alarming November leak spilled 210,000 gallons of crude oil, about 5,000 barrels, into South Dakota—the largest pipeline spill in the state’s history.

“It is a belowground pipeline, but some oil has surfaced aboveground to the grass,” a spokesman for South Dakota’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources cautioned. “It will be a few days until they can excavate and get in borings to see if there is groundwater contamination.” Not comforting news to the Sioux or anyone else. Construction on the project was immediately shut down, but for how long?

Whether it is George Armstrong Custer’s mile-long expedition winding across the Dakotas in 1874 with whispers of gold in the wind or the “Black Snake” of the Dakota Access Pipeline tunneling under land and water of the present-day landscape, Native Americans continue to face ongoing challenges while government and industry gamble with the environment and the rights of indigenous people.

Scant months later in the great Southwest, Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Zuni tribes along with scientists, environmentalists, and the country were rocked as President Donald Trump flew into Salt Lake City, Utah, and announced that the hauntingly beautiful Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante protected national monument lands (more than 3.2 million acres) would be reduced by a startling two thirds, the biggest rollback of protected public lands in American history.

Outside the state capital building thousands protested and five tribes banded together to file lawsuits, stating the decision is illegal and an affront to Native Americans. In the West the struggle for land rights has been fought intensely. The mysterious captivating Red Rock lands are precious to the heritage of the Southwest tribes, not to mention outdoor enthusiasts, archaeologists, and scientists who regard the region as a “dinosaur Shangri-La,” abundant in ancient history and fossils. To have these protected scenic lands exposed to desecration by mining and exploitation is a nightmare to people who hold the land as a sacred trust.

The tears in the eyes of a dignified elderly tribe member, widely viewed on media outlets, speak volumes.

Navajo Nation vice president Jonathan Nez and Navajo attorney general Ethel Branch immediately spoke out, stunned by the disregard shown to their people and the violation of law that protected those beloved lands. “This is a sad day for indigenous people, for America,” Nez said while pointing out that the law authorizes presidents to create a national monument but does not authorize a president to abolish them. Navajo Nation president Russell Begagye stated, “The decision to reduce the size of the monument is being made with no tribal consultation.” The reduction of Utah’s majestic monument lands was made by an executive order, and not an act of Congress.For such a far-reaching decision, many could argue the land does not belong to the president, the land belongs to the people.

Navajo attorney general Ethel Branch expressed disappointment that the chief executive did not go and see the monument lands himself. . . . “He is completely missing, completely misunderstanding, what an Indian nation is, and is ignoring the fact that we are sovereigns, we’re governments, and we expect to be engaged on a nation-to-nation basis, and we have treaties, federal law, federal statutes, federal common law that define that relationship. . . . We have our own tribal laws that define who can speak on behalf of our nation, and we want those laws to be respected.”

The Navajo and others who love the fascinating land formations and spiritual significance of the high desert will not go quietly into the night. The vigilant struggle of Native Americans to protect their own land, which began hundreds of years ago with the arrival of colonialism, continues.

“How many times must the White man break his word?” the heralded Sioux leader Crazy Horse is said to have asked an Army officer. “He’s put his name to the paper too many times before.”

That question rings through the years as fragments of broken treaties such as the Fort Laramie documents of 1851 and 1868 fall like leaves to the ground. Among the torn pieces are images of the tragic Trail of Tears for the Cherokee and the forced Long Walk for the Navajo (where hundreds died on expulsion from their own lands); the massacres at Sand Creek, Bear River, Whitestone, Washita River, and Wounded Knee; the relentless attacks on California tribes, etc.; and the list goes on. In a country founded on principles of liberty, a serious look at how America has treated Native Americans is long overdue.

A Cree prophecy tells us: “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”

“It was land—it has ever been land—for which the White man oppresses the Indian and to gain possession of which he commits any crime. Treaties that have been made are vain attempts to save a little of the fatherland, treaties holy to us by the smoke of the pipe—but nothing is holy to the White man.

“Little by little, with greed and cruelty unsurpassed by the animal, he has taken all. The loaf is gone and now the White man wants the crumbs.”—Luther Standing Bear, Teton Dakota Sioux.

References include broadcast news sources, published statements from Native American leaders and advocates, Sioux historian LaDonna Bravebull Allard’s Yes Magazine 2016 article, and blackhillsvisitor.com


Article Author: Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.