The Past Is Not Dead


I’m writing this blog post in Rapid City, South Dakota, where we are enjoying our first big vacation since getting vaccinated. Rapid City is the main gateway to the Black Hills, and a sizable tourism industry has grown up around this beautiful landscape. We ignored most of that and took some gorgeous hikes. Still, for the historian in me, some bitter ironies were hard to ignore.

The Black Hills are a sacred space for the Lakota people, and in recognition of that, they were promised “the absolute and undisturbed use and occupancy of” the land in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. That treaty was modified in 1868 as white settlers encroached on Lakota territory, but Gen. George Armstrong Custer ignored even that treaty when an exploring party he led into the Black Hills confirmed the presence of gold. That set off a gold rush that resulted in the seizure of the land in what a federal judge in the 1970s described as possibly the most “ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing” in U.S. history.

Today, the archenemy of the Lakota is honored as the namesake of Custer State Park, one of the foremost state parks in the country. Just outside the park is Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the state, which until five years ago was known as Harney Peak. General William Harney was dubbed “Woman Killer” by the Sioux, and the tribe fought long and hard to get the name changed. Changing the name of that mountain was the Native equivalent of tearing down monuments to the Confederacy, those other constant reminders of the legacy of white supremacy. Maybe the park will one day also get a new name too.

That is obviously never going to happen to Mount Rushmore, which of course features the carved likenesses of four presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Now, don’t get me wrong; Lincoln and Roosevelt did some great things during their presidencies. Celebrated by Native Americans they are not, however. Lincoln authorized the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, allegedly for participating in the Dakota War of 1862 (though in his defense, he pardoned far more). As for Roosevelt, he was just a flat-out racist.

Some might accuse me of dredging up old history that we’ve gotten past. I wish. Today, the big issue around indigenous treaty rights concerns oil pipelines like Enbridge Line 3 through Minnesota. Honor the Earth is one of the organizations leading the fight in defense of use-rights that, according to their website, “are guaranteed by the treaties between the Ojibwe and the US government, protected by the US Constitution, and affirmed by the US Supreme Court. They include the rights to hunt, fish, gather medicinal plants, harvest and cultivate wild rice, and preserve sacred or culturally significant sites.” Their greatest concern is the potential impact of a leaking pipeline on wild rice beds that are central to their livelihoods and their cultural identity.

There are plenty of reasons for opposing the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. At a time when we should be transitioning away from fossil fuels, it would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, which in itself is an ecological nightmare. The activism of the Anishinaabe and their allies has slowed but not halted construction. Going up against these deep-pocketed companies reminds me that, after their dispossession from the Black Hills, the Sioux and their allies won the Battle of Little Bighorn but lost the war. Stopping these projects may depend on a major change in energy policy that makes them economically unsound.

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