Friday, December 2, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline -- Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux

A model of the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota.
Click for photo credit.
Over the next week or two I will post several essays and resources on The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. My goal is to provide some materials for those interested in teaching or learning about the issue. The set of posts can be used as introductory reading materials in classes or they can be mined to select content of interest. In addition, I hope that the posts will be useful not only for teachers and students, but for those interested in the topic who are readers of On the Brink. I have found that most people do not fully understand the complexities of the issue and some of you may find the content interesting, if not enlightening. If anyone finds any errors, please let me know so that I can update the posts for accuracy. Please note that I will try to link as much as possible to primary resources that can be used for supplemental material or further reading. In addition, for each section, I have included questions that can be used for in-class discussions or homework.

The series will consist of several parts:

Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter:  The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions

A typical vista on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Click for photo credit.
In the first four parts of this series, I explored a number of issues that provide context to the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. I reviewed the geography of North Dakota, provided background on fracking and the Bakken Shale, summarized some basics of pipeline infrastructure and the pipeline project itself, and dove into the complex geography and history of the Missouri River drainage basin and the Great Plains. These four essays provide an interdisciplinary and geographic frame of reference for approaching the study and greater understanding of the pipeline project and the associated protests. In today's post, I focus on the people involved with the protests, the Standing Rock Sioux. This essay will briefly review the history of the Standing Rock Sioux and provide some contemporary general statistics about them.

One of the treaties that relegated the Sioux to a narrow piece of land
in Minnesota denied them access to this pipestone quarry (now
Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota) which was the main source of
stone (quartzite) trading goods for the Sioux. Materials made from this
quarry were traded throughout North America. Many of the materials
were made into spiritual objects. Thus, the quarry had tremendous symbolic
value to the Sioux. Click for photo credit.
As I mentioned in a previous post, at the time of initial contact with European explorers, the Sioux were semi-nomadic peoples who lived in the upper Midwest in the area of the Great Lakes. As European settlement moved from east to west throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly after the voyage of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800's, the Sioux were forced to abandon their ancestral homes for lands to the west. Resources, particularly water-based resources, were not as abundant and the Sioux quickly adapted to utilize the horse, another European transplant, to assist with hunting and rapid movement to seek resources or outrun enemies. As the Sioux moved westward, they came into conflict with other peoples in the Great Plains. This period was not particularly peaceful for Native Americans.

Of course, as settlers continued their westward expansion, they came into greater conflict with the Sioux who found themselves in difficult situations because they were increasingly pinned in by European settlers and poor environmental conditions. Although the U.S. Government made treaties with the Sioux and other Native Americans for their land, the agreements were not always fulfilled. By the 1850's the Sioux were near starvation and desperate largely due to the loss of their agricultural and hunting grounds to settlers. In Minnesota, which was where most of the Sioux were living at this time, the non-native population of the state in 1850 was about 6000. By 1860, the population was about 172,000. In just ten years, 166,000 non-native people moved onto the land once controlled by the Sioux. A treaty, which promised compensation for relocation to a narrow strip of land, was fulfilled by the Sioux, but not by the Americans. The money never came as promised. Not only did they lose their land, they were never compensated for it.

This is a photo of the painting called the Treaty of Traverse de Sioux which
shows the signing of the ceding over of Sioux lands in exchange for
reservation status and annual payment. Click for photo credit.
Click here for the full text of the treaty.
Of course, the Sioux were not happy about this situation. They saw their land disappear under the plow as they found themselves in increasingly difficult situations since their treaty was unfulfilled and they had no access to funds for food and supplies. Throughout the 1850's and 1860's the prairie was a powder keg. In the summer of 1862, the powder keg exploded. The Sioux held a tribal council and decided to attack white settlements to try to force them out of their lands. Of course, we know how the story ends. Hundreds of white settlers were killed. The military intervened and forced the Sioux to move out of Minnesota to the Dakotas and Nebraska after the government executed 40 Sioux warriors. As an aside, the bodies of those executed were buried, but dug back up and utilized for public dissections and collections.

Black Hills gold. Click for photo credit.
By the 1870's the Sioux and the Cheyenne were settled in large reservations in western South Dakota and that extended into sections of bordering states (including North Dakota). However, once gold was discovered in the Black Hills on the reservations, settlers moved into the area and requested support from the U.S. government which attempted to negotiate transfer of the Black Hills from the Sioux and the Cheyenne Indians to the U.S. Government. Of course, given the history of broken promises, many of the Sioux and Cheyenne were not comfortable with giving up their reservation rights and refused to negotiate. By 1876, the U.S. and the Native Americans of the region were at war. Some notable battles, including the Battle of Little Big Horn, occurred. By 1877, the overwhelming power of the U.S. military effectively ended the war. With the Death of Crazy Horse by bayonet in September of that year, the conflict was largely over, but the violence and land acquisition continued.

Like many oppressed peoples who are forced into difficult situations, the Sioux and other Native American tribes started to find unique ways to express themselves culturally thereby unifying diverse and dispersed groups within a single cultural expression of the noted Ghost Dance. Part tradition and part spirituality, the Ghost Dance spread throughout the west. It celebrated native culture at the very moment that the U.S. government was trying to enforce assimilation. Local white settlers and the military were threatened by the Ghost Dance movement. Its expansion across the west led to a degree of panic among the military and the settlers. This panic is somewhat understandable given the degree of violence in the region. Nevertheless, there was no indication that the Ghost Dance movement sought to resume the war and many experienced with Indian affairs in the American government thought the panic was ridiculous.

This is an 1894 film by Thomas Edison of the Sioux Ghost Dance. The accuracy of the dance has been questioned. It
was filmed in Edison's New Jersey studio. The performers were with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Nevertheless, the dancers were Sioux and this dance may be the closest contemporaneous example.

One of the centers of the Ghost Dance movement was the Standing Rock Reservation. Here, in the midst of the panic, the military was sent to stop the dances and to arrest leaders. One of the leaders, and one of the most famous Native Americans of the period, Sitting Bull, was killed on December 15, 1890. Just 13 days later, the notorious Wounded Knee Massacre which saw the death of between 150 and 300 Sioux, many women and children, occurred in southern South Dakota. The small band of Sioux were killed by the military during the whole Ghost Dance panic after someone let off a shot while the military were trying to confiscate the guns of a small group of Sioux. The military opened fire with automatic weapons while most of the small band were defenseless. Two dozen U.S. military also died in the fight, most from crossfire of the automatic guns.

This memorial marks the mass grave of those Native Americans who died
at Wounded Knee. Click for photo credit.
This period in the Great Plains from 1850 to the 1890s' remains etched in the memory of not only the Sioux, but also all who recognize the difficult time in the history of the U.S. The real historical players from this period are larger than life: Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse, and so many others. Yet the actions taken by the Americans and the Sioux during this relatively brief period led to long standing issues that continue to resonate in our modern era. After the 1890's the Sioux were relegated to various reservations which were significantly smaller than the larger reservation.

Before getting to the 20th century, it is worth reviewing the geographic history of the Sioux reservations in the Dakotas. In 1868, after the Sioux were displaced from Minnesota, a treaty called the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 created the Great Sioux Reservation which included all of western South Dakota west of the Missouri River and portions of Nebraska. The treaty also granted extensive hunting rights to the north, west, and south in what many call Unceded Indian Territory. In 1887 and 1889 (General Allotment Act and Dawes Allotment Act), congress passed two acts which broke up the Great Sioux Reservation into the current reservation configuration of the region. However, it must be noted that a Supreme Court decision of 1980 stated that the land of the Black Hills was taken illegally and that the Sioux should be given compensation for the loss of the land. The Sioux refused the money and wish to recoup the land. Today, the money, worth well over 1 billion dollars, is managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. What is also important to note is that the Standing Rock Indian Reservation contains a portion of the Unceded Indian Territory in North Dakota along with a swath of the original Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Importantly, the pipeline is crossing the Missouri River just one half mile north of the Standing Rock Reservation in a portion of the Unceded Indian Territory that is now in private hands that the Standing Rock Reservation claims as theirs. To the Sioux, the land was never given up by them and they still have rights and privileges granted to them by the Fort Laramie Treaty. To the Sioux, the passing of the pipeline infringes on their rights. For maps and a review of the history of the territory, see this site.

By 1889 the Sioux were left with these tribal lands. Click for photo credit.
After the close of the disastrous 19th century, the Sioux spent much of the 20th century building new institutions within the reservation system. This was challenging because the reservations were not built of homogeneous cultures. In some cases, disparate groups were brought together to form new tribal governments. By 1959, the Standing Rock Reservation developed their own constitution. The tribal government consists of an elected tribal council along with council chair and vice chair. There is also a tribal judicial system. In other words, the Standing Rock Reservation works as a separate governmental entity from the United States. Indeed, the Standing Rock Sioux assert that they are a nation separate from the U.S. with full rights and responsibility of separate governance.

Some general population statistics for the Reservation from 2010 can be found here.  Generally, there are approximately 6400 people on the reservation in both North and South Dakota. While this sounds like a low number, the population density is not all that different from the surrounding areas. However, as the maps in this article show, there are a number of problems on the tribal lands such as unemployment, lack of education, and health disparities. The pipeline is not the only problem facing the Standing Rock Reservation.

Coming up in the next post, I will cover the legal issues and the protest.


1. Take a look at the census information for your community here. What is the Native American population for your community, county, and state? How has it changed over time? Why?

2. American Indian activism and resistance did not stop in the 1890's. Organizations like the American Indian Movement emerged throughout the 20th century. Take a look at the history the organization provides here. What events in the timeline have connections to the 1800's history outlined in the above essay?

3. South Dakota is approximately 50 million acres. In 1868, the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota had an area of approximately 9 million acres. Today, the area of Indian Reservations in South Dakota is about 5 million acres. What percent of South Dakota was/is controlled by Native American in 1492, 1868, and today?

4. The 1868 Treaty of Laramie is considered one of the more important documents in Native American history. Why do you think it is so important? Do you think the treaty was fair? Why or why not?

5. One of the great unresolved issues, at least to the Sioux, is the issue of the "unceded territory" outlined above. Today, that land is in the hands of private owners. What rights do you think the Sioux have to this land?


Note, if you like this series, you may like this textbook, Introduction to Sustainability available from Wiley.

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