My white conqueror's privilege notwithstanding, Dr. Newquist gets me thinking about the Black Hills and our neighbors the Lakota. Newquist spotlights some remarkable racist commentary from L. Frank Baum, kind and gentle Wizard of Oz author and long-ago editorialist for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer:
The PIONEER has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past [L. Frank Baum, Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, 1891.01.03, quoted by David Newquist, "The Stolen Black Hills and the Fight to Give Them Back," Northern Valley Beacon, 2009.04.30].
Newquist is putting in perspective a somewhat less genocidal but similarly wrongheaded editorial from this century's descendant of Baum's paper, in which contemporary Aberdonians may read that the Lakota should whore themselves for the money their conquerors say is fair compensation for the stolen Black Hills.
I don't pay as much attention as I ought to Indian issues like the renewed lawsuit over the Black Hills. Neither it seems, does most of the South Dakota media, mainstream or otherwise. I suspect we find it uncomfortable to be reminded that our beautiful state is land won through lies and guns. Some history just doesn't look good on the Chamber of Commerce brochures.
The Supreme Court awarded the Tribes of the Great Sioux Nation a financial settlement in 1980 for what Justice Harry Blackmun called the most "ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings" in American history. Yet the tribes haven't touched the money, which now approaches $900M.
How, in a world where everything revolves around money, can the poorest people in America refuse to accept millions of dollars? Because they consider the land that was stolen from them to be sacred and as they say, "One does not sell their Mother" [Tim Giago, "The Black Hills: A Case of Dishonest Dealings," Huffington Post, 2007.06.03].
It's easy to me to opinionate as a member of the privileged conqueror class. I have my land. My Congress will never pass the Bradley Bill or even consider an idea floated by my good friend Greg, who suggested we give all of West River back to the tribes. (Greg was from Minnesota; I can't recall if he was willing to give back the Twin Cities.) No one looks at me with suspicion whenever I pop into town for groceries or a job interview.
But for what it's worth, I sympathize with the position of the tribal members who oppose this new lawsuit. I do my share of putting principle over pragmatism... and that's with much less at stake than nearly a billion dollars and the soul of my people.
The tribal members hiring the Yankton lawyers to prosecute this latest lawsuit represent the pragmatic view: The tribes will never win possession of the Black Hills. The youth are losing their spiritual connection to the land, so we might as well get our money and put it to good use.
Taking that money would not be a victory. It would be a surrender... perhaps the final surrender in a battle long ago lost. It would be a capitulation to the conquerors' view (my culture's view) that everything is for sale, that land is merely a commodity, that a man's worth is not much greater than his bank account.
The folks who say "The Black Hills are not for sale" are idealists. I admire sincere idealists, especially those who put justice over material gain (and one could argue the material gain of taking a one-time lawsuit settlement would be meager and fleeting).
But then the White man saying this isn't hungry or unemployed.
I have long wondered how we would react if some warlike, technologically advanced race—say, Klingons, or perhaps more appropriately for the analogy, the Ferengi—invaded, conquered, and herded us savage Earthlings into a few isolated, low-value patches of real estate. Suppose a hundred years later the conquerors let us file a lawsuit in their alien courts and actually rule in our favor, offering a few million bars of latinum for our trouble. At the same time, the invaders politely decline to dismantle even a single tourist resort or starship refueling outpost on our Mother Earth. How would we respond?
What really matters? How important is place to our sense of identity? How long and against what odds do you keep up the good fight?
And as Black Elk asks, "How could men get fat by being bad, and starve by being good?"
The renewed lawsuit over the Black Hills calls for soul-searching from all South Dakotans, on the reservations and off.