Native American History – A Valuable Lesson for Americans Today

The Oglala Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation are some of my favorite folks. I totally get them. I bet they would get me, too.

For y’all that don’t know the history of Native Americans vs. the “white man”/federal government, Native Americans basically were annihilated/way of life decimated. If they didn’t succumb to diseases that ‘foreigners’ exposed them to in the beginning, they were robbed of their land and killed for their resources later. If they didn’t choose to assimilate into a culture they didn’t care for, they were left in poverty on reservations (for the most part).

The U.S. history that I was taught did not include the Indian’s side of the story—like the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 where hundreds of unarmed Sioux men, women, and children were shot and killed by the U.S. Army—and like the forced removal of Indian children from their homes in the 20th century—separated from their families, sent to boarding schools, and made to give up their religion and language.

I became interested in the whole story after I heard about the plight of an Oglala Sioux citizen, Leonard Peltier (imprisoned since 1977)—a long, dreadful story involving the FBI’s COINTELPRO/GOON Squad “Reign of Terror.”

Mr. Peltier’s dire predicament mirrors that of his entire reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Here’s how:

In 1868 the U.S. government signed the Laramie Treaty, which recognized the Great Sioux Nation’s territory, including its ownership of the Black Hills in perpetuity. The “perpetuity” lasted a few years. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, thousands of unemployed Civil War soldiers rushed onto Sioux land to stake a claim.

President Ulysses S. Grant chose not to honor the treaty. In 1877 the U.S. Congress took control of the Black Hills. It offered the Lakota Sioux $17.5 million dollars for the land. They refused to take the money. Their land was sacred. It was not for sale.

In a legal proceeding in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the Sioux $106 million for the land (original amount adjusted for inflation, plus interest). The tribes said no, they wanted their land back.

To this day, the legal dispute is ongoing and the money still sits in a government account, untouched by citizens of the Sioux Nation. Currently it is worth $575 million.

The Oglala Lakota share is worth $170 million—money that could be used to substantially improve the quality of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Oglala people steadfastly refuse to take it even though they live in the poorest community in the United States.

Here are the grim statistics* on the Pine Ridge Reservation (geographically the size of Connecticut and 2nd largest reservation in the U.S.):

 – The lowest life expectancy anywhere in the U.S. (52 years for women; 48 years for men);

– 97% live below the poverty level;

– 85% unemployment rate;

– 60% of grandparents raise their grandchildren;

– Highest infant mortality rate in the U.S. and 300% higher than the national average;

– 50% of adults battle addiction and disease (alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and malnutrition are prevalent);

– Diabetes is 800% higher than national average;

– Rate of death from alcohol-related problems is 300% higher than the national average;

– Tuberculosis is 800% higher than the national average;

– Teenage suicide rate is 150% higher than national average;

– Dropout rate is 70%;

– Teacher turnover rate is 800% higher than the national average;

– 60% of homes are infested with black mold; 60% are substandard dwellings; 60% lack telephone lines;

– Many families live in old cabins or dilapidated mobile homes or trailers and lack basic furniture and appliances;

– 35% of homes lack water, electricity, central heating, and sewage systems;

– Many water wells are contaminated;

– The average number of people living in a home is 17;

– There are few paved roads; no bank/discount stores/movie theatre/public transportation.

-Extreme weather conditions: Summer temps reach 110 degrees and winters can drop to -50 degrees—along with the risk of severe winds, flooding, tornadoes, and wildfires.

Are you asking yourself: Why don’t the Oglala Sioux take the money and move on? Here’s why—three words:

Wamaka Og’naka l’cante.

In the Lakota language it means “the heart of everything that is.” It is how the Oglala describe the Black Hills, a sacred symbol of their creation. It explains that for the Sioux tribes, there is no difference between land, life, and religion. They are one in the same.

I love that concept! It means you don’t sell your soul. The Black Hills are not a chunk of real estate. You don’t sell the tangible representation of who you are. You don’t sell your life to alleviate horrendous living conditions.**

In my own way, I relate to this thinking. Here is my Wamaka Og’naka l’cante: Toni Dockter, writer, a calling. For me there is no difference between the three. I am my calling. I am my writing. We are one in the same.

Now, if I could get my dense tribal members to understand this concept, I might hang out with them. I hail from the California branch of the Twabuwoc Tribe:

Tightly Wound And Balled-up Wads Of Conformity.

They walk a tight-lipped straight line inside a box. I’m outside the box, tap dancing in Fluevogs, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on my clarinet.

The Twabuwoc don’t get me. If they did, I wouldn’t have to endure the spirit-zapping/nattering negativity generated by their silence about my calling. Or the snide/condescending/dripping with disapproval comments, like: “Are you still writing?” Sub-text: Why do you spend so much time doing something that makes no money?

As the Oglala Lakota know, it’s not about the money.

Could I be making more money at another endeavor if I stopped writing? Sure. But I don’t want the money. I want my “land/life/religion!”

As the Oglala Sioux know, it’s not about fitting in or being what another entity wants you to be or do. It’s about honoring the soul you were created with. And it’s not for sale.


*from the article: “The Arrogance of Ignorance: Hidden Away, Out of Sight, and Out of Mind,” by Stephanie Schwartz,, 10/15/06. I’m guessing that after 5 additional years of a bleak economy, the stats are worse.

** According to published polls, 90% of the current Oglala Sioux still feel this way.

Additional information: “Black Hills Are Beyond Price to Sioux Culture,” by Frederic Frommer, Los Angeles Times, 8/19/01

Recommended reading about the history of the Sioux Nation: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), by Peter Matthiessen, award-winning author/activist.

Note to the FBI: If you’re still spying on me because of my zealous support of President Clinton offering clemency to Leonard Peltier in 2000, I hope you are at least reading my blogs. I need all the readers I can get!



  • Diane said:

    I give you a BIG “LIKE”…I totally agree. Interviewer’s on a program on the History Channel discussed the money with one of the Sioux Women…they didn’t want the money. They are the LAND.

    Friday, October 28, 2011
  • Davey Dave said:

    If our white counterpart had values more like Indigenous People we would be better off. Good post.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011