Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

New book explores Indian country's struggle

Review

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - On the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the last massacre took place in December 1890 at Wounded Knee, people still have vivid memories of their grandparents' account of that horrible day.

Many from across the country look at Pine Ridge and wonder why it appears so dysfunctional politically, yet it's filled with spirituality. Pine Ridge is still under colonial rule, as are many reservations.

A recently released book, ''Ruling Pine Ridge: Oglala Lakota Politics from the IRA to Wounded Knee'' by Akim D. Reinhardt, takes an academic, well-researched look at the reasons colonialism still prevails on some reservations, especially Pine Ridge. Reinhardt puts into understandable detail the political events beginning with the implementation of the Indian Regulatory Act of 1934 and ending with Wounded Knee II.

Reinhardt blames Wounded Knee II on an autocratic lead government under the direction of tribal President Richard Wilson, but explains that it was actually the policies of the federal government and the attempt to create self-governance for tribes while the federal government refused to release control.

This book explains why Indian country may seem to be an enigma to some outsiders. It further explains why governments, especially that of Pine Ridge, are confusing and, in some respects, more of a hindrance than a help to the people.

When the Indian Reorganization Act - or, by another name, the ''Indian New Deal'' - took effect, the intent was to end the federal government policy of assimilation. Reinhardt said, ''Its [assimilation 's] goal was cultural genocide.''

But when the new commissioner for Indian Affairs, John Collier, took over, he was intent on ending assimilation; in fact, he despised it, Reinhardt wrote. ''This does not mean that Collier was likewise ready to oversee the lifting of the colonial yoke from Native nations in favor of recognizing and promoting their independence and sovereignty.''

Reinhardt stated that Collier may have disliked colonialism and assimilation, but what he accomplished was not the overturn of colonial rule, but kind-hearted modifications to colonial rule.

After the IRA constitution, which was largely written by the office of Indian Affairs yet not approved by a majority of Oglala Sioux tribal members at the time it took effect in 1936, the first president, Frank Wilson, described in the book as a ''mixed-blood,'' ran the government without little concern for the citizens.

Most people of ''full-blood'' status stayed away from the polls that accepted the constitution as a way of communicating that they disapproved. It passed, even though the majority of people did not vote.

Reinhardt continues to drive home the fact that the new IRA government was dominated by the ''mixed-bloods'' of the reservation and that ''full-blood'' Oglalas or the ''traditionals'' were left out of the system - a complaint by the ''traditionals'' even today on Pine Ridge and elsewhere.

A tribal council system that was set up to assist the people of the reservations in fact turned against them, Reinhardt stated.

The IRA system on Pine Ridge was sold to the people by Collier himself, and some younger ''mixed-blood'' Oglalas.

The ''traditionals'' were referred to by Frank Wilson as ''ration Indians,'' and he also considered the traditional ways to be ''uncivilized,'' Reinhardt wrote.

The result of that attitude kept the ''traditionals'' at a lower economic and power level within the tribal organization. Today the struggle for a voice in the government, or at the very least to be recognized as a government body, continues on many reservations that suffered the pains of a constitutional government thrust upon them.

''Ruling Pine Ridge'' lays the blame for autocratic rule and corruption directly on the effects of a constitution that does not fit within the values and culture of the Oglala; and there was no consultation with the Oglala to write a constitution that would fit. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council wrote a constitution which was rejected by the appointed agent, and the constitution the Oglala were forced to live with, even after the majority did not vote on it, was written by Collier and by attorney Felix Cohen.

When 1973 came around, the IRA government still hadn't been accepted by all people, the ''traditionals'' were still not accepted and the ''mixed-bloods'' ran the reservation. Richard Wilson was then president. According to Reinhardt's account, Wilson ran the reservation like he was the head of the mob and that brought on the request for outside help by the ''traditionals.'' The American Indian Movement came to Wounded Knee for a standoff.

Reinhardt makes it clear that Wounded Knee II was not a political stunt by AIM, but that the grass-roots of the Oglala had suffered enough oppression at the hands of their own government after 40 years of federal meddling and control set the stage.

''Ruling Pine Ridge'' is more about the IRA and Indian country than Pine Ridge, although all the details focus on Pine Ridge.

This book doesn't reveal anything new, but it explains why tribal governments and reservations are the way they are today. What is missing is the fact that many tribes worked through IRA government problems and have moved on to a more defined self-governance.

But for those ''traditionals'' who consider their treaties as their rightful constitutions, ''Ruling Pine Ridge'' will explain why their struggle is so difficult.

This book is recommended reading for all tribal politicians and for every American Indian studies class across the country.

''Ruling Pine Ridge'' is published by Texas Tech University Press. Reinhardt is an associate professor of history at Towson University in Maryland.