On March 14, John Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama inviting him to “explore innovative solutions to the Black Hills claim.”
The letter was in response to a policy statement made by the Obama campaign in May 2008, proposing government-to-government negotiations to resolve the longstanding Black Hills issue.
Obama, while in the sunset of his presidency, has only months to act on Steele’s invitation to enter into collaborative talks on the sacred Black Hills. Should any negotiations be made, time is of the essence.
However, talk of negotiations for the sacred Black Hills has caused leaders and members of the grassroots Lakota community to grow uneasy. According to many traditionalists, any negotiation of the Black Hills would be a direct violation of the sacred canupa (or ‘sacred pipe’) which was filled and smoked at the signing of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.
“I have always respectfully supported positions of tribal government, and most have been my personal kholas (‘friends’),” Arvol Looking Horse, the nineteenth-generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, told ICTMN. “But I have no choice but to stand up in this serious time that is upon us and remind others about our sacred teachings, and the importance of standing together as the Pte Oyate – the Buffalo Nation.”
For generations, the Lakota people have asserted that the Black Hills are not for sale and have refused monetary settlements while holding fast to the conviction that the Black Hills represent the future and wellbeing of the Lakota people. The Black Hills remain a sacred space to many tribes, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations. Each of which also signed the Fort Laramie Treaty.
A scene from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Courtesy Alexander Gardner.
“As Lakota people, we have to remember that there is a sacred canupa here that was brought to us by the Great Spirit and the White Buffalo Calf Woman. It is the center of our nation,” Looking Horse said. “The White Buffalo Calf Woman said, ‘When you stand with the pipe, you can never break it.’ It’s a spiritual law under the Creator. Once the pipe is violated, no longer can we use the intentions of our ancestors that sealed it.”
From an aerial view, the Black Hills take on the shape of a heart, echoing the Lakota understanding that the Black Hills stand as the heart of Mother Earth.
A satellite image with shaded relief map of Black Hills in west South Dakota. Courtesy National Atlas.
“We, as a spiritual people, have to take care of the heart of Mother Earth,” he said. “The entire place is a very sacred place, and the Black Hills stand as the verified place that goes back to our ceremonies and our sacred sites.”
Looking Horse, who is Cheyenne River Hunkpapa Minicoz'u Iktapzico, cautions that the Black Hills claim should not be negotiated, and that profit should not be made in the name of them. He said this would be no different than extracting gold from the Black Hills. A handful of groups and organizations have emerged in the name of the Black Hills, purporting to fundraise for non-profit causes.
“We shall never have money on our mind when speaking of the heart of Mother Earth, but we should humble ourselves to the sacred space, and protect and uphold that sacredness for our children to come, because this is our way of life,” Looking Horse said. “Things like money and greed don’t even belong there.”
Roger Bird, also Oglala Lakota, stands with Looking Horse, and supports his leadership as the nineteenth-generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe.
“The majority of people today don’t know our culture, our history, or spirituality,” Bird said. “So they don’t understand that because the treaty was signed with the pipe, that treaty cannot be undone. They are going against the pipe, the spirits, and they’re going to hurt themselves and the people.”
According to Bird, expecting a positive outcome from negotiating the Black Hills is futile. Bird paralleled the current attempts to negotiate the treaty with Iktomi, the trickster.
“Iktomi fooled the ducks and gave them red eyes. He told them to close their eyes and dance. When they started dancing, he took a club and started killing them,” Bird said. “We are closing our eyes as the people, just to make money. The people that they are fooling all have red eyes today. They are pretty good with their lies.”
Some traditionalists and members of the grassroots community also call into question the authority and legitimacy of elected tribal officials to act on behalf of the Great Sioux Nation when entering into any treaty talks – for those elected officials represent Indian Reorganization Act governments, which are, essentially, an extension of the U.S. government.
“These tribal councils, when they raise their hand and take an oath under the U.S. flag, the moment they do that, they lose their citizenship as Lakota, because they are swearing under the U.S. flag,” said Bird. “Us traditional people, we don’t put a hand on the bible or swear under the flag. We have our treaty, our eagle staff, and the canupa. These are the things we live by. So when it comes to treaty issues, it has to come back down to the grassroots people.”
Looking Horse, along with other spiritual leaders, honor a traditional responsibility which does not allow for serving in political positions, and government officials today tend to consult primarily with elected officials over spiritual leaders. This is antithetical to traditional decision making.
“My position as the keeper of the sacred pipe is very important, and I’ve always respected that position,” said Looking Horse. “At the age of 12 years old, they told me that I could never use foul language, I must stay with the people, and I can never raise my hand under the U.S. flag. They said you always have to represent your people and stand with that canupa in your hand.”
Looking Horse fears that the federal government awaits the moment that the Lakota people make the first move for compromising the Black Hills, ultimately, breaking the treaty on their own accord. Once those negotiations are made, they cannot be taken back.
“As long as we maintain our way of life and our sacred ceremonies, there shall be life,” said Looking Horse. “But when we start negotiating with the mindset of the modern society, it’s not going to work.”
“Once we cut the heart of Mother Earth in half for negotiation and money, we will cut our own hearts,” said Looking Horse. “One day, we will understand how much we are connected to all that is."