Oglala Lakota Face Tumultuous Times

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Tim Giago Founder, Native American Journalists Association

Just seven years after the occupation of the village at Wounded Knee by members of the American Indian Movement in 1973, the U. S. Census of 1980 proclaimed Shannon County, the heart of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, "The poorest county in America."

There are those who consider the occupation of Wounded Knee 34 years ago as the anniversary of the liberation of the Oglala Lakota people. Liberation of what to what? When a nation is liberated doesn't that suggest things are going to improve? Didn't the United States call the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq a liberation?

AIM came on to the Pine Ridge Reservation with high hopes. Like so many Indians they were frustrated by the baskets of red tape that stymied progress and by the preferential treatment doled out to those in power. It was an ongoing problem in 1973 and it is an ongoing problem in 2007.

When the people of the reservation elected Cecelia Fire Thunder to serve as their first woman president they hoped that by electing a woman the tribe would get off of the dime that has negated progress these many years. They believed that such a dramatic shift in leadership would shake up the status quo and bring about peace and eventually, prosperity.

But an inconsequential non-issue called abortion muddied the waters. As a former nurse who had been a first hand witness to rape, incest and unwanted babies, Fire Thunder took her stand as pro-choice. It was her downfall. She was impeached. The vice president of the tribe, Alex White Plume, filled her office.

I have known White Plume for many years and have always considered him to be a good man. He was caught up in the circumstances of tribal politics but he filled the job required of him to the fullest. When election time rolled around someone dug up a fact sheet that listed White Plume as having committed a felonious crime. Although more than 20 years had elapsed since this alleged event and the supposed crime had been reduced to a misdemeanor, White Plume's name was stricken from the ballot.

The former three-time president of the tribe, John Yellow Bird Steele, was the eventual victor in the election, but even he knew that things just didn't sit right with this election. He suggested that a set of independent judges be brought in to review the entire election process on the reservation.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is 100 miles long and 50 miles wide. About 20,000 people inhabit it. About 90 percent of the population is Oglala Lakota. There are four high schools and several middle schools on the reservation. There is one college on the reservation. Oglala Lakota College is located near Kyle and the college has extensions in all of the reservation districts. The tribal government charters the college.

The tribe has one casino located off of Highway 79 near the off-reservation community of Oelrichs. While still president, Fire Thunder initiated a loan from the casino-rich Mdewakanton Tribe of Shakopee, Minnesota for $30 million. The money was used to pay off outstanding debts and to expand and improve the existing casino.

There is still an unsettled feeling amongst the Oglala Lakota people. They feel that they have been cheated of their votes on the last election. Many feel that Alex White Plume would have been the eventual winner if he had been allowed to remain on the ballot. They are still upset that the ballot issue came up just two weeks before the election and they believe it should have been settled long before the election was held.

The people of the Pine Ridge Reservation have been in a near constant turmoil since the occupation of Wounded Knee. Too much finger pointing and blame placing has taken place since then. AIM was not 100 percent right or innocent and neither was the tribal government. And both have to take the blame for what has happened since 1973.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was intended to allow the Indian tribes in America to set up democratic forms of government. Most tribes restructured under the Act, but some tribe like the Navajo Nation, did not accept the provisions of the Act and did not become IRA governments. The tribal government at Pine Ridge is an IRA government and some tribal members find this to be objectionable.

A casino is not the answer, either politically or financially, to the problems at Pine Ridge. Different groups need to stop living in the past and start taking a serious look at the situation as it exists today. As one elder said, "We are all one people and neither AIM nor the IRA government can take this from us. We are Oglala Lakota and that name comes without labels."

(McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 - 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM ( published his latest book, "Children Left Behind")