“South Dakota” no more!

After reading South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed into law a bill that would allow teachers to carry firearms in public schools, I found myself cursing the state of South Dakota and its backward logics. I started to think of all the times in my life I’ve found myself cursing “South Dakota” as an abstract idea–the state, its people, its border towns, its good ol’ boy attitude, its self-congratulating history, its violent colonial logics and laws, etc. Then I started thinking about everything I loved about the idea of South Dakota, which included the place I call my home, my friends, my family, my allies, the land, the history of struggle against settler colonial oppression, the songs, the stories, the hardships, the winters, the long drives, the hospitality, etc. Then I though harder about how were “South” and “Dakota” commensurable?

What was then Dakota Territory from 1861 to 1889 was split into two states that became North Dakota and South Dakota. The territory and states derived their names from the D/N/Lakota Oyate (or the Oceti Sakowin Oyate). “Dakota” or “Nakota” or “Lakota” is commonly understood to mean “ally” or “the people” or “the nation.” Adding the “wo” in front of “D/N/Lakota” to become “Wolakota” sums up the philosophy of the Oceti Sakowin way of being. Wolakota means that which is balance and harmonious (human and non-human), the D/N/Lakota way of life, way of being, and way of knowing. It is the core philosophy of how one relates to the rest of the world with dignity and respect, honoring relationships and the seeking of balance in one’s life and with all of this material reality (which includes everything from the water, the birds, your human relations, stones, the land, etc.). To acknowledge this centering of relationships in your everyday is the very philosophy of Mitakuye Oyasin.

So how does the state of South Dakota honor these ways of knowing by adopting the name “Dakota”? The state has had little respect for the D/N/Lakota Oyate, given its history of land dispossession and attempts to usurp treaty rights and the very existence of the D/N/Lakota Oyate. The state has not and is not an “ally” or representative of “the people.” I could go into a diatribe of the state’s history of dispossession and hostility towards the D/N/Lakota Oyate, but I have committed my life’s work to unworking and unsettling those narratives and violent settler colonial logics. Plus, there are many books, published materials, stories, and lived experiences of Native people in the state that serve as testimonials to these injustices.

My point, however, is to address the negative thoughts and word I have flung in the face of the state of South Dakota, which provides a certain contradiction. In lambasting the state, I have included the “Dakota” and in South Dakota to do so. In a twisted logic of my tirades I have in some way defamed and caused harm to the notion of Wolakota and the term of “Dakota” as meaning just the opposite of what the state stands for. Because the state is a settler colonial state that encompasses egregious violences against the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, it is not appropriate that they have assumed OUR name. Therefore, I think is necessary to REFUSE to implicate the Dakota Oyate in the settler colonial violences of the state by REFUSING to put “Dakota” in South Dakota. I don’t know a better way to acknowledge the state without “Dakota” other than to put an “X” in place of it to signal a certain protest and refusal. Much like the “X” has served as a signature of assent in treaty signing, it can be re-worked as a form of refusal to give South X the privilege of perverting what it means to say that one is “Dakota” or “Lakota” or “Nakota.”

Perhaps there is a more clever way of reclaiming “Dakota”. Please share your thoughts.

Hecetu Welo!

Border Towns: Colonial Logics of Violence

I should note that being my first post for this blog that I was born and raised (for the most part) in Chamberlain, SD, which fits the commonly understood notion of being a border town. Chamberlain is geographically located near two reservations–the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and my tribe the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

Photo taken at North Platte, NE on 16/12/2012
Photo taken at North Platte, NE on 12/16/2012

On my way back home from school in Albuquerque, NM, I drove through North Platte, NE. North Platte is an historic site that is positioned on the most southern border of treaty land designated as “Sioux Territory” by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. As I turned North onto Highway 83 from I-76, this is the site that welcomed by return to the treaty lands of my people, the Oceti Sakowin Oyate (Nation of the Seven Council Fires).

The image of an American military outpost with highwalls and armaments is metaphorical of the historic political and economic currency of border towns–Indians. As much as border towns have historically attempted to keep Natives out (like the high walls of the fort suggest), their political and economic livelihood is intrinsically dependent on Native people and land.

This prompted me to think about the concept of border towns. Native and non-Native people constantly refer to border towns, as if it is commonly understood term. But what exactly is a border town? How does it function?

Here are some broader definitions I came up with listed in no particular order:

  • Geographic location near an Indian reservation and/or community;
  • Dependent upon Native resources such as: land, cheap labor, water, mineral resources, and economies;
  • In some cases Native people are dependent upon border towns for basic needs such as: employment, food, education, access to health services, access to social services, and conducting business in general;
  • Disproportionate wealth and living conditions between non-Native and Native people living in or dependent on border towns;
  • Disproportionate criminal conviction rate of Native people when compared to non-Native people;
  • and, Disproportionate violence against Native women.

I researched scholarly definitions of border towns and Native people, but only found legal and civil/human rights commissions reports that deal with border town issues. So these definitions are solely mine as defined by my personal experience and research. Yet, given these broad definitions of border towns, border towns are not wholly unique to the Great Plains or the United States. These definitions parallel the relationship between First World and Third World nations.

Take for example, border towns on the border between Mexico and the United States. Why is there such a distinct, disproportionate level of violence and poverty on one side and not the other? Most people blame drugs as the sole motivating factor for the escalation of violence on the border. But, it begs the questions: who and what is fueling this demand for drugs? Why have we forgotten about NAFTA? Considering how critics of NAFTA determined the negative effects it would have on Mexico, criticism of NAFTA has been all but forgotten. Because sustained criticism of NAFTA has been abandoned does not mean U.S.’s continued exploitation and economic dependence on unfair market conditions is not a contributing factor to ongoing violence along the border. This relationship the First World has with Third World countries is a global phenomenon of capitalism. The same goes for border town communities in the U.S., except the exchange is different. The violence, however, is similar.

It seems, however, just like in the case of forgetting the devastating effects NAFTA would have on Mexico, the violence that accompanied the invasion of America by European colonizers is rendered as an historic occurance that has no bearing in the present. America sees itself as abandoning these past violences–morally moving beyond them. Using the distance of time to abandon and forget the violent past is a trick that does not interrogate the present disparities that exist in border towns, nor the violences they perpetuate.

The idea of borders are meant to create boundaries between people–physical spaces that are meant to keep out and keep in. They define who is deemed worthy and therefore included. Conversely, they define who is deemed unworthy and excluded. Internally, within the settlements around which borders are constructed, the morals and values constructed by those who are worthy are thus used to define those who belong. Those who are meant to be excluded and deemed unworthy decidedly do not constitute a valid existence when they transgress borders into communities that do not want them there.

Likewise, if we take into consideration the United States in the broader context of the history of colonialism, every settlement in America benefits from Native land dispossession. This dispossession was by no means peaceful. It was and is the primary motivating factor for the continuation of colonial violence in the present. Further study needs to take place that examines the logics behind border towns as an historic and contemporary phenomenon.

To be continued.