Common Sense Anti-Indianism: Border Town Violence in Rapid City, SD

Paper originally presented at the 15th Annual American Indian Studies Association Conference, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, February 6, 2014. This essay is a shorter version of a longer, in-depth analysis. 

NOTE: For those interested on the research and theoretical work I’ve been doing on border towns since 2012, see: Border Towns: Colonial Logics of Violence, Indian Casino Cartels or Alcohol Cartels? Farmington, NM, First Nations Sculpture Garden: Rapid City and the Politics of Stolen Ground, Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible, and Insanity: Chamberlain, SX and the D/Lakota Honor Song Controversy.

“[T]he ubiquitous denial of Anti-Indianism in our lives and in our scholarship obscures our necessary understanding that there is almost always reason behind tragedy.”
—Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

“Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
—Walter Benjamin

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On Tuesday, August 2, 2011, the Rapid City Police Department was rocked by the unprovoked shooting of three on-duty officers. While conducting a routine stop…, a male suspect pulled out a concealed weapon and began firing. Officer Nick Armstrong, who was patrolling on a bicycle as part of the Street Crimes Unit was struck first. Officer Tim Doyle was shot in the face, but was able to freturn [sic] fire with [sic] the suspect. Officer Ryan McCandless was also hit, and fired 14 shots before falling.

Officer McCandless died later that day. Officer Armstrong died four days later. As Doyle fought to recover, the department, community, and law enforcement agencies from across the country came together as a family to grieve for our fallen heroes. [Emphases added]


Printed on the second page of the Rapid City Police Department’s (RCPD) 2011 Annual Report is a black and white photograph (see above image) of mainly white onlookers of all ages looking northward on Rapid City’s Mount Rushmore Road toward an oncoming procession. A motorcade of emergency vehicles escorts the bodies of two Rapid City Police (RCP) officers, Nick Armstrong and Ryan McCandless, killed in the line of duty. The picture evokes the well-known images of the “Fallen Heroes” of 9/11. Even the photo’s caption—“Fallen Heroes”—arouses parallels with the “unforgettable” tragedy.[1]

This essay critically interrogates the shooting-deaths of the two RCP officers and the twenty-two-year-old Oglala “male suspect,” Daniel Tiger. I read the August 2 shootings as a spectacle of colonial violence that does political and emotional work, often obscuring and displacing histories and realities of colonial occupation and violence. Kahnewake scholar Audra Simpson identifies these colonial spectacles as especially useful “because they continue to redirect emotions, histories, and possibilities away from the means of societal and historical—Indigenous dispossession, disenfranchisement, and containment.”[2] Furthermore, the language of the 2011 report elicits feelings of unanticipated consequences of a routine stop resulting in the “unprovoked shooting” of three RCP officers. Absent from the official narrative, however, is the routineness of stopping Native people in Rapid City and the history of colonial dispossession that epitomizes the city’s antagonistic relationship with the Oyate.[3] The report also invokes feelings of belonging to a “community” that came together as a “family” to mourn and grieve the tragedy of “fallen heroes”—the violent deaths of RCP officers. Routineness gave way to tragedy. Tragedy gave way to collective mourning as community, as family. Yet, both terms—family and community—engender a sense of belonging, loyalty, commitment, and idealized sense of collectivity that, through emotional investment and responsible samaritanship, promises happiness. Fulfilling the promise of happiness is contingent upon committing oneself to family, community, or nation with the expectation of reciprocation, even if happiness is deferred, never achieved, or violently disrupted.[4] Or, in the case of the August 2 shootings, community and family are defined through a sense of collective loss and collective mourning.

Benedict Anderson theorizes that collective tragedy or mourning fuels “emotional legitimacy” to “nation-ness”—or the transforming of fatality into national continuity. In this sense, family and community (or nation) become the objects of futurity, which require investments in time, energy, resources, and emotions.[5] Threats to sense of national futurity must be vigilantly guarded against as one would protect property through the use of force and violence. Thus, in the case of a predominantly white border town, whiteness becomes, as legal scholar Cheryl Harris argues, a form of property, or “whiteness as property,” that must be defended and upheld through law, social norms, and the exercise of violence.[6]

It is here at the multiple sites of community, family, whiteness, and property that produce spectacles of colonial violence and emotional economies that isolate, exclude, and cause unnatural deaths to “ungrievable” Native bodies. These emotional economies are historically contingent moral, political, economic, and social realities that produce what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feelings.” These structures of feelings are “changes of presence,” or experienced realities “while they are being lived” or “when they have been lived.” While they are “emergent or pre-emergent,” they are not adequately defined or rationalized, but felt and/or enacted,[7] which produce what Antonio Gramsci defines as common sense, or a type of “historical becoming” that is a set of perceptions and feelings that are continually transforming and emerging.[8] Ultimately, common sense assembles a moral economy of feelings and emotions based on structures of feelings. This common sense, everyday affective response to historic and ongoing Native bodily violence and dispossession in Rapid City generates what Dakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn identifies as “anti-Indianism.”[9] When coupled with colonial occupation and border town realities, they produce what I call anti-Indianism as common sense.

To this effect, I examine how the legal and moral systems currently in place in Rapid City produce mobilize anti-Indian sentiment through everyday common sense, affect, and ideological practice. Through the routineness of policing Native bodies, Daniel Tiger’s violent act brought the hushed silence of everyday violences Natives experience to a public space that resulted in the destruction of his own body along with two RCP officers. This particular colonial violence is what Achille Mbembe describes as the “phenomenology of violence” or the “spirit of violence” that “insinuates itself into the economy, the domestic life, language consciousness. It does more than penetrate every space: it pursues the colonized even in sleep and dream. It produces a culture; it is a culture of praxis.”[10]

Rapid City: Border Town

To know Rapid City, however, we must begin with the acknowledgement that it has been historically at the heart of colonial empire and occupation of Oyate treaty and ancestral homelands. Much in the same way to know global finance capital is to the know its epicenter, its capital, New York City; and to know the militarization of the globe is to know Washington, D.C. as its capital. Colonial outposts, or border towns, inhabit and make up the spaces in between the epicenters of settler colonial occupation. They encapsulate the entrepreneurial and brute force of invasion and occupation, simultaneously speculative (boom and bust) and inherently coercive toward Native land and populations. Marking historical transitions of the political economy of the Indian Wars, settlement, statehood, and economic development, the Black Hills (or He Sapa) were (and are) a central feature for the forceful subduing of the Oyate. Likewise, Rapid City served as a “gateway” for this occupying force of colonial capitalism.

Following the “Great Sioux War of 1876,” boomers and speculators highly coveted the 24 million acres of “Sioux Territory” set aside for protection under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The 1877 Black Hills Act through stroke of the pen accomplished what could not be achieved through brute force. It “legally” ceded through Congress’ plenary power the area known as the Black Hills, which constituted a violation of the “trust responsibility” for over 1.3 million acres of treaty land.[11] Enforcing this seizure, however, did not mean the invaders peaceably accumulated land through legal reasoning alone. Prospects of statehood and economic development would require extending the U.S. military campaigns of outright extermination to low level skirmishes with Oyate to shore up territorial security and permanence.

“Dakota fever” plagued early settlers from 1878 to 1887. Coming out of a five-year national economic recession, plans for a yeoman farming empire in the western half of Dakota Territory fueled the mass settlement of He Sapa and the surrounding plains of Sioux Territory. The population of settlers and prospectors in the area doubled from 1880 to 1890.  Acreage of land deeds also correlated with the population boom, soaring from 163,739 acres in 1877 to 941,800 acres in 1878 and finally 1,123,233 acres in 1887.[12] What was known as the “Great Dakota Boom” entailed the speculative investment of railroads, mining, homesteading, and ranching in Oyate territory. The only thing that stood in the way of securing occupation was the task of further containment, dispossession, and elimination of the “hostile element among the Indians who want to rove at will and live as formerly in their wild state.”[13]

Granted statehood on March 4, 1889, South Dakota’s state government began culling anxiety and hatred toward the Oyate: “Early developers firmly believed the only way to improve economic conditions in the state was to move Indians out of the way.”[14] Rapid City and the town’s newspaper, The Rapid City Journal, became ground zero for calling for increase arms and policing of Native peoples. In fact, the infamous South Dakota Home Guard, euphemistically known as “The Cowboy Militia,” headquartered in Rapid City, became the vigilante arm for policing the Oyate if they left the reservation. In early December of 1890, they gave insidious meaning behind the phrase “off the reservation” when they slaughtered seventy-five Lakota near the Cheyenne River for leaving the Pine Ridge reservation.[15] The Journal and the Home Guard’s calls for war and extermination came to a head when the Seventh Calvary massacred about 300 Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. Dissatisfied with the outcomes of the so-called “Indian War of 1890-1891,” South Dakota settlers further complained that the Oyate had not been adequately punished, since not an acre of land was ceded and they had not been exterminated nor fully removed: “In frontier parlance, the Indian problem had not been settled.”[16]

The failure of not settling the “Indian problem” through physical extermination extended into the twentieth century as federal Indian policy moved from removal to assimilation policies. Although Rapid City remained the colonial epicenter for western South Dakota, on June 21, 1906 Congress granted 1,391 acres of land to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the construction of the Rapid City Indian School, which would annually house 250 Native students until its closing in 1934. From 1934 to 1956, the 1,391 acres were eventually sold off to the Rapid City School District (14 acres in 1948), the City of Rapid City (200 acres in 1949 and 27 acres in 1952), the South Dakota National Guard (673 acres in 1950), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (27 acres in 1953), the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Board (118 acres in 1974), and various Christian churches (263 acres from 1948 to 1956). The Indian Health Service retained 42 acres for Sioux Sanitarium Hospital and 27 acres were set aside for the establishment of Sioux Addition in 1962. Despite the “trust responsibilities” of Congress, little or no consent from the Oyate was given to validate these land exchanges and jurisdictional incorporation into the Rapid City municipality.[17] Much historical scholarship has focused on the usurpation of large swaths of land from the Oyate following the Great Dakota Boom and 1887 Allotment Act, but little if any scholarly attention has been paid to the historic processes of urban land dispossessions in border towns like Rapid City.[18]

The creation of the Sioux Addition in 1962 just north of the Rapid City’s city limits concentrated the Native urban population, but also ghettoized what would become known as North Rapid City. The Native residents of North Rapid City were largely cut-off from the city proper, without sewage and running water, voting rights, and adequate roads and infrastructure. Furthermore, the geographic and structural oppression Natives experienced in North Rapid City dispelled the relocation and termination logics of reservations being rural isolated pockets of poverty.[19]

Life Lived in the Negative

In the Associated Press’ Great Plains award-winning August 7, 2011 article, “No Words Could Ease Such Grief,” Rapid City Journal reporter, Kevin Woster, writes the August 2 “unfathomable act of violence by a young Native American man, 22-year-old Daniel Tiger” resonates with the local Rapid City community grieving the loss of two RCP officers killed in the line of duty. “[T]he apparent perpetrator of this horrible act,” writes Woster, “was himself a human tragedy, with loved ones here [in Rapid City] who hurt.” Officers Ryan McCandless and Nick Armstrong, he continues, “made dozens of stops each week similar to the one they made with Tiger and three companions,” and the felled officers were “in the business of saving such kids from themselves, and from disastrous conclusions.”[20] While the RCP officers lives were honored with words that “could not ease such grief,” the life and death of Daniel Tiger was chalked up as a “human tragedy.” His life could only be saved from itself. This was the official report.

And that report went something like this: on August 2, 2011 at approximately 4:20 p.m. RCP officer Tim Doyle responded to what was described as a “routine stop” of four individuals who “appeared to be under the influence of alcohol” in a North Rapid City neighborhood at the intersections of East Anamosa Street and Greenbriar Streets.[21] Shortly after officer Doyle approached the individuals, officers Nick Armstrong and Ryan McCandless arrived on scene.  After officers failed to obtain the identity of Daniel Tiger (Oglala), he revealed a .357 caliber revolver and opened fire on the officers killing Armstrong and McCandless and wounding Doyle. Tiger’s shooting and killing of the officers was ruled as an “unprovoked” attack. In the exchange Tiger also sustained gunshot wounds and died the next day. In an official investigation by South Dakota State’s Attorney, a witness’ interview alleges Tiger disclosed the following: “he wanted to die because he had no job, no home, and nothing to live for; he was facing prison time if he got caught and did not want to go prison; he wanted to go out with a bang.”[22] Another Journal article detailed a long wrap sheet of seventeen charges that included assault against a law enforcement officer, “violent or gang-related offenses,” alcohol and drug possession, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. In 2008, Tiger served a five month prison sentence was paroled and sent back for eleven more months for a parole violation. At the time of August 2 shooting, Tiger was on a 30-day suspended jail sentence for assault.[23]

Although an adult at the time of the shooting, Tiger’s story represents a common reality many Native youth face in Rapid City. Lakota journalist Jesse Abernathy, for example, surmises that the Rapid City school district works in tandem with the Department of Corrections in the targeting the school system’s high Native population is a “school-to-prison-pipeline.” Investigating the school district’s “Zero Tolerance” policies and hiring of uniformed officers, Abernathy notes the rise in policing of Native students through the Pennington County Sheriff Department’s partnership with Rapid City public schools. With a Native high school dropout rate of over fifty percent, children as young as eleven and twelve receive harsher sentences than adults through Juvenile Detention Center-sponsored “alternative education.” As a result around seventy percent of students in JDC-sponsored education programs end up at a Department of Corrections facility, sometimes remaining there until they are twenty one.[24]

Moreover, South Dakota’s prison incarceration rates are significantly higher than the neighboring states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. With an overall decrease in crime down nine percent from the last two decades, South Dakota’s imprisonment rate is ten times higher than the national average, growing over 500 percent since 1977 (720 inmates) to 2012 (3,600 inmates). Of the 3,600 inmates, Native inmates number close 1,110, over thirty percent of the total population while only constituting about nine percent (73,835 as of 2010) of the state’s population (833,354 as of 2010).[25]

In Rapid City, as of 2012 Native inmates make up more than forty-two percent of the inmate population (around 70 inmates total on average) of the Pennington County Jail and serve thirty-seven percent of all the time served by the total inmate population.[26] This overrepresentation stands in stark contrast to the fact that Natives make up twelve percent (8,662 as of 2010) of the total population of Rapid City (69,854 as of 2012). The hyper-incarceration rates of Natives in Rapid City is greater than the reservation-based incarceration rates. These incarceration rates also correlate directly with reservation-based and urban poverty of Natives. For example, forty-eight percent of South Dakota’s Native population lives below the poverty line, while in Rapid City Native poverty rates exceed fifty percent.[27]

These statistics disrupt the narratives of reservations being pockets of rural poverty and crime. The fact is that the urban Native population in Rapid City is more likely to live in poverty and be arrested than reservation-based Native populations in South Dakota. In this sense, Rapid City as a colonial border town functions to negate the Oyate’s presence through increased structural oppression. In the case of Daniel Tiger and the Journal’s pathologizing of his criminal and deviant behavior, August 2 brought to bear the public, hushed secret of Native oppression and disenfranchisement. But the routineness of the August 2 stop had a brutal and violent precedent.

On May 7, 2010 twenty-two-year-old college-bound Oglala man, James Capps, was shot five times in the back from fourteen feet away by Pennington County Deputy Sherriff’s Deputy David Olson for allegedly reaching in his pocket when commanded to turn around. Capps was unarmed except for a piece of driftwood found near his body. Officer Olson pursued Capps for allegedly stealing a bicycle. An internal investigation revealed Olson’s killing of Capps was “justifiable.”[28] Prior to these shooting deaths, eight men’s bodies (six of whom were Lakota) were found drowned in Rapid Creek between 1998 and 1999. Although many suspected foul play, the RCPD ruled the deaths of Benjamin Long Wolf, George Hatten, Alan Hough, Randelle Two Crow, Loren Two Bulls, Dirk Bartling, Arthur Chamberlain, and Timothy Bull Bear as drowning after drinking heavily.[29]

No public ceremony was held to commemorate Tiger, Capps, or the eight drowning victims. Although the Oyate publicly protested in 2010 and 2011 after the deaths of Capps and Tiger in what has been labeled as “war against Natives by the RCPD,” RCP Chief Steve Allender reasoned at a community forum in March 2012 that there is no war and that: “There are so many sides to the story. We have the Native people, who want to see the land given back, and the people who are more assimilated into non-Native culture; and the people who are very traditional… All of these groups are asking for different things and it is difficult to determine what we are supposed to do.”[30] In one sweeping statement, Allender equated the Oyate to a spatially and temporally fractured community of those who were too Native and those not Native enough—or read differently, Natives presence still remains a spectacle for conjecture. Lenape scholar Joanne Barker observes this kind of logic as enabling the production of legal and social justifications for whites occupying Native lands. She writes, “Natives are never quite Native enough to deserve the distinction and rights granted to them under the law which extends ‘special’ rights and privileges to Natives out the benevolence of those in power.”[31] Asking why the RCPD was not outraged over the unnatural deaths and killing of the Lakota men, Elaine Holy Eagle posed the question more than a decade earlier at a 1999 community forum: “Is it because people are conditioned to believe it’s okay if an Indian person is killed?”[32]

Indeed the August 2, 2011 shooting deaths of two RCP officers at the hands of Daniel Tiger ruptured and brought to the surface Native lives lived in the negative of the colonial border town of Rapid City. It was never a question if the unnatural deaths of Natives at the hands of police or the everyday violences experienced under occupation were to be grieved. They are simply ungrievable. Nonetheless, the mass incarceration and criminalization of Native bodies is seen as an everyday lived reality. Anti-Indianism as common sense, as an historical phenomenon, left unchallenged, renders Native lives as the disposable refuse of an unfavorable history and therefore ineligible for meaningful mourning, personhood, and realization.

[1] Emphases added. Rapid City Police Department, Annual Report 2011 (Rapid City: City of Rapid City, 2012), 5.

[2] Audra Simpson, “Settlement’s Secret,” Cultural Anthropology 26(2) (2011), 206-207.

[3] I use the term Oyate to describe the Oceti Sakowin (Nation of the Seven Council Fires or the Great Sioux Nation). Although “Sioux” is the most common name, it is also a contentious label that was given to the Oyate. Official titles of the Oyate do, however, use “Sioux” as a general description (such as the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, etc.). For the proposes of reclaiming and claiming what we have historically and continue to call ourselves, I will use Oyate to describe the people and nations of the Oceti Sakowin or “The Great Sioux Nation.”

[4] See Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2012).

[5] Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” in The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and J. Seigworth (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 38.

[6] Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106(8): 1707-1794.

[7] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 131-132.

[8] Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 326n5. I draw specifically on the the translators’ note that provides an alternative translation of Gramsci’s definition of common sense as “part of the historical process.” They write: “In the original ‘un divenire storico’—historical becoming. For this aspect of common sense see Int., p. 144: ‘Every social stratum has its own “common sense” and its own “good sense”, which are basically the most widespread conception of life and of man. Every philosophical current leaves behind a sedimentation of “common sense”: this is the document of its historical effectiveness. Common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life. “Common sense” is the folklore of philosophy, and is always half-way between folklore properly speaking and the philosophy, science, and economics of specialists. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a give place and time.”

[9] Cook-Lynn writes, “The traits of Anti-Indianism are as follows: first and foremost, it is the sentiment that results in unnatural death to Indians. Anti-Indianism is that which treats Indians and their tribes as though they don’t exist, the sentiment suggests that Indian nationhood (i.e., tribalism) should be disavowed and devalued. It is anything in history and literature that does not invest itself in Indian audiences. Second, Anti-Indianism is that which denigrates, demonizes, and insults being Indian in America. The third trait of Anti-Indianism is the use of historical event and experience to place the blame on Indians for an unfortunate and dissatisfying history. And, finally, Anti-Indianism is that which exploits and distorts cultures and beliefs. All of these traits have conspired to isolate, to expunge or expel, to menace, to defame.” In Anti-Indianism, x.

[10] Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 173, 175.

[11] Mario Gonzalez in Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle of Indian Sovereignty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 137.

[12] Herber Schell, History of South Dakota, 4th ed. (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2004), 158-159.

[13] General Nelson Miles quoted on December 15, 1890 in Rapid City, SD in Philip Hall’s To Have This Land: The Nature of Indian/White Relations, South Dakota, 1888-1891 (Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press, 1991), 136.

[14] Hall, 2.

[15] Gonzalez, The Politics of Hallowed Ground, 177.

[16] Hall, 128.

[17] U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Sioux Sanitorium Lands, Rapid City, South Dakota (Aberdeen: BIA Area Office, 1974).

[18] See for example: Jeffery Ostler, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism From Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (New York: Viking, 2010).

[19] U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Urban Indian Problems: Subcommittee Hearing at Rapid City, SD on September 8, 1971 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Press, 1971).

[20] Kevin Woster, “Personal Column: No Words Could Ease Such Grief,” Rapid City Journal, August 7, 2011.

[21] Kevin Woster, “‘Routine stop’ turned into a nightmare,” Rapid City Journal, August 3, 2011; State of South Dakota, Office of the Attorney General, Rapid City Police Department Shooting Summary Detailing Events that Took Place on August 2, 2011 (Pierre, 2011), 1.

[22] State of South Dakota, 1-3.

[23] David Montgomery, “Shooting Suspect had Long History of Trouble,” Rapid City Journal, August 4, 2011.

[24] Jesse Abernathy, “Educators Discuss School to Prison Pipeline,” Native Sun News, November 7, 2011.

[25] State of South Dakota, South Dakota Criminal Justice Initiative, Final Report November 2012 (Pierre: 2012).

[26] Andrea Cook, “Violent Crime Rates Rising in Rapid City,” Rapid City Journal, February 26, 2013.

[27] Suzanne Macartney, Alemeyehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011: American Community Survey Briefs (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2013), 1, 10.

[28] Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy David Olson Shooting Summary that Occurred on May 2, 2010 (Rapid City: Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, 2010).

[29] Chet Brokaw, “Multiple Drownings Stymie South Dakota Police,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 1999.

[30] Karin Eagle, “Racial Tensions are Still High in Rapid City,” Native Sun News, March 30, 2012.

[31] Joanne Barker, Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[32] Eagle.

Why Chamberlain, SX is Indefensible

NOTE: Unless cited, I use “X” in place of “Dakota” in “South Dakota” or “SD” to show respect for the Dakota people and reclaim the name from anti-Indian state governments and institutions. Dakota means “ally” and WoDakota means “peace and harmony.” Neither of these two meanings reflect the beliefs and attitudes of state governments towards Dakota people.

Chamberlain Must Go!

“The racist town of Chamberlain should be erased from the map!” Elizabeth Cook-Lynn declared to a standing-room only crowd of Natives and non-Natives who erupted into applause, cheers, and high pitched LE-LE-LE-LEs this summer at the Ite Sni symposium held at School of Mines campus. The elder Native stateswoman spoke about her life growing up in Crow Creek during the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the profound anti-Indian sentiment she experienced in the towns of Chamberlain and Oacoma. She made reference to the fact that anti-Indianism in Chamberlain has a long history and tradition; and the school board’s continued battle to fight the singing of a D/Lakota honor song at a high school commencement ceremony is testament to this tradition. So we shouldn’t be surprised. We shouldn’t be mad, angry Indians, because we should just expect Chamberlain to behave the way Chamberlain does.

What was most surprising was that everyone had a common sense about Chamberlain being a racist town, even, ironically, non-Native members of the Rapid City community! But what is Chamberlain’s historic anti-Indian common sense and why is it so productive in protecting its whiteness? Before this question can be adequately answered, we should turn to the history of Chamberlain.

Anti-Indian History

When the infamous Lewis and Clark expedition began to navigate through “hostile” Sioux territory in late September 1804, they camped on sandbars and tried to avoid the Teton Sioux nation whom the explorers described as “vilest miscreants of the savage race.” Soon the “miscreants” discovered the explorers and a tense three day stand-off took place at what is now the Big Bend of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation. Lewis and Clark did not want to pay passage for their trespassing and soon kidnapped the son of a chief to guarantee their safe travel. This transgression set the precedent of Lakota-U.S. relations in the area. The behavior of succeeding settlers in the area changed little.

After Lewis and Clark came trappers and traders that began to settle near the Whetstone Agency, which was south of present-day Oacoma. Fleeing for their lives from the murderous, total war campaign waged by Colonel Henry Sibley to round up and exterminate the refugees of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, Dakota relatives took shelter in the bluffs along the Missouri River at present-day Chamberlain. Thousands of Dakota men, women, and children were killed for scalp bounties for their participation in the 1862 uprising. Lakota relatives pitied the Dakota who fled the war and helped hide them among their camps. The place where they hid became known as Tipi Maka Oyanke, or Cave Dwellers Camp.

Chamberlain was formally founded as a railroad town in 1881 and served as the gateway for gold miners seeking fortunes in the opening of the Black Hills in 1877. Richard H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, attempted to coax the Oyate (the Great Sioux Nation) into opening up the “Great Sioux Reservation” in 1888. This became known as the Pratt Commission. Anti-Indian sentiment in “Dakota Territory” fueled indignation towards the Oyate’s refusal to capitulate with the Pratt Commission, thus the measure failed. Leaders in Dakota Territory then pressured Congress to pass a bill of force sale to open up the the “Great Sioux Reservation.”

This bill became known as the “Sioux bill” of 1888 and resulted in the forced sale of over 9 million acres of land to be opened for homesteading. Some of the land was purchased at less than a dollar an acre. Some was “given away free” to white settlers. It remains as one the largest mass, illegal dispossessions of Native land in U.S. history.

In To Have This Land, historian Philip S. Hall recounts:

Citizens throughout the territory, particularly those in the Black Hills and along the Missouri River, were overjoyed. Many held formal celebrations with bonfires, speeches and parades. Chamberlain held a grand inaugural reservation ball. Partygoers there were entertained by young [white] men dressed and painted as Indians galloping their horses through the streets and staging war dances on the corners. The citizens held a mock sitting of the Pratt Commission as an expression of their contempt for the men who had failed to open the reservation.

In 1898, the Bureau of Indian Affairs founded Chamberlain Indian School on the land that is now St. Joseph’s Indian School and was once Crow Creek trust land all the way to American Creek. That same year, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was built in Canton, SX. Many D/Lakota children and adults from the Lower Brule and Crow Creek agencies were forced to attend these institutions, which functioned to domesticate, often violently and sometimes resulting in death, young children, “sexually deviant” adults, and medicine people. What this meant, in some cases, was the lobotomization of those deemed sexually or behaviorally immoral, or those that were winkte or “talked to spirits.”  Boarding school children were violently disciplined to adhere to the moral standards of white settler society. To say these institutions served as places for just assimilation is an act of violence. These were institutions of genocide intent on stripping Native people from any semblance of themselves.

In 1909, the Chamberlain Indian School closed its doors, but the boarding school model was re-established on the former BIA school’s lands by Roman Catholic Priest Henry Hogebach. Canton Asylum remained open until 1934, taking in hundreds of Native peoples from around the U.S.—nine of ten died at the asylum. The remaining trust lands north of American Creek eventually became incorporated into Chamberlain’s jurisdiction.

In 1944, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Act, which channeled federal dollars towards damming the Missouri River. Nine sites were designated for dams, most of which were on Sioux Indian reservations. Facing the dual threats of federal termination policy and the inundation of agency buildings in the early 1950s, Crow Creek and Lower Brule were forced to negotiate with local communities about possible sites for relocating their vital infrastructure. South X congressmen E. Y. Berry and Francis Case advocated for relocating the agencies and reservation services to Chamberlain. In response to proposed move and possibility of integrating the white community with the two tribal agencies, the Brule County Commissioners issued the following in 1951:

[The Brule County Commissioners] hereby expresses its firm belief that if such [agency] offices are moved within Brule County that as a result of such move Brule County would necessarily be forced to provide the necessaries of life for a considerable number of reservation members moving into the county, and this would place an intolerable financial burden on Brule County, South Dakota.

In 1954, the Mayor of Chamberlain Hershel V. Melcher echoed the Commissioners plea with a more threatening tone:

Lately the Indian Offices at Fort Thompson, S.D. say they want to move into Chamberlain, S.D., [and it] seems they want to come whether we like it or not. Some of the boys in the Community Club seem to favor it but the people in town are most all against it. If they come in here, it will be necessary to declare open season on Indians and Government Agents, we do not feel that we are entitled to this kind of abuse from the government and we do not intend to take it peacefully… The people of Brule County do not feel we should be saddled with a relief load for Indians, that is the job of the Federal Government, and we do not intend to let an Indian light around here at all. We do not want to live with them, we don’t want them in our schools… [W]e advise you that if it come in [sic], we will then do everything we can to get rid of it and to make them wish they were not here. We do not intend to even be gentlemen about it, this is an unjust imposition on us any way you look at it.

The City Commissioners also passed the following resolution:

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED by the City Commission of the City of Chamberlain, Brule County, South Dakota, that we are opposed to the moving of the Indian Offices from Ft. Thompson, S.D., to the City of Chamberlain, S.D., for all the above reasons and for the further reasons that [it] creates an extra police problem as to drunks and petty larceny. That we therefore strongly oppose any such move to the City of Chamberlain.

Signed: Mayor Hershel V. Melcher, Commissioner C. L. McDonald, Commissioner Frank C. Knippling, Commissioner Willard Wristen, Commissioner Gerrit Brink, and Commissioner Edward C. Martin [then Democrat Candidate for Governor of South Dakota]

Unhappy by the lack of the response, Melcher went on the offensive again:

As I advised you [Congressmen] before, we have no intention of making an Indian comfortable around here, especially an official. We have a few dollar diplomats that have been making a lot of noise and trying to get everyone they possibly could to write you people in Washington that they wanted the Indians in here but the fact is that 90% of the people are strongly opposed to it and will get much more so if this thing come in [sic]. Anybody who rents them any property will have to change his address and I would not want the insurance on his building. We do not feel that this town should be ruined by a mess like this and we do not intend to take this lying down irregardless [sic] of what some official in Washington may think.

These deep-seated anti-Indian sentiments resulted in the relocation of the agencies to Oacoma and eventually back to their respective tribes. But the incident and the culminating history was not forgotten nor lost on the D/Lakota.

Following a string of sex abuses scandals at St. Joseph’s Indian School that have come to light in recent years, a class action law suit was building against the owners of the boarding school, the Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart. Former Native students of the school came forward and testified about the physical and sexual abuse they endured from priests and staff. In 2011, Steven Smith of Chamberlain, and lawyer for Sacred Heart, wrote and submitted a “constituent bill” to the SX state legislature. The bill (HB 1104) “flew through the legislature” and set the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to file civil suits against institutions after the age of forty. Under this law plaintiffs over age 40 may file for damages only from individual perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse. They may not, however, collect damages from institutions such as the Sacred Heart or the religious organizations that hired and supervised the alleged perpetrators. Smith told the Argus Leader in 2010 “nobody knew I was doing this.”

Many have commented on the state’s complicity to cover-up the sexual abuse of Native children at religious boarding schools. Attorney for the Native plaintiffs told the Huffington Post in 2011 that “The South Dakota legislators are on record as passing this bill to get rid of hard-to-defend Native cases.”

This historical survey is one small slice of a larger history of anti-Indian sentiment and behavior. To go into further detail would require a full-length book.


How is it that a town of about 2100 people can have so many “bad apples”? We cannot chalk up the history of the anti-Indianism in Chamberlain to a select few individuals, but it is a history that is endemic to the mentality and common sense of its institutions and white population. The recent controversies of whether or not a D/Lakota honor song appropriately reflects Chamberlain’s “tradition” represents just one instance in a long line of instances in which the vitriolic Indian hating comes to a head.

Board members Rebecca Reimer (President), Jay Blum, Casey Hutmacher, Leann Larson, Dallas Thompson, and Ted Petrak will join the ranks of Chamberlain’s 132 year history of Indian haters for voting against the honor song in May 2013. But these individuals represent an institution, which is supposed to represent the values of the populations it serves. That institution represents the standards of the town and its people.

The Chamberlain school district has caused injury, but it is not an exceptional nor isolated sentiment. It follows the tradition of Chamberlain’s Indian hating. Whenever I tell people where I was born and raised, if they’ve heard of it, their face contorts. “Really? Chamberlain?” they ask. It is personal recognition and repugnance that this small town harbors so much infamy for being racist. But racist is too polite a term.

I have written academic and informal pieces about Chamberlain in the past. As a result, I have also received threats of bodily harm from former white classmates and friends. I ask them, what are you defending? Are you defending and condoning this behavior? Or are you defending your whiteness? The last question usually ends the conversation. What I am talking about concerns whiteness and a very old school kind of racism. But it’s more than that. It is a deep-seated common sense that somehow recognizing or conceding anything to Native people will destroy the core values of Chamberlain. It is a community founded on violent colonial dispossession. Talking about that will put a target on your back and, in my case, cause threats of violence. But I refuse to be silent.

But can you refute history? Can you change it? Chamberlain and its people have yet (beside a small minority) to show themselves worthy of being neighbors and cohabiters along the Missouri. Saying that history is in the past only reproduces violence and anti-Indianism in the present. It removes it from the reality many Native people face today because of that history. It makes our stories less worthy, and thus makes us less worthy.

It is not the job of Native people to bear the unfair burden of living with this history. It is incumbent upon white settlers to learn and help undo inequalities of the present. The world is watching Chamberlain. The Oceti Sakowin is watching and waiting as well. We will continue to move forward, even if Chamberlain chooses not to.

As the school board tables the honor song for the spring 2014 graduation, let us not forget the injuries that have been done. For a just resolution to the problem Chamberlain presents, it may require a radical departure from the past. It may require white settlers and the institutions that defend whiteness to recognize themselves as perpetrators of historical and ongoing human rights violations against Native peoples. It may require understanding that white settlers are occupying and benefiting from stolen land. It may, as Waziyatawin notes, require solutions “just short of breaking camp.”

Hecutu Welo!

Wounded Knee: Settler Colonial Property Regimes and Indigenous Liberation

Here is a link (below) to my recent publication in Capitalism Nature Socialism Journal based out of the UK. The theme of the journal is bridging socialist and Indigenous perspectives. Check out the entire contents of the special edition if you have access to the journal via academic libraries. Unfortunately, UNM does not currently carry CNS.

With that said, there are some minor grammar errors and one glaring error on page 193. The date of the Battle of Little Bighorn should read “1876” not “1976”. All the errors and oversights are my own. Please comment and share.


Estes CNS Article – Wounded Knee 2013

Special thanks to David Correia for giving me the opportunity to publish in CNS. Check out his new book Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico.

“The Black Hills are for sale!”: Decolonizing U.S. Settler Colonial Property Regimes


The Lakota saying goes that when someone owes you money and you know they cannot pay you back, you say, “Toksa He Sapa!”, that is, “Goodbye Black Hills!” The cruel pessimism in this phrase speaks to the larger issue of the Black Hills land claim as an outstanding debt owed to the Native people of North America and Indigenous people across the globe. It speaks to the inability of liberal democratic states to address how endemic land and the commodification of land is to the broader framework of settler colonialism. The market economy and the parceling of land into units of private property play an integral role in how the U.S. settler colonial state manifests itself into being, as well as maintaining colonial property regimes in the present to further dispossess Native people.

The Black Hills—or He Sapa—are an internationally recognized symbol of Native and Indigenous peoples’ outstanding claims to ongoing injustices perpetuated by the U.S. and other settler colonial nations across the globe. More recently, the private sale of a 1,940-acre tract of land of what is known to the Nation of the Seven Council Fires—or the Oceti Sakowin Oyate—as Pe’ Sla and Reynold’s Prairie by U. S. colonizers became a mobilizing issue that sparked a renewed interest in the Oyate’s claim to He Sapa. What sets the private sale of Pe’ Sla apart from the more than 160 years of legal and historical claims to He Sapa and designated treaty territory is the $9 million purchase of private land by the Oyate directly implicates Native people in the commodification of land as a resource that can be bought and sold.[1] Property, as it relates to the commodification of land within U.S. settler imperialism, is dependent on the dispossession of Native title. Paradoxically, however, in the 1980 United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. illegally seized He Sapa and awarded the claimant tribes a monetary settlement of $106 million, which was subsequently refused in the spirit of the moniker “The Black Hills are Not for Sale!” Thus, the purchase of a sacred site within territory that has been ruled as illegally seized by the U.S. raises many questions to the validity of colonial property regimes and land purchases by tribes. Inherent within these exchanges is the notion that the U.S., as a colonizing settler state, endorses the elimination of Native title to land, while maintaining that in doing so it abrogates its own legal protection of Native title. But it is the intent of U.S. settler colonial capitalism to incorporate He Sapa into the national political economy in spite of its illegal claim. Therefore, the contradictions of property as it relates the claims of Native title to illegally seized territory in the claims of He Sapa and Pe’ Sla, as defined through the interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court, warrants a re-examination of U.S. settler colonial logics of property and the political economy of U.S. settler colonialism in He Sapa.

This essay examines the complicity of the Oyate to participate in the market economy to buy back Pe’ Sla that challenges the effectiveness of international and national legal channels to productively ameliorate the material conditions of settler colonialism as it relates to outstanding Native land claims. The hollow legal and political definitions of “sovereignty” and the “rights” of Native peoples, for example, carry little weight in the context of the legal rights to property as exerted by U.S. colonial dominance. Given the logics of the U.S. settler colonial state that specify certain entitlements to individual property ownership as defined by law, the power invested in Native institutions to participate in market economies of land exchange presents a unique paradigm of decolonization that has immediacies in the present state of property regimes and ongoing land dispossession. The private purchase of Pe’ Sla by the Oyate demonstrates the inability of cultural and spiritual claims to He Sapa to effectively materialize land return. Instead, by participating in the market economy of land purchase, the Pe’ Sla becomes an iconic moment for the Oyate because no court ruling or moral appeal has effectively returned any portion or the whole of He Sapa.

As significant stakeholders in territorial claims for land that is continually seized and reordered into market economies, the Oyate’s presence within these territorial contestations are what Patrick Wolfe describes as a key feature of settler colonialism: “contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life.”[2] The deeper issue of land and the material resources it provides for the continuance of life for both the Oyate and settler society depends on a nuanced understanding of the legitimacies of property regimes as contestations for life.

Colonial Property Regimes

The colonial history of He Sapa, indeed, represents a violent contestation for life. Beginning in 1874 with George A. Custer’s illegal entry into He Sapa and what was designated “Sioux Territory” by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the prospects of gold prompted an invasion of white prospectors into what is now known as the Black Hills in the western half of South Dakota. In a series of ongoing battles between the Oyate and the U.S. Calvary, the violence of conquest centered on He Sapa as material resource and the securing of a market economy of land in the U.S’s western frontier. Eliminating Native presence depended on not only the outright physical extermination of the Oyate, but also the over-determinacy that He Sapa would be opened up for settlement and incorporated into settler colonial property regimes. In 1876 homesteader Joseph Reynolds laid claim to the Pe’ Sla site and represented the current of settler claims that arose in and around He Sapa. Driven by the desire for territorial acquisition of individual properties and the capital they guaranteed, U. S. settlers within the Dakota Territory recognized the political and economic significance of He Sapa as not only sustaining the Oyate’s continued resistance to the U.S., but also the future incorporation of Oyate territory into the U. S. political economy to establish settler colonial regimes of property.[3] Therefore extinguishing the Oyate’s claim to He Sapa was historically contingent upon the futurity of U. S. expansion and the establishment of capitalistic settler colonial property regimes.

The historical conquest of Oyate treaty land is an international phenomenon that implicates indigenous people within the colonial and imperial logics of property as they relate to the notions of dominance as expressed by both the Doctrine of Discovery and the Framework of Dominance, key concepts in international and domestic law both past and present. Inherent within U.S. federal Indian law is the reification of the theological Christian underpinnings of the Framework of Dominance and the expressed right of sovereign Christian nations of dominion over discovered land and people, rendering both as property of their Christian discoverers. The European Old World understanding of property, for example, originates from the Latin term dominium, which means absolute ownership. The infamous 1832 U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh ruled that the U.S. retained rights of conquest and discovery as inherited from prior European colonial powers, thus legally condoning settler transgressions into Native held territory.[4] The legal foundations and articulation of Native title, therefore, will always be subject to the understandings of property law as the right of absolute ownership over Native land and people. Sustaining settler colonial property regimes, then, is contingent up the continued dispossession of Native territory and title as self-perpetuating system of capital accumulation.

Today, the political economic futurity of He Sapa is seen in similar terms. Although the prospects of gold no longer sustains the territorial market economy, political economies of uranium and the prospects of oil drilling sustain the future political economies of the settler colonialism in South Dakota and the Great Plains region. The territorial presence of the Native territorial contestations at key sites such as Pe’ Sla do, however, pose serious challenges to the future capitalistic resource development. For example, the Pe’ Sla dispute originated in 2005 when Pennington County received a $9 million federal earmark to pave a road that ran directly through the Pe’ Sla site. In 2008 the Federal Highway Administration determined that development of a roadway was a national priority and would directly benefit the timber and tourist economies. Despite the Oyate’s recent purchase of Pe’ Sla, the site still remains subject to the building of the road to benefit the tourist and timber industries. But, as property owners of Pe’ Sla, the Oyate put itself in the position to protest the proposed highway development.[5]

Unsettling Colonial Property Regimes

On 12 August 2012 the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council issued a press release stating it would “act as the conduit to the unite all the Oceti Sakowin… in this struggle to maintain its deeply rooted traditions” at Pe’ Sla and He Sapa.[6] Also, within this press release the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council articulates a moral and spiritual right to Pe’ Sla as being intrinsic to the livelihood of the Oyate. These immaterial claims of moral and spiritual rights run counter to the logics of property ownership within U.S. settler colonialism, and likewise have no legal bearing or precedent in any U.S. law. They do, however, position a spiritual and moral obligation of the Oyate to protect land that, though illegally seized, is not outside the power of reincorporating Pe’ Sla within the territorial boundaries of tribal property. Moreover, the Oyate’s legal right to purchase land in private auction can be seen as an exercise of the sovereign right to purchase private property. This commercial exchange of land falls into the rights bestowed upon Native nations by U.S. federal law to participate in the market economy of land.[7]

Likewise, utilizing the “sovereignty” as a moral right fails to fully grasp the material conditions in which property and dominance are exerted upon Native nations as subjects of U.S. empire. For Lenape scholar Joanne Barker, sovereignty is historically contingent upon definitions designed by U.S. federal policy. Within the legal frameworks espoused by colonial states on behalf of Native nations, “Sovereignty carries the horrible stench of colonialism. It is incomplete, inaccurate, and troubled.”[8] Purchasing Pe’ Sla as an sovereign act on behalf of the Oyate does directly implicate tribes within the settler colonial framework of land exchange, but it also reflects a certain kind of immediacy posed by the ongoing threat of colonial property regimes to further dispossess Native title. Where federal and domestic legal remediation of outstanding land claims fails to provide the material benefits of redistributing and relinquishing of land guaranteed to the Oyate under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the purchase of land to further halt development and deterioration of Pe’ Sla is a politically strategic move that does not easily fit within the frameworks of sovereignty as a moral right. Instead, it is a legally exercised right that can be viewed as both accommodating the modes of self-determination and self-government as bestowed upon tribes by the federal colonial regime of the U.S., while maintaining a position that is in direct opposition to the logics of property regimes. Dakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn writes that “Federal Indian law has curtailed the values of the Sioux Nation, the Ocheti Shakowan [sic], by outlawing traditional ways of behaving and replacing them with something formal and foreign.”[9]

So what are ways of addressing the wrongdoings of federal Indian law as it relates to colonial property regimes? Many commentators argue that Pe’ Sla and the He Sapa land claim on behalf of the Oyate would be a focal point for the material application of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Four months prior to the proclamation issued by the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, UN human rights Special Rapporteur James Anaya visited He Sapa and met with various Native communities around South Dakota and North Dakota to listen to their concerns about various issues that affected the everyday existence of the Oyate living within the material conditions of settler colonialism. Among many of Anaya’s findings, land, namely He Sapa, is central to the Oyate’s demands on the international governing body for resolving the 150 years of occupation of treaty-specified territory.[10] In fact, one of the primary movers for an international redress for outstanding Indigenous land claims originated in 1974 with the First International Indian Treaty Council at Standing Rock that was organized around the outstanding land claims of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and the illegal occupation of He Sapa.[11] The International Indian Treaty Council went on to be foundational in creating a permanent forum for Indigenous issues at the United Nations, which was also foundational in creating the framework for UNDRIP.[12]

Yet many scholars, Anaya included, express serious reservations as to the effectiveness of UNDRIP for effectively ameliorating these demands for land return to the Native nations for two important reasons: 1) UNDRIP is not a legally binding document;[13] and 2) UNDRIP primarily emphasizes Indigenous “collective” rights as individuals and not as “nations.” Cook-Lynn argues that the implication of “nation” through the use of the word “collective” is not enough. Obfuscating Native nationhood within UNDRIP and not providing legal mechanism for redress, the Oyate treaty councils that directly opposed the very mechanisms of colonial property regimes since 1890 find that the only remedy is to return to treaties made between the U.S. and Native nations.[14] Given the long history of outstanding Indigenous land claims both internationally and within the U.S. setter colonial context, there still remains no material application of UNDRIP as effecting land return to Indigenous people.

(Im)Possibilities of Colonial Property Regimes

The lack of effective legal recourse that faces the Oyate to seek redress for the historic and ongoing dispossession of treaty-specified lands creates a seemingly impossible double bind. On one hand, the Oyate’s land base is continually under threat from being completely folded into  larger colonial property regimes. While on the other hand, the Oyate participates directly in the commodification of land through its participation in the private real estate economy. Opposition on part of the Oyate is not enough because until Native nations act outside the confines of federal authority, they will inevitably accommodate and replicate the very colonial means by which they are repressed. For example, Barker and Cook-Lynn both argue that sexually othered (namely, non-male) Native people experience the worst kinds of colonial violence. Both scholars see the accommodation of normative values of Christianity and liberalism as infecting tribal communities and governments. This reification of the normative values of the liberal democratic U.S. colonial state serves to validate the dominance of settler colonialism within Native communities and tribal law.[15]

Without directly implicating Native nations in the continued commercial commodification and exchange of land, then, how is it possible for the Oyate not to fall into the trappings of the colonial property regimes with the recent purchase of Pe’ Sla? Perhaps this question cannot be addressed in the appropriate manner without expressing the notion that property, as it is understood in a larger theoretical framework, does not imply permanent ownership. Although Pe’ Sla was privately owned by a white settler family for 136 years, it has now become the shared property of the Oyate. But, this, too, does not guarantee a permanent fix to the eventual recovery of He Sapa. Tribal property is also subject to change ownership, given how the entire history Native-Colonizer relations can be summed up as one violent real estate exchange—one that solely benefits and is intrinsic to the vitality of the U.S. settler state.

Without detailing the intricacies of how Native nations must put purchased or reacquired land into trust with the federal government (a colonial process inherently paternalistic), Pe’ Sla will still have to be federally trusted back to the Oyate through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. One needs only to look at the recent 2009 7,100-acre seizure of Crow Creek Sioux Tribe land by the IRS to understand the instability of tribal property and the paternalistic nature of the federal government. Eventually the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, which is located in Buffalo County, SD, the poorest county in the United States, bought the purchased the land back from the IRS with the help of the Oyate. Although the case received extensive coverage by regional newspapers, the issue, like most outrages against the criminal behavior of the U.S. colonial state, fell silent after the land was returned.[16]


What is at stake in the private purchase of Pe’ Sla and any future private purchases of land by the Oyate, is the possibility that the land will somehow be reclaimed or incorporated back into colonial property regimes because property ownership is not permanent. This creates the opportunity and possibility of tribes to purchase land as an act of reacquiring territory. But because the Oyate remains financially and materially restricted by federal oversight, this cannot be a sustainable venture. A radical departure from the political and legal practices of tribes reifying normative values of the U.S. liberal democratic state has to take place first and foremost. This would mean abandoning these values as they pertain to the empty promises of self-determination, “sovereignty,” social Native exceptionalism (authenticity) and the exclusion of non-normative people, and, finally, a re-articulation of the fundamental legal precedents of treaty law.

Although the U.S. like many settler colonial state would like to create historically amnesic gap between the eliminationist policies of a colonial past to the continued eliminationist policies of the present, the continued existence and threat of the private exchange of land has on the Oyate is an enduring reality of the colonial present. For example, like all federal eliminationist policies of the past that have been subsequently rescinded or abandoned, the 1888 Dawes Act’s detrimental effect on Native land and title continues to be an enduring colonial feature of the present.

The primitive accumulation of land and the establishment of settler colonial property regimes, in effect, create the material conditions of possibility to simultaneously legitimize settler status through the protection of property rights within liberal democratic institutions of law and politics and roots of capital as a formulaic enterprise of Native territorial dispossession. Effectively addressing the current material conditions in place that are intrinsic to the settler colonial property regimes remain to be challenged. Pe’ Sla and outstanding contestations of He Sapa represent unique opportunities for the Oyate to unsettle these colonial property regimes. What must be taken into account, however, is that, if left unchallenged, settler colonialism and imperial demands for territorial and capitalistic expansion will continue. The importance of Pe’ Sla in the global context is that U.S. federal Indian law has historically been adapted by settler colonial regimes across the globe. The implementation of property regimes and the legitimation of dominance and discovery, for example, have been taken up by New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and more recently Israel as legal precedents for the legitimating the historic and continued existence of settler colonial states.[17]

Pressing the U.S. settler state to live up to its moral obligations to respect and provide recourse for Native nations as moral right does not have a legal bearing or precedent. To successfully unsettle colonial property regimes, there must exist an effective legal mechanism that addresses “reconciliation” and “decolonization” as a material redistribution of power. For Native nations, the realization of material power is the very existence of Native nations as property-owning nations that have real physical, material boundaries. Therefore, before any amelioration of the continued material subjugation of Native people can begin at an international or domestic level, land and the right to land must be acknowledged first and foremost. It is land, as mentioned by Wolfe, that settler colonialism creates life for itself. It is land for the Oyate that has sustained its existence. This would mean that the treaties between Native nations and colonizing states not merely be acknowledged or “honored,” but put into material practice.

Addendum: Owasicu owe waste sni (The way of the fat-taker is no good)

Yesterday (6 February 2013), Native Sun News announced that the Wounded Knee site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is up for private sale at $3.9 million. Wounded Knee is the site where over 300 Lakota men, women, and children of Hehaka Gleska (pejoratively named “Big Foot” by whites because the shoes he was rationed were too small for his feet) band of Mincounjou were massacred at the hands of Custer’s former regiment—the Seventh Cavalry. Eighteen Medals of Honor—the United State’s highest military honor—were awarded to cavalrymen who participated in this massacre of mostly unarmed Mnicounjou. It was also the largest per capita awarding of the Medals of Honor for any conflict or war in U.S. history. Wounded Knee was also the site for the 73-day standoff between the American Indian Movement and the U.S. Marshalls and FBI. For the Oyate, the Wounded Knee Massacre and the AIM occupation represent dark, violent periods in our national history, as well as a site of refusal and rejection of wasicu occupation. It is a site that is considered by many as hallowed ground. But, more importantly, it is an historic testament to how the U.S. settler colonial regime refuses forgiveness and pardon for the Oyate’s centuries of resistance to colonial occupation.

James A. Czywcynski, the current white owner of the 40 acre site, put the land up for auction and stated, “We would really like to see the land returned to the Lakota people and that is why I am giving them an opportunity to purchase the land before I open it up to others for sale.” In a statement for the reasons why he put a $3.9 million price tag on the site, Czywcynski reasoned, “I was never repaid for the property losses I had as a result of what happened there in 1973 [during the AIM occupation]. The price that I have placed on the land is an attempt for me to reclaim my losses, and an attempt to get fair market value for the land.”[18] These statements alone are testament to how continued struggles over land are also struggles over life. For the U.S. settler state, as clearly expressed by Czywcynski, the debt of Native life and land is still being paid as damages for merely surviving and continuing to live with the violences of colonial property regimes. This debt is not just a land-based economy, but an economy of suffering and an economy of mourning that is continually commodified as marketable and exploitable.

Hecetu Welo!

[1] Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle for Indian Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 331-357.

[2] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research (December, 2006), 387.

[3] Jeffrey Ostler, The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (New York: Viking Press, 2010), 68-69.

[4] Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Preliminary Study of the Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery (New York: United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2010), 4n.2.

[5] Steve Young, “Tribes Concerned About Sale of Property Near Deer Lake,” Rapid City Journal, 18 August 2012:

[6] Rosebud Sioux Tribe Press Release, “Rosebud Sioux Tribe to Take Lead on Protecting Sacred Site,” 12 August 2012.

[7] Felix S. Cohen, On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 60.

[8] Joanne Barker, “For Whom Sovereignty Matters,” in Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination, ed. Joanne Barker (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 26.

[9] Cook-Lynn, A Separate Country: Postcoloniality and American Indian Nations (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2012), 73.

[10] U.N. General Assembly, 21st Session, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, 30 Augus 2012, (A/HRC/21/47/Add. 1), 7, 17, 18, 20, 37-40.

[11] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, The Great Sioux Nation Sitting in Judgment on America: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation and Its Struggle for Sovereignty (New York: The American Indian Treaty Council Information Center, 1977), 201.

[12] Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 236-40.

[13] U.N. General Assembly, 21st Session, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, 19.

[14] Cook-Lynn, A Separate Country, 188.

[15] Cook-Lynn, A Separate Country, 96-102; Barker, Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 98-145, 189-216.

[16] Affiliated Press, “Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Fails to Block IRS Land Auction,” Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 3 December 2009:

[17] Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Preliminary Study of the Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery, 19-20.

[18] Brandon Ecoffey, “Wounded Knee Site put up for Sale at $3.9M,” Native Sun News, 6 February 2013: