[News] The Great Sioux Nation and the Resistance to Colonial Land Grabbing

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Sep 13 12:25:42 EDT 2016


  The Great Sioux Nation and the Resistance to Colonial Land Grabbing

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz September 12, 2016

/Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been protesting the 
construction of the Dakota Access pipeline 
since April. Slated to direct crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, 
the multibillion-dollar project threatens 
to contaminate the Missouri River and likely destroy Native burial sites 
and sacred places. The protesters have received support and solidarity 
from representatives of other Indigenous nations from all over North 
America, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Andes, along with climate activists and 
the Black Lives Matter movement 

/The history of the Sioux peoples’ fight for their homeland runs deep. 
To understand the background of the protest, we turn to Roxanne 
Dunbar-Ortiz’s /An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States 
  In this excerpt, Dunbar-Ortiz unpacks the origin of the 
nineteenth-century treaties and colonial land-grabbing that have 
repeatedly denied the Sioux the right to their land./


The first international relationship between the Sioux Nation and the US 
government was established in 1805[i] 
with a treaty of peace and friendship two years after the United States 
acquired the Louisiana Territory, which included the Sioux Nation among 
many other Indigenous nations. Other such treaties followed in 1815 and 
1825. These peace treaties had no immediate effect on Sioux political 
autonomy or territory. By 1834, competition in the fur trade, with the 
market dominated by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, led the Oglala Sioux 
to move away from the Upper Missouri to the Upper Platte near Fort 
Laramie. By 1846, seven thousand Sioux had moved south. Thomas 
Fitzpatrick, the Indian agent in 1846, recommended that the United 
States purchase land to establish a fort, which became Fort Laramie. “My 
opinion,” Fitzpatrick wrote, “is that a post at, or in the vicinity of 
Laramie is much wanted, it would be nearly in the center of the buffalo 
range, where all the formidable Indian tribes are fast approaching, and 
near where there will eventually be a struggle for the ascendancy [in 
the fur trade].”[ii] 
Fitzpatrick believed that a garrison of at least three hundred soldiers 
would be necessary to keep the Indians under control.

Although the Sioux and the United States redefined their relationship in 
the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, this was followed by a decade of war 
between the two parties, ending with the Peace Treaty of Fort Laramie in 
1868. Both of these treaties, though not reducing Sioux political 
sovereignty ceded large parts of Sioux territory by establishing 
mutually recognized boundaries, and the Sioux granted concessions to the 
United States that gave legal color to the Sioux’s increasing economic 
dependency on the United States and its economy. During the half century 
before the 1851 treaty, the Sioux had been gradually enveloped in the 
fur trade and had become dependent on horses and European-manufactured 
guns, ammunition, iron cookware, tools, textiles, and other items of 
trade that replaced their traditional crafts. On the plains the Sioux 
gradually abandoned farming and turned entirely to bison hunting for 
their subsistence and for trade. This increased dependency on the 
buffalo in turn brought deeper dependency on guns and ammunition that 
had to be purchased with more hides, creating the vicious circle that 
characterized modern colonialism. With the balance of power tipped by 
mid-century, US traders and the military exerted pressure on the Sioux 
for land cessions and rights of way as the buffalo population decreased. 
The hardships for the Sioux caused by constant attacks on their 
villages, forced movement, and resultant disease and starvation took a 
toll on their strength to resist domination. They entered into the 1868 
treaty with the United States on strong terms from a guerrilla fighting 
force through the 1880s, never defeated by the US army—but their 
dependency on buffalo and on trade allowed for escalated federal control 
when buffalo were purposely exterminated by the army between 1870 and 
1876. After that the Sioux were fighting for survival.

Economic dependency on buffalo and trade was replaced with survival 
dependency on the US government for rations and commodities guaranteed 
in the 1868 treaty. The agreement stipulated that “no treaty for the 
cession of any portion or part of the reservation herein described which 
may be held in common shall be of any validation or force against the 
said Indians, unless executed and signed by at least three fourths of 
all the adult male Indians.” Nevertheless, in 1876, with no such 
validation, and with the discovery of gold by Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, 
the US government seized the Black Hills—Paha Sapa—a large, 
resource-rich portion of the treaty-guaranteed Sioux territory, the 
center of the great Sioux Nation, a religious shrine and sanctuary. When 
the Sioux surrendered after the wars of 1876–77, they lost not only the 
Black Hills but also the Powder River country. The next US move was to 
change the western boundary of the Sioux Nation, whose territory, though 
atrophied from its original, was a contiguous block. By 1877, after the 
army drove the Sioux out of Nebraska, all that was left was a block 
between the 103^rd meridian and the Missouri, thirty-five thousand 
square miles of land the United States had designated as Dakota 
Territory (the next step toward statehood, in this case the states of 
North and South Dakota). The first of several waves of northern European 
immigrants now poured into eastern Dakota Terri- tory, pressing against 
the Missouri River boundary of the Sioux. At the Anglo-American 
settlement of Bismarck on the Missouri, the westward-pushing Northern 
Pacific Railroad was blocked by the reservation. Settlers bound for 
Montana and the Pacific Northwest called for trails to be blazed and 
defended across the reservation. Promoters who wanted cheap land to sell 
at high prices to immigrants schemed to break up the reservation. Except 
for the Sioux units that continued to fight, the Sioux people were 
unarmed, had no horses, and were unable even to feed and clothe 
themselves, dependent upon government rations.

Next came allotment. Before the Dawes Act was even implemented, a 
government commission arrived in Sioux territory from Washington, DC, in 
1888 with a proposal to reduce the Sioux Nation to six small 
reservations, a scheme that would leave nine million acres open for 
Euro-American settlement. The commission found it impossible to obtain 
signatures of the required three-fourths of the nation as required under 
the 1868 treaty, and so returned to Washington with a recommendation 
that the government ignore the treaty and take the land without Sioux 
consent. The only means to accomplish that goal was legislation, 
Congress having relieved the government of the obligation to negotiate a 
treaty. Congress commissioned General George Crook to head a delegation 
to try again, this time with an offer of $1.50 per acre. In a series of 
manipulations and dealings with leaders whose people were now starving, 
the commission garnered the needed signatures. The great Sioux Nation 
was broken into small islands soon surrounded on all sides by European 
immigrants, with much of the reservation land a checkerboard with 
settlers on allotments or leased land.[iii] 
Creating these isolated reservations broke the historical relationships 
between clans and communities of the Sioux Nation and opened areas where 
Europeans settled. It also allowed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to 
exercise tighter control, buttressed by the bureau’s boarding school 
system. The Sun Dance, the annual ceremony that had brought Sioux 
together and reinforced national unity, was outlawed, along with other 
religious ceremonies. Despite the Sioux people’s weak position under 
late-nineteenth-century colonial domination, they managed to begin 
building a modest cattle-ranching business to replace their former 
bison-hunting economy. In 1903, the US Supreme Court ruled, in /Lone 
Wolf v. Hitchcock/, that a March 3, 1871, appropriations rider was 
constitutional and that Congress had “plenary” power to manage Indian 
property. The Office of Indian Affairs could thus dispose of Indian 
lands and resources regardless of the terms of previous treaty 
provisions. Legislation followed that opened the reservations to 
settlement through leasing and even sale of allotments taken out of 
trust. Nearly all prime grazing lands came to be occupied by non-Indian 
ranchers by the 1920s.

Indian land allotment under the Indian Reorganization Act, non-Indians 
outnumbered Indians on the Sioux reservations three to one. However, the 
drought of the mid- to late-1930s drove many settler ranchers off Sioux 
land, and the Sioux purchased some of that land, which had been theirs. 
However, “tribal governments” imposed in the wake of the Indian 
Reorganization Act proved particularly harmful and divisive for the 
Concerning this measure, the late Mathew King, elder traditional 
historian of the Oglala Sioux (Pine Ridge), observed: “The Bureau of 
Indian Affairs drew up the constitution and by-laws of this organization 
with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This was the introduction of 
home rule. . . . The traditional people still hang on to their Treaty, 
for we are a sovereign nation. We have our own government.”[v] 
“Home rule,” or neocolonialism, proved a short-lived policy, however, 
for in the early 1950s the United States developed its termination 
policy, with legislation ordering gradual eradication of every 
reservation and even the tribal governments.[vi] 
At the time of termination and relocation, per capita annual income on 
the Sioux reservations stood at $355, while that in nearby South Dakota 
towns was $2,500. Despite these circumstances, in pursuing its 
termination policy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs advocated the reduction 
of services and introduced its program to relocate Indians to urban 
industrial centers, with a high percentage of Sioux moving to San 
Francisco and Denver in search of jobs.[vii] 

Mathew King has described the United States throughout its history as 
alternating between a “peace” policy and a “war” policy in its relations 
with Indigenous nations and communities, saying that these pendulum 
swings coincided with the strength and weakness of Native resistance. 
Between the alternatives of extermination and termination (war policies) 
and preservation (peace policy), King argued, were interim periods 
characterized by benign neglect and assimilation. With organized 
Indigenous resistance to war programs and policies, concessions are 
granted. When pressure lightens, new schemes are developed to separate 
Indians from their land, resources, and cultures. Scholars, politicians, 
policymakers, and the media rarely term US policy toward Indigenous 
peoples as colonialism. King, however, believed that his people’s 
country had been a colony of the United States since 1890.

The logical progression of modern colonialism begins with economic 
penetration and graduates to a sphere of influence, then to protectorate 
status or indirect control, military occupation, and finally annexation. 
This corresponds to the process experienced by the Sioux people in 
relation to the United States. The economic penetration of fur traders 
brought the Sioux within the US sphere of influence. The transformation 
of Fort Laramie from a trading post, the center of Sioux trade, to a US 
Army outpost in the mid-nineteenth century indicates the integral 
relationship between trade and colonial control. Growing protectorate 
status established through treaties culminated in the 1868 Sioux treaty, 
followed by military occupation achieved by extreme exemplary violence, 
such as at Wounded Knee in 1890, and finally dependency. Annexation by 
the United States is marked symbolically by the imposition of US 
citizenship on the Sioux (and most other Indians) in 1924. Mathew King 
and other traditional Sioux saw the siege of Wounded Knee in 1973 as a 
turning point, although the violent backlash that followed was harsh.

Two decades of collective Indigenous resistance culminating at Wounded 
Knee in 1973 defeated the 1950s federal termination policy. Yet 
proponents of the disappearance of Indigenous nations seem never to tire 
of trying. Another move toward termination developed in 1977 with dozens 
of congressional bills to abrogate all Indian treaties and terminate all 
Indian governments and trust territories. Indigenous resistance defeated 
those initiatives as well, with another caravan across the country. Like 
colonized peoples elsewhere in the world, the Sioux have been involved 
in decolonization efforts since the mid-twentieth century. Wounded Knee 
in 1973 was part of this struggle, as was their involvement in UN 
committees and international forums.[viii] 
<http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2016/09/the-great-sioux-nation-and-the-resistance-to-colonial-land-grabbing.html#_edn8> However, 
in the early twenty-first century, free-market fundamentalist economists 
and politicians identified the communally owned Indigenous reservation 
lands as an asset to be exploited and, under the guise of helping to end 
Indigenous poverty on those reservations, call for doing away with 
them—a new extermination and termination initiative.

*About the Author *

*Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz* grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a 
tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the 
international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is 
known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social 
justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of 
California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native 
American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and 
helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 
1977 book /The Great Sioux Nation/ was the fundamental document at the 
first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, 
held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the 
author or editor of seven other books, including /Roots of Resistance: A 
History of Land Tenure in New Mexico/ 
<http://www.reddirtsite.com/bk-roots-1.htm>. She lives in San Francisco. 
Follow her on Twitter at *@rdunbaro* <http://twitter.com/rdunbaro>.


UN Commission on Human Rights, Sub-commission on Prevention of Dis- 

crimination and Protection of Minorities, 51st sess., /Human Rights of 
Indigenous Peoples: Study on Treaties, Agreements and Other Constructive 
Arrangements between States and Indigenous Populations: Final Report/, 
by Miguel Alfonso Martínez, special rapporteur, June 22, 1999, UN 
Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1999/20. See also /Report of the Working Group on 
Indigenous Populations on Its Seventeenth Session, 26–30 July 1999/, UN 
Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1999/20, August 12, 1999.

Robert A. Trennert, /Alternative to Extinction: Federal Indian Policy 
and /
/the Beginnings of the Reservation System, 1846–51 /(Philadelphia: 
University Press, 1975), 166.

Testimony of Pat McLaughlin, then chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux 

government, Fort Yates, ND (May 8, 1976), at hearings of the American 
Indian Policy Review Commission, established by Congress in the act of 
January 3, 1975.

See Kenneth R. Philip, /John Collier’s Crusade for Indian Reform, 
1920–1954. /Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Matthew King quoted in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, /The Great Sioux Natiom: 
Sitting in Judgment on America. /Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press, 
2013. Originally published, 1977. 156.

For a lucid discussion of neocolonialism in relation to American Indians 

and the reservation system, see Joseph Jorgensen, /Sun Dance Religion: 
Power for the Powerless. /Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977, 

There is continuous migration from reservations to cities and border 
towns and back to the reservations, so that half the Indian population 
at any time is away from the reservation. Generally, however, relocation 
is not permanent and resembles migratory labor more than permanent 
relocation. This conclusion is based on my personal observations and on 
unpublished studies of the Indigenous populations in the San Francisco 
Bay area and Los Angeles.

The American Indian Movement convened a meeting in June 1974 that 
founded the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), receiving 
consultative status in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 
February 1977. The IITC participated in the UN Conference on 
Desertification in Buenos Aires, March 1977, and made presentations to 
the UN Human Rights Commission in August 1977 and in February and August 
1978. It also led the organizing for the Non-Governmental Organizations 
(NGOs) Conference on Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, held at UN 
headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 1977; participated in 
the World Conference on Racism in Basel, Switzerland, in May 1978; and 
participated in establishing the UN Working Group on Indigenous 
Populations, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the 2007 
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. See: Walter R. 
Echo-Hawk, /In The Light of Justice/: /The Rise of Human Rights in 
Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous 
Peoples. /Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2013; Vine Deloria, Jr., /Behind the 
Trail of Broken Treaties/: /An Indian Declaration/ /of Independence. 
/Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. Originally published 1974: 
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Dalee Sambo Dorough, Gudmundur Alfredsson, Lee 
Swepston and Peter Wille, Eds., /Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in 
International Law: Emergence and Application. /Kautokeino, Norway & 
Copenhagen, Denmark: Gáldu and IWGIA, 2015.

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