The Lakota Never Left

August 2, 2021

Facing annihilation, the Lakota instead remade themselves – and took a lead role among the world’s Indigenous peoples

Facing annihilation, the Lakota instead remade themselves – and took a lead role among the world’s Indigenous peoples

By the late-18th century, Native Americans and European newcomers had lived together in the Americas for nearly 400 years. They had cajoled, fought, killed and hated one another, and Europeans had built colonies on coastal plains and along major river valleys, dispossessing dozens of Indigenous societies – with the crucial help of smallpox and other new deadly diseases that wreaked havoc in Native communities.

Yet in 1776, much of the continent was still under Indigenous control. That changed, with shocking rapidity, when the 13 colonies rebelled against British rule and became the United States of America. Liberated from British restrictions on western settlement, self-styled American pioneers began to push beyond the Appalachian Mountains, seeking land and personal independence. That the West belonged to Native nations who had lived there for multiple generations mattered little to them.

In April 1832, the US president Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling of John Marshall, the chief justice of the US Supreme Court. In Worcester v Georgia, the Marshall Court had decided that Native American nations retained their ‘natural rights as the undisputed possessors of the soil from time immemorial’.

Dozens of treaties between the Native nations and the US had sanctioned these rights. Jackson, however, was unmoved. By 1850, in a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing, 100,000 Indians had been deported west of the Mississippi.

Nearly 200 years after Jackson, on 27 July 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). The pipeline was to pass under the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but the citizens of the capital objected to the risks: pipelines tend to leak and cause environmental degradation and foul drinking water. ETP revised its plans, moving the crossing near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where it traversed Native burial sites and risked contaminating the reservation’s water reservoir. ETP bulldozers moved in, ignoring the requests of three US departments to halt construction in a reservation where 47 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

The president Barack Obama ordered an environmental review. He vowed to regard the Indians as sovereign nations. Obama’s pledge turned to a dead letter when Donald Trump became US president in 2017. Four days into his presidency, Trump expedited the construction of the pipeline. Immediately, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Phyllis Young, Joye Braun and other Sioux women mounted a powerful resistance.

Separated by 185 years, Jackson’s and Trump’s executive interventions both sit at the heart of modern Native American life and history. Both concern sovereignty, a vitally important concept – at once clearcut and elusive – in the world of politics and states. It can be defined as the supreme right of a self-designated body of people to govern itself and control its territory and resources without outside interference – with the crucial caveat that it has to be recognised by others to be effective.

Together, through these two actions, we can see something essential about the rights of Native peoples in North America, past and present. Jackson’s and Trump’s assertions of US power over Indigenous peoples call attention to their singular political status as nations within a nation, and they speak to the continuing Indigenous struggle for sovereignty. Treaties are the quintessential tool of international diplomacy, and the US has long practice of making them with the peoples whom it dispossessed from their ancestral lands through brutal and at times genocidal methods.

Emerging from the coalescing American empire and the rapacity of American capitalism, Indian Removal marked the erosion of Indigenous sovereignty east of the Mississippi Valley. It was the Lakota – a Native people that includes the Hunkpapa, the Minneconjou, the Oglala, the Sans Arc, the Sicangu, the Sihasapa and the Two Kettles – who mounted the longest and most comprehensive opposition to US expansionism.

The riches promised by King Cotton fuelled a rapid and ruthless implementation of US control and sovereignty in the Black Belt, the part of the American South where geological processes left soils almost perfectly suited for cotton cultivation. In a striking contrast to the forced mass removal of Indigenous Southerners, the Lakota thwarted American imperialism in the West for generations, all the way to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

To do so, the Lakota had to reinvent themselves as a formidable warrior society. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and other iconic warrior-leaders embodied that transformation. That history is well-known. What has remained more obscure is how the Lakota mounted a nearly two-centuries-long campaign to preserve Indigenous sovereignty in the face of a US empire that saw them as wards and, when fighting and killing them, as internal enemies.

Military resistance against the US empire was often a blunt affair that demanded direct violent action, materiel and calculated balancing between objectives and acceptable losses. In contrast, the Lakota assertion of sovereignty demanded creativity, flexibility and tenacity.

Sovereignty in an Indigenous context can be best understood as a self-identified group’s right and capacity to govern itself against foreign powers that claim superior authority over it. The historian James J Sheehan in 2006 described state-making as ‘the ongoing process of making, unmaking, and revising sovereign claims’. Replace ‘state’ with ‘nation’, and we have a blueprint for the startling history of the generations-long Lakota struggle for sovereignty, which has witnessed numerous reiterations of what Indigenous sovereignty is and how it has been challenged, undercut and reasserted.

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