Who Owns the Black Hills?

by Adrian M. Forrette


Without the encouragement and support of Mary Margaret Forrette, this monograph would not have been published, or written for that matter. I am indebted to both Mary Margaret and Ernest Grafe for their editorial assistance; I gladly claim all errors. Ernest Grafe's innumerable contributions over a long period of time can only be described as acts of pure friendship. Thank you! David Shetler confers upon friends and acquaintances the benefit of his erudition, without making a person feel dumb, for which I am particularly grateful. Michael Ford's keen insight at a critical point in the essay's unfolding cannot be overlooked. Mary Margaret Healy, thank you for your technical assistance, knowledge gained during years of dedicated service at the Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul. My sister Candace is a kindred artistic spirit without whom the way would be dark and lonely.

A species of national argument promulgated locally goes something like this: Why should we give the Black Hills back to the Indians? The past is the past; the Fort Laramie Treaty1 was concluded in 1868. That was a long time ago; a lot has changed since then. At any rate, the Sioux aren't any better than we are; as they were displaced by Europeans, in their time the Sioux also displaced tribes living and hunting on the Great Plains. And although these events are regrettable, the rise and fall of civilizations is a fact of life, a fait accompli not unlike the bed a river chooses on its way to the sea.

The face of this argument is seductive to the non-Indian by force of its implication that a superior culture naturally supplants an inferior culture (a presumption reinforced by a commonly held belief in "survival of the fittest" as biological imperative). For the Indian "psyche," the dictates of the argument's internal logic portend tragedy: Indigenous cultures must be inferior to western civilization as propagated by European migration westward, otherwise (locally) the Sioux Nation today would "own" the sacred Black Hills. Objective correlatives of the fait accompli argument are discrimination and degradation.

Are we morally responsible for the sins of our parents? No, I do not think that we are; however, the prodigal son and daughter will claim everything else that was their parents', e.g., money, land, good looks, banking connections...  And more often than not, children seem to behave in the same manner as their parents: "Our family has always voted Republican." There are enough sins to go around. In an age when the well-being of Earth hangs in the balance, bigotry, sloppy thinking, naïveté can only be regarded as major pollutants that threaten life and vanquish hope. Is a culture that slaughters millions of buffalo to the point of extinction for money and sport superior to a culture that strives to live in harmony with the land? Of course not!

[Once, there was an infinite number of buffalo roaming the prairie, as there seem to be stars in the heavens. In the sixties there seemed to be an infinite number of people willing to fight like dog soldiers for a "just" cause. Perhaps infinity, after all, is just a word. How ominous to contemplate a time when "infinite possibilities" is no longer a legacy.]

For the Occidental steeped in a tradition of both fair play and competition, blind adherence to a skewed historical viewpoint serves only to exacerbate his or her schizophrenia. Imagine the dilemma of the miner in Deadwood or the logger in Hill City who reveres the Black Hills and at the same time for economic reasons participates in her destruction to one degree or another. [I recognize that, ultimately, environmental responsibility is shared by everyone: the consumer, industry executive, tax payer -- along with the hard-working miner and logger.]

As the Orient amasses new wealth and power, as we witness the dissolution of Union and Brotherhood in the United States, a fear lurking in the dark recesses of our minds like Gollum, who was once a hobbit, gets blurted out unceremoniously, often by the demagogue of choice: Are we inferior to the Japanese?

The question has to sound absurd to Japanese-Americans. But again the answer is no. Most of us would not judge the "success" of our mother and father by the amount of money they earn, or earned in their lifetime. In our maturity, most of us would not attempt to quantify the value of a culture.

Can the measure of a culture be determined by its military prowess? How ironic that the same government of the people that fights fascism with all the strength it can bring to bear in Germany, Italy, France, North Africa, the Philippines, Japan and other countries slaughters women and children in the snow at Wounded Knee. [If the juxtaposition of these two historical events seems uncomfortably anachronistic, consider the culmination of events at Wounded Knee in context with the massacres at MyLai, South Vietnam.]

In English history, the philosophical question of whether or not "might makes right" was resolved by King Arthur in Camelot. In the final analysis, the United States is also a nation of laws.

All things animate and inanimate have the fundamental right to struggle for existence. Expression of that struggle is really an appeal to parents, god, or the state for help. [I perceive self-help as a form of prayer.] A cry in the wilderness is as much a cultural "event" as it is a singular act of self-determination.

By common consent, man's will to live is exchanged for an insured future and limited freedom. Suffering is ameliorated by a society that offers him a philosophical and spiritual alternative, which is "the pursuit of happiness." "Survival of the fittest" becomes a cultural prerogative or bias depending upon your viewpoint. Occidental man chose not to honor the Fort Laramie Treaty. To sustain the charade that biological necessity drove him to the deed only serves a fool, a fool's part.

Is man inherently greedy? I do not know. I do not think so, although a market system dear to my heart seems to effectively exploit what is base in man. Nonetheless, for a government of the people, the existence of "greed" is moot. The issue becomes, when for the common good are a few asked politely or not politely to share with the many. [Ironically, this same principle of "common good" has served as a rationalization for the seizure of Indian lands -- meadows and streams, gently rolling hills, pine forests, that you can visit as a tourist -- usurped not so long ago by means of very "real" sophistry.]

"[I]n man, by contrast with the animal, two streams of evolution have met and merged: the biological and cultural. The two streams are not always mutually compatible...."2 Here, in this choppy water (to continue the metaphor), it is crucial that we attempt to differentiate the term "survival of the fittest" as defined by Darwin, Wallace, and Blyth's biological principle of natural selection (Darwin uses the terms "survival of the fittest" and natural selection interchangeably) from its frequent application as a construct of cultural imperialism.

The principle of natural selection very adequately explains an early phase of man's evolution:

. . . represented by the series of physical changes which culminated in his achievement of bipedal posture and the freeing of the hands as implements to carry out the dictates of the brain. This earlier phase of human evolution, whatever the forces that promoted it, was the same type of natural selection that had produced a seal's flipper or the wing of a bird. It was, essentially, an evolution of parts, specializations promoting certain adaptive ecological adjustments of the individual. This type of evolutionary adjustment is omnipresent in the living world. 3

In contrast, the principle of natural selection offers only a limited accounting as it is applied to a later phase of man's development: the evolution of the human brain. A growing body of evidence suggests that the human brain, geologically speaking, evolved rather quickly,4 to the extent that pre-historic man, like his modern cousin, was endowed with limitless potentiality in anticipation of an indeterminate future -- volition is wedded to expression!

Wallace was apparently the first evolutionist to recognize clearly and consciously and with a full grasp of its implications me fact that, with the emergence of that bodily specialization which constitutes the human brain, bodily specialization itself might be said to be outmoded. The evolution of parts, the evolution of the sort of unconscious adaptations which are to be observed in the life cycle of a complicated parasite or the surgical mouth parts of a vampire bat, had forever been surpassed. Nature, instead of delimiting through parts a creature confined to some narrow niche of existence, had at last produced an organism potentially capable of the endless inventing and discarding of parts through the medium of a specialized organ whose primary purpose was, paradoxically, the evasion of specialization.5

[When archaeologists unearth our skulls, when another human being stares into our vacant eyes, we will not have relinquished the right to be considered an equal among people of all Ages?]

Physiologically, human beings have the capacity to escape the constraints of specialization, that is to say, the constraints of an evolutionary process, "survival of the fittest." In a modem context, biological imperative is recast as an ethical dilemma: Am I my brother's keeper?

Do human beings possess the moral stamina required to evade the pitfalls of cultural evolutions I think that we do. With faith in ourselves and spiritual guidance, we can move mountains or not move them at all depending upon the prevailing point of view. An institution like Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital is an affirmation of biological, cultural, and spiritual determinism.

As I write the essay, I am pondering a few notes collected for a poem, from a trip to the Badlands one evening in June with a friend who is a novelist:

     Near Interior now. We enter the Badlands on Highway 44; Ernie and I talk again about canoeing down the Cheyenne to the Missouri, all the way to New Orleans. The full moon is rising. How beautiful! Who is she, this beautiful moon? The terrain resembles the exposed cerebral cortex of whom? Earth, I guess. I imagine a red fox running along an occipital ridge, over there!
     I wonder why man finds so much pleasure in this desolate landscape. Can this wilderness parallel a place in man's brain, an inner sanctum, where imagination abounds? Is this how we account for the extra brain cells that science tells us we never use?
     I talk to Ernie about the essay. Coyotes howl in the distance. The moon is at her zenith. In this landscape, among the remains of extinct species, language, at least in the form of conversation, is anachronistic -- exposed like a rattlesnake stretched out on a warm highway.

In the best sense of its meaning, from both a biological and cultural standpoint, "survival of the fittest" implies "conservatism." When we conserve what is best in ourselves as a society, we decide to conserve the land and other natural resources which, ultimately, insures the survival of future generations.

When principles of conservation and change are in harmony, an older generation gives way cheerfully to a younger generation secure in the knowledge that wisdom gained is not squandered,6 which I translate to this kind of general statement: Yes, I want to live in a world along with wild elephants and whales; I do not wish to see the last of a species herded into zoos, in the same manner that Indian tribes were collected onto reservations; I want to live in a country that honors its treaties, not only the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, but all treaties negotiated in good faith.

In the long run that is Dr. Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, I believe the vicissitudes of the natural world will predispose themselves toward the animal "who loves thy neighbor." The notion of "survival of the fittest" as cultural prerogative does not seem incompatible with St. Matthew 5:4: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth."

I propose that humility is a virtue held by men and women of all cultures who share in their lives a measure of grace. By way of example these people help others find spiritual "enlightenment." As a species we want to evolve spiritually together, evidenced by the actions of people like Jesus Christ, Frank Fools Crow, Mohandas Gandhi, and countless others who cannot be characterized as self-aggrandizing. Minority rights and democratic principles, often adulterated in practice, originate in the spiritual realm.

Perhaps the most wonderful gift proffered the world by so-called "primitive society" is the one of "natural law"7 as observed by Jean Jacques Rousseau 8 and others, that also comes to many of us by way of the Declaration of Independence: ". . . that all men are created equal." Indian cultures of the Americas lived and breathed this immortal truth long before it was so eloquently penned by Thomas Jefferson.

Qualities like humility transcend time and bloodlines. Spiritual man offers biological man a reason for enduring: "Get up! Try again, my friend. Practice makes perfect."

In my judgment, the Bradley Bill, which attempts to honorably reconcile the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with political realities of the 20th Century (please see first end-note) is not so much the determination of strong men and women to right an injustice as it is a reflection of a spiritual struggle for the soul of a nation which is the United States. Congressionally, the Bradley Bill is an act of convulsive humility and one of desperation: until Congress attains a certain degree of self-reflection as a representative organ of the "people," it cannot hope to benefit much from the spiritual guidance and wisdom traditionally proffered the United States by native peoples; as a legislative body, Congress cannot erase the stain of original sin, i.e., broken treaties, by enacting new laws.

In 1980, the Supreme Court awarded the Sioux Nation monetary compensation for their land; the money was summarily refused. Is the Sioux Nation legally obligated to accept the money? No. Remember, this is a treaty dispute between two sovereign nations. To presume that such a dispute can be resolved unilaterally is absurd. As a matter of fact, the Lakota sense of justice which cannot be extracted from Lakota religion or culture like gold from the Black Hills, precludes U.S. law.

Congressional inadequacy cannot render a morally disquieting issue moot. A democratic government, whose sovereignty by definition is derived from the people, can only break so many promises, tell so many lies, before its moral authority to govern is rendered meaningless.


1. The frequently cited Article 11. from the Fort Laramie Treaty of April 29, 1868 between the United States of America and different tribes of Sioux Indians clearly establishes the Sioux Nation's legal claim to the Black Hills, South Dakota. This is the treaty upon which the content of the Bradley Bill is predicated. A convincing argument can be rendered that the Bradley Bill, introduced in the Senate of the United States, March 10, 1987, serves only to dilute this now famous land claim. On the other hand, a truth-seeker will inevitably ask whether the Bradley Bill's call to turn over federal land to the Sioux Nation is a realistic solution to a thorny issue.

2. Loren Eiseley, "Strangeness in the Proportion," The Night Country (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 197 1), p. 129. Copyright © 1971 Loren Eiseley.

3. Loren Eiseley, Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It (New York: Doubleday, 1958), pp. 305-306.

4. Ibid., pp. 318-319. A vital part of Loren Eiseley's supporting evidence is attributed to a secondary source: Tilly Edinger, "Objects et Resultats de la Paleoneurologie," Annales de Paleontologie, 1956, Vol. 42, p.5. In addition, please see P. 299 of Loren Eiseley's Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It.

5. Loren Eiseley, Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It (New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 306.

6. Generated from an idea of H.B. Tristam's as footnoted in Loren Eiseley's book, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979), p. 210. I recommend Robert Pirsig's marvelous new book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, to the reader looking for an elaboration of static and dynamic systems in general.

7. A well-written explication of this idea can be found in Robert Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1991), p. 48.

8. For anyone who thirsts for knowledge and justice, there is Jean Jacques Rousseau's "A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind."

Copyright © 1992 by Adrian M. Forrette 

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