Exclusive Truthout Interview: Sioux Spiritual Leader Speaks Out on Land Sale at Sacred Site

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
Chief Sitting Bull, 1877

The sacred lands of the Lakota are up for sale – again. A grassroots effort led by the Oceti Sakowin, or Great Sioux Nation, is underway to get them back.

The Cheyenne River Reservation, where the Sioux Nation's pipe keeper, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, lives. (Photo: Jason Coppola)

The Cheyenne River Reservation, where the Sioux Nation’s pipe keeper, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, lives. (Photo: Jason Coppola)

On August 25 at 10 AM, nearly 2,000 acres of land, known as Pe’ Sla to the Lakota people and situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, will be put up for public auction and sold to the highest bidder. The state of South Dakota has expressed interest in using eminent domain to pave one of the roads that runs through it. The land is currently known as the Reynolds Prairie Ranches. Other than the potential road-paving project, it is unclear for what type of development the land would be most sought after, although the manager of one local business expressed his hope that all five tracts up for sale would go to a rancher.

The land has been in the Reynolds family since 1876, the year of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn. During this time, the Lakota have been able to access their sites. The whole of the Black Hills fall within the Fort Laramie Treaty lands of 1851 and 1868, which are guaranteed under the US Constitution to belong to the Lakota. The Fort Laramie Treaty ended the Powder River War of 1866-1867, led by Chief Red Cloud protecting earlier treaty lands against illegal white occupation. (The defeated 7th Calvary was commanded by a Col. Joseph J. Reynolds who some believe may have been the original owner of the homesteaded Reynolds land). The Treaty assured the Black Hills to be part of the Great Sioux Reservation spanning several states, where the Sioux Nation, which is made up of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people, were to have “the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the land.

President Ulysses S. Grant, after an expedition led by Gen. George Custer in 1874 into the Black Hills confirmed the presence of gold there, decided that the military should cease its opposition of miners’ occupation of the Black Hills, which was part of the United States’ treaty obligation to preserve the integrity of Sioux territory.

Mining towns such as Deadwood, Central City and Lead were soon established, and military campaigns began to force the Sioux from the Black Hills.

Great victories during the resistance led by Chief Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse later led to their surrender and forced internment into prisoner of war camps commonly known as reservations (Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was known as POW camp #344).

The United States then claimed the right of occupation to the Black Hills with the Congressional Act of February 1877. Although the document lacked the necessary Sioux signatures required to pass it, a deficiency that would nullify it, the Act, surrounded in controversy, seized the Sioux land while making reservations permanent.

At that point the sacred Black Hills of the Great Sioux Nation had been officially stolen. Land could then be opened to privatization.

“We Humans Have Power, but We Don’t Know It”

Ceremonies are performed at Pe’ Sla which, the Lakota believe, maintain a sacred harmony between heaven and earth and sustain their way of life.

The Black Hills, when viewed from a satellite, are shaped like a heart. Pe’ Sla, a bald spot among the pine-treed hills, sits in the center of a formation of sacred Lakota sites that mirror a pattern of celestial bodies, including the Pleiades and Sirius, beautifully demonstrating an as-above, so-below design. It is the center of the Lakota creation story.

As the sun would move through these constellations, the Lakota would change seasonal camps and perform specific ceremonies at these sacred locations.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse is the 19th-generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle. Ages ago, it was given to the Lakota by White Buffalo Calf Woman, Pte San Win. She taught the Lakota how to pray and have ceremony. Looking Horse holds the responsibility of spiritual leader among the Great Sioux Nation, whose indigenous name Oceti Sakowin means the People of the Seven Council Fires. He explained the spiritual significance of Pe’ Sla in an exclusive interview with Truthout conducted by Chase Iron Eyes. Iron Eyes is a member of the Oceti Sakowin and an author, attorney and the founder of lastrealindians.com, which publishes work by indigenous writers and artists. His conversation with Looking Horse earlier this month marked the first time the revered spiritual leader had spoken publicly on the issue.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse Calls for Unity

“Our creation story comes from the Black Hills, from the heart of Mother Earth. We came up from the caves which are connected under our Black Hills, and we received several very sacred places to do ceremony,” said Looking Horse.

“Pe’ Sla is one of these central ceremonial places. This is where our existence comes from. Pe’ Sla is where Morning Star came down to help the people, because we are star people,” he said.

“Sundance happens at Pe’ Sla,” said Looking Horse. “Other ceremonies that our spiritual leaders must perform happen at Pe’ Sla.”

The Sundance ceremony, one of seven sacred ceremonies given to the Lakota by Pte San Win, is a closely guarded practice, but Iron Eyes explained that it is one of sacrifice and renewal: participants re-enact the sacrifice of a spirit, Inyan, who spun himself and sacrificed himself until his blood became water. The ceremony ensures that nature’s process of renewal continues so that, for example, water, plants, and animals remain abundant.

“At Pe’ Sla we give energy, as the whites call it; that is what our ceremonies do,” said Looking Horse. “We humans have power, but we don’t know it. We can send energy to the universe and it comes back to us. We can change the environment. People must understand that we have power, and if we are to live, we have to have faith and belief through our spiritual ways and our sites. All indigenous do this with energy.”

“We need to come together to protect Pe’ Sla,” said Looking Horse. “All tribes, even though we went to war with each other at times, in our history. Yes, we went to battle with other tribes, but when either brought out spiritual bundles or was conducting ceremonies, nobody attacked. We actually worked together in spiritual ways because these were given by the Great Spirit to all his children here.”

“Our tribes are here to protect our people,” he said. “We need to stand up. We have always stood strong for our sovereignty, for our territory. We are the First Nations of Turtle Island. We are the original people of this continent based on our spiritual connections with the Black Hills, Pe’ Sla, and all the sacred sites on Turtle Island.”

Chief Looking Horse continued: “If we truly believe in our survival, if we believe in humanity’s future, then we should be given that land back. It doesn’t belong to the United States. That land should be in our hands so we can protect it, because it’s not just our lives that depend on it, but the rest of humankind.”

Looking Horse stressed the urgency of his message. “Humanity in general has gone too far in forgetting our values to respect our spirits, and this causes disease, disaster and negative energy,” he said. “It’s not just the spiritual and treaty leaders who must understand this, it is our oyate [people]. Everyone must understand, because at one time, our tiospaye [kinship] system made sure everyone understood these things. If we don’t go to Pe’ Sla and our other sites, we are not guaranteed help or life.”

Land Sale Seen as Part of a Pattern of Systemic Cultural Destruction

Familiar with the challenges facing indigenous peoples and nations across the globe, Iron Eyes told Truthout: “I don’t think it’s an accident that other indigenous peoples’ sacred sites are coming under attack, such as the San Francisco Peaks, or the Four Mountains of the Dine or Navajo Nation, all throughout Turtle Island – or North America – and South America. The way I see it is, this corporatocracy, or the Corporate West, is never satisfied. It just keeps consuming and destroying. This system needs to be put in check.”

Iron Eyes is teaming up with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in order to focus the fundraising efforts to buy back as much of Pe’ Sla as possible. “We are going to find out real soon if we are able to raise enough money to buy back our own land,” he said. The irony of buying land that was stolen from you is not lost on Iron Eyes: “The United States holds illegitimate and illegal title to our land. They are trying to absorb not only the Lakota people, but everybody, into the corporate West.”

Iron Eyes views the protection of sacred sites as the final frontier where indigenous ways cannot waiver.

United Nation Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People James Anaya, after completing a fact-finding mission where he met with Sioux Nation leaders, released a statement saying, “securing the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands is of central importance to indigenous peoples’ socio-economic development, self-determination, and cultural integrity. Continued efforts to resolve, clarify, and strengthen the protection of indigenous lands, resources, and sacred sites should be made.”

According to Iron Eyes, “All the colonizers’ early efforts to cut our ties to the land, language, ceremonies” – such as Native children being taken from their families and forced into Christian boarding schools – “have been done to prepare us for maintenance of the corporate West, which leads to the ultimate destruction of our entire planet. If we believe and value as they in the system do, we will not be willing to defend our spiritual dignity, and by extension, our sacred sites.”

“The Heart of All That Is”

In a nation as young as the United States, founded by settlers, comprised of peoples with different ancestral lands, the significance of this fight for land that was inhabited long before it came to be governed as it is today can be difficult to comprehend.

“We call the Black Hills ‘the heart of all that is,'” said Iron Eyes. “My hope is that people can become aware of what these sites actually mean and learn to see what they have seen as natural resources ever since they were born, since they were taught, that they can learn to see the land, the trees, the mountains, see all these things as relatives. And the whole basis of Lakota worldview is to be a good relative.”

“We are definitely cognizant of the magnitude of this time that we are in, said Iron Eyes. “Any objective observer can see that around the globe, there is change going on. We don’t have to debate whether climate change is scientifically justifiable or it’s a hoax. All you have to do is look around and see that Mother Earth is cleansing. We recognize that energy. We’ve always respected Mother Earth, and we are ready for any change.”

“We don’t do these ceremonies just for us; we are doing them for you,” said Iron Eyes, referring to all people of the earth. “The whole universe renews itself” with the Sundance, said Iron Eyes.

The Black Hills Are Not for Sale

For the Great Sioux Nation, land was never about money.

The Sioux Nation was awarded approximately $17.1 million in 1974 by the Indian Claims Commission for the illegal annexation of the Black Hills. The sum reached $106 million when the value of gold taken from the hills was considered.

The claim was later argued before the Supreme Court in 1980 and upheld, awarding the Sioux Nation $106 million. This sum, with interest, was up to over $570 million in 2010. It is now believed to be close to $1 billion.

“Even after the Indian Claims Commission awarded the tribes for the illegal taking of the Black Hills,” Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Rodney M. Bordeaux told Truthout, “we have never accepted that money. It is not our right to accept it because of our ancestors and the wars they have fought, the sacrifices they have made: Wounded Knee, other massacres, being put on a reservation. Our people have never gave up their claim and their right to the Black Hills. So, even though the money is there in the US Treasury, we have not accepted it because those are our Hills.”

The Sioux Nation would be giving up their claim to the Black Hills if they were to accept this pay-off.

“We are trying a fundraising effort that, hopefully, along with the tribes, people who care about indigenous rights and the Lakota can come forward and contribute to this action,” said Bordeaux.

A Warning From Chief Arvol Looking Horse

“If we don’t follow our teachings, we don’t know what will happen to us,” said Looking Horse. “We don’t know what’s coming with the prophecies in the years to come. The earth is cleansing. White buffalo calves are being born.”

Previously appearing more rarely, white buffalo are born more often recently due to breeding practices in private herds, but regardless of their origins, the animals remain a sacred symbol of abundance and life to the Lakota and a signal that it is time for their people to return to their ways of ceremony and praying.

“Our own prophecies tell us to return to our sacred sites,” said Looking Horse. “If we don’t work to fulfill our prophecies at Pe’ Sla, and if we don’t return to our ways, then there will be consequences.”

In the end, says Chief Looking Horse, “If Pe’ Sla is destroyed by man, we do not want to know the depth of that loss, what the death of Pe’ Sla would mean to our people.”

Chase Iron Eyes, attorney, author, and founder of lastrealindians.com, contributed to this report.

This article first appeared on truthout.org on August 12, 2012. © Truthout. Reprinted by permission.

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