Genocide in America: A Week on Pine Ridge

Dogs bark callously. There is a pair of two who are separated from the park only by a fence; my presence seems to have disturbed them deeply.

There’s a lot I could say, and that needs to be said about the last few weeks.

Wounded Knee Mass Grave Site

Wounded Knee Mass Grave Site

I spent a week on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In government documents, it was initially referred to as Prisoner of War Camp #344; the Bureau of Indian Affairs was filed under the Department of War. It is where the Oglala Lakota have been formally allowed to live. I spent a week learning, feeling, conversing. Learning history that maybe I had heard before, but had not felt. I did not consciously know that indigenous cultures were suppressed by law until 1978. 1978. Only after 1978 were people allowed to speak their language, grow their hair long, and practice their spirituality. To this day, children are sent home from school for practicing their culture and not fitting in–subtly contributing to the ongoing destruction of indigenous cultures compounding the genocide of native folks in America.

Strong words, you might say.

Words that need to be said, need to be heard.

The organization that I volunteered with first frames the week in terms of statistics: the life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere next to Haiti (48 for men, 54 for women); the Rez sits in the third poorest county in the country; unemployment rates are 80-90%; alcoholism is estimated to be as high as 80%; official teen suicide rates four times the national rate; infant mortality three times the national rate.

Bullets scattered in the Badlands

Bullets scattered in the Badlands

Then, a series of speakers throughout the week begins to make sense of how this came to be. In good faith, leaders of many tribes signed treaties with the US government which, in many cases, allowed them to continue living on the land they had been living on. These treaties should have made the tribes sovereign nations in the eyes of the US. However, treaties were violated over and over again. Gold was found in the Black Hills, leading to the sacred lands of the Lakota being violently taken from them. The US not only mercilessly killed Lakota men, women, and children, but also signed into law the Indian Appropriations Act. This act led to the government-mandated widespread slaughter of buffalo in an attempt to starve the Lakota. The Massacre at Wounded Knee lives in the cultural memory of the Lakota. Over 400 Lakota men, women, and children were killed with no provocation.

Words that need to be said, need to be heard.

It’s not just the 1800’s, though. During WWII, the government seized the Badlands from the Lakota and used it as a gunnery range. When camping in the Badlands, I found bullets and shells left over. After decades of bombing the sacred lands of the Lakota, National Park Service took over. To this day, there are unfulfilled obligations that NPS had agreed to: employing Lakota people in Badlands National Park, splitting the profits of the park with the tribe, allowing access to the park for tribal members. None of which was ever done.

The speakers move us forward, too. They were social workers, spiritual teachers, aspiring council-members, school teachers. Every evening, they brought tears to our eyes as they painted the picture of what burying teenage girls who have committed suicide on a regular basis is like. What it is like to try to get your child to school when you don’t have gas in the car. What it is like to burn your shoes to stay warm in the winter because the Black Hills, promised to you by government treaties, were stolen out of greed, and wood is rare on the Rez. What it is like to fight the government to keep your children, because to this day people want to take indigenous kids away from their culture, language, and families.

The Holocaust Museum at Wounded Knee

The Holocaust Museum at Wounded Knee

The week on Pine Ridge was difficult for a lot of reasons. Primarily, it was difficult to hear the mostly-white, mostly-Christian group of volunteers often talk about what “they” should do, how “they” should “pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps”, about “why don’t they clean their yards if they care about Mother Earth so much”, asking “why aren’t the kids put in an orphanage or adopted”, struggling with the fact that, for the white folks among the group, their ancestors may have contributed to genocide.

How do we put the pieces together? How does a community heal?

Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist, has said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I’ll tell you one thing: non-indigenous people, including white people and including myself, are NOT going to be the ones to heal multi-generational trauma resulting from institutionalized, government-sponsored genocide. But we, as outsiders, can work to lift up the voices and efforts of those working with limited resources, and use our energy to actively combat racism. To commit to conversation, especially uncomfortable conversations.


Indian Country Today Media Network: News outlet! Keep updated on what’s going on on and off the rez for tribes around the country. (You can also “like” on facebook and keep updated that way.)

Lakota Country Times: Current events in Lakota Country.

Indigene Studios: Young people are awesome, if you haven’t figured that out yet. Indigene Studios is about to be the first production studio on Pine Ridge Reservation, and they are about to work on their first movie. Keep tabs on these folks!

Idle No More: The Idle No More movement started in Canada and is fighting for indigenous sovereignty. They also post news info.

What is Settler Colonialism? An article about settler colonialism in the US.

If you have other resources, please comment!!


One thought on “Genocide in America: A Week on Pine Ridge

  1. About 20 or 30 years ago I read an article of book review about American genocide against Native Americans. Since then those atrocities were seared in my mind. So the information you were writing is not surprising to me. Come to think about once the book wave was gone I heard very little about the topic. In the 35 years I am in the US, I met only a handful of Native Americans; their experience is no less than other genocides that are much reported and written about. Perhaps, you found your cause. It is worth spending a life-time unearthing the American Indian story. This Canadian website has the list of books on the topic,


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