In the Shadow of Wounded Knee
After 150 years of broken promises, the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are nurturing their tribal customs, language, and beliefs. A rare, intimate portrait shows their resilience in the face of hardship.
Almost every historical atrocity has a geographically symbolic core, a place whose name conjures up the trauma of a whole people: Auschwitz, Robben Island, Nanjing. For the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that place is a site near Wounded Knee Creek, 16 miles northeast of the town of Pine Ridge. From a distance the hill is unremarkable, another picturesque tree-spotted mound in the creased prairie. But here at the mass grave of all those who were killed on a winter morning more than a century ago, it’s easy to believe that certain energies—acts of tremendous violence and of transcendent love—hang in the air forever and possess a forever half-life.
Alex White Plume, a 60-year-old Oglala Lakota activist, lives with his family and extended family on a 2,000-acre ranch near Wounded Knee Creek. White Plume’s land is lovely beyond any singing, rolling out from sage-covered knolls to creeks bruised with late summer lushness. From certain aspects, you can see the Badlands, all sun-bleached spires and scoured pinnacles. And looking another way, you can see the horizon-crowning darkness of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
One hot and humid day in early August, I drove out to interview White Plume in a screened outdoor kitchen he had just built for his wife. Hemp plants sprouted thickly all over their garden. “Go ahead and smoke as much as you like,” White Plume offered. “I always tell people that: Smoke as much as you want, but you won’t get very high.” The plants are remnants from a plantation of industrial hemp—low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)Cannabis sativa—cultivated by the White Plume family in 2000.
During World War II cultivation of hemp was encouraged in the United States, its fiber used for rope, canvas, and uniforms. But in 1970 low-THC industrial hemp was outlawed under the Controlled Substances Act. In 1998 the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance allowing the cultivation of low-THC hemp, a crop well suited to places, like the “rez,” with a short growing season, arid soil, and weather fluctuations.
“The people of Pine Ridge have sovereign status as an independent nation,” White Plume said. “I take that to mean I am free to make a living from this land.” So in spite of reportedly stern warnings from Robert Ecoffey, the superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on Pine Ridge, who pointed out that Oglala Sioux sovereignty is limited and does not include the right to violate federal laws, the White Plumes planted an acre and a half of industrial hemp using seeds collected from plants growing wild on the rez. A few days before the crop was due to be harvested, in late August 2000, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the BIA, and the U.S. Marshals Service swarmed the place in helicopters and SUV s and shut down the hemp operation. The crop went feral. “It was an experiment in capitalism and a test of our sovereignty, but it seems the U.S. government doesn’t want to admit that we should have either,” White Plume said. Then he laughed in the way of a man who knows that he cannot be defeated by ordinary disappointments.
After that we spoke of the treaties made and broken between the U.S. and the Sioux, and that led naturally to a conversation about the Black Hills, which the Oglala consider theiraxis mundi,the center of their spiritual world. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Sioux possession of the hills, but after gold was discovered there in 1874, prospectors swarmed in, and the U.S. government quickly seized the land. The Sioux refused to accept the legitimacy of the seizure and fought the takeover for more than a century. On June 30, 1980, inUnited Statesv.Sioux Nation of Indians,the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an award of $17.5 million for the value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years’ worth of interest, together totaling $106 million. But the Sioux rejected the payment, insisting that the Black Hills would never be for sale.