Wounded Knee, Dances with Wolves and the Dakota Access Pipeline

Written by Arlo Curry.

Some of you may be wondering what connects the three things in the title of this article. An odd-sounding place name, a three-hour-long film and a controversial oil pipeline. The answer isn’t a happy one, and I think it’s only fair that I warn you that this article isn’t on the most cheery of subjects.

The thing that connects these three things is, unfortunately, the oppression of Native Americans. This is always a subject I have been aware of, but over the last few years I have become especially invested in increasing my understanding of it. I have held the view that the decline and near-destruction of the Native Americans is an often-overlooked tragedy of history.

North and South

It is interesting how differently colonialism manifested in the Americas compared to Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The native people of most African colonies retained control of the nations after the colonisers left, though the states in question still suffered from decisions made during colonial times. In India suffering under colonialism even ended up uniting the disparate peoples of differing ethnicities and religions that had been exploited by Europeans – the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British – in the first place to ease their conquest. Compared to this, though, the native populations of the Americas were utterly supplanted as first rulers and then even owners of the land.

Powerful civilisations such as the Inca, Aztecs and Maya were destroyed by Spanish colonists and the people turned into second-class citizens. Similarly, First Nations tribes and confederations from the Iroquois and Huron to the Cherokee and Sioux were gradually pushed off their land and forced to make way for European settlers.

All these peoples, both North and South American, lost thousands to battle against European invaders and millions to European diseases.

And today? Well, I’ll go on to discuss the North Americans in more detail, but in South America the indigenous peoples have suffered centuries of oppression and racism by the governments of those with Spanish descent. In recent years things have improved somewhat, especially in Bolivia where a party supportive of indigenous rights had power for several decades, but not enough to redress half a millennium of suffering.

Colonising North America

The Native North Americans are the main subject of this article. I conceived the idea of it when I watched an in-depth review of the film Dances With Wolves, directed by Kevin Costner. For those who haven’t seen it, it follows a US soldier posted to an isolated, dilapidated fort and the way he is slowly integrated with the culture of the local Sioux. Though long, it is worth a watch as it tells a story both beautiful and tragic in equal measure. Though not perfect (pronunciation of the Lakota Sioux language wasn’t wholly accurate, as only one actor was a native speaker) the film still did wonders to provide awareness of Native American culture and the Sioux adopted Costner as an honorary member, showing their appreciation.

Of course, the film cannot tell the whole story, and the suffering of the Native Americans was extensive. When Europeans arrived in North America they were quick to expand, and at the time all expansion was at the expense of the tribes who lived on the land. All the Europeans were aggressive against the Native Americans, but the French were the first to promote trade and commerce rather than violent expansion. The British and Spanish were far more forceful and warlike, but eventually the British government too tried to limit the expansion of its settlers at the expense of the Native Americans. This was among the reasons that the settlers felt oppressed by the British and one of the reasons for the American War of Independence.

With the French and British no longer active in North America after the Louisiana Purchase and War of 1812 respectively (though the British still held Canada), expansion of settlers was headed by the new American nation. It wasn’t long before the Americans turned their attention to this expansion. In 1830, against much opposition led by the frontiersman Davy Crockett, President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act. As a result, over the course of the next twenty years, the members of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were forcibly removed across the Mississippi so the American government could take over the land they vacated.

This land was the tribes’ ancestral homeland that they’d lived in for centuries.

The Seminoles resisted and though seven hundred died in the attempt, the remainder – less than five hundred of them – were allowed to remain in their own homeland. The other tribes, however, felt they had no choice but to accept in the face of overpowering governmental strength. Exposed to hardship and disease on the journeys, thousands died: hundreds of Chickasaw, two to four thousand Choctaw, 3,500 Creek and up to 8,000 Cherokee. It is no wonder that the Cherokee called this removal, “The Trail of Tears”, which is how it is commonly known today. Those few who chose to stay against government authority were subject to harassment and constant pressure to leave.

After this, the Native Americans had around two decades of peace, during which the Americans were more focused on the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills, where the Sioux lived, American miners were quick to flock there.

The American government attempted to buy the land off of the Sioux who lived there but, unsurprisingly, the tribes didn’t want to sell the land that was their home and sacred to them.

When these efforts failed, the government turned to force and the Sioux mobilised in response.

The Great Indian War and Wounded Knee

The war, from 1876 to 1877, was quick and though the Sioux defeated General Custer and his soldiers at Little Bighorn, they couldn’t stand up to the power of the rising US. The Siou