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 Sioux leadership, much like the tribes that had been removed in the 1830s, were forced into reservations, their land taken by the government.
For thirteen years, the Sioux suffered as their buffalo were hunted and killed, and miners encroached on their reservations. This resulted in the Ghost Dance movement, following the words of a prophet named Wovoka. Wovoka claimed that the white settlers would disappear, the buffalo and other animals would return and their ancestors would return to Earth as ghosts.
The US authorities, alarmed by the movement, decided to take some of the Sioux chiefs into custody to prevent an uprising.
Sitting Bull, a leader of the Sioux during the days of the war thirteen years before, was killed during his arrest and many of his people fled to join the band of another chief, Spotted Elk. US soldiers intercepted the band and escorted them to Wounded Knee. There, the soldiers began disarming the Sioux but a gun went off, most likely by accident though reports are conflicted. The soldiers fired on the Sioux and though some managed to pick up guns and fire back, the fight was very one-sided. Sioux men were killed fighting, but unarmed women and children were also hunted down and killed by the soldiers as they fled. Twenty-five soldiers were killed, but so were between 250 and 300 Sioux, more than two-thirds of these women and children.
The Wounded Knee massacre was the last time the Sioux, or any Native American tribe, actually had the ability to defend themselves. After that, the tribes were penned in their reservations permanently. And, unfortunately, though the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 addressed many imbalances, the damage had already been done. And, as I’m about to relate, more unfair treatment was to come...
The Dakota Access Pipeline: A Modern Atrocity Against The Sioux
I have linked two of the things in my title, but so far not the third. The Dakota Access Pipeline was planned in 2014, and runs through the Dakotas, Iowa and Illinois. There are many reasons for opposition to the construction of pipelines. Environmental concerns, the potential for damage when the pipes burst, as well as general disruption. But in addition to these, the Dakota Access Pipeline was proposed to cross lands that were sacred to Native American tribes, foremost amongst them the Cheyenne River Sioux.
Protests were organised and continued for two years. The protestors were subjected to dog attacks, pepper spray and sound cannons. Later, they were also attacked with water cannons, tear gas and concussion grenades, which caused hundreds of injuries and one death. Though support for the protestors was strong and up to 2,000 US veterans turned out in support, the state authorities remained supportive of the police’s efforts and the pipeline was eventually completed in 2017. Protests continued but nothing came of them, at first.
The pipeline has, so far, caused no severe environmental disasters. But this is no balm to the damage done to the culture, way of life and traditions of the Sioux and other Native American nations by the pipeline’s very construction.
In March 2020, a judge ordered the United States Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new environmental review of the pipeline. It was supposed to be shut down for the review, but this was rescinded. The review is still supposed to happen, so perhaps things will change. But again, even if they do, it will not undo all the horrors that have already been visited on the Native American peoples.
I wanted to write this article for several reasons. I wanted to spread awareness of what I have thought of as a tragedy that isn’t as well-known of as it should be. I wanted to maybe inspire people who are especially interested to look into it more, as I did a few years ago. If even one person reads this admittedly wordy article to the end, then I will feel it was worthwhile. As I said at the start, it isn’t a cheerful read but I do hope it was interesting and inspires further reading. In particular, I recommend Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by American writer Dee Brown. Whether you decide you want to look into this more or not, thank you for reading.
Written by Arlo Curry.
Arlo Curry is a military history graduate who has a wider range of historical interests from classics and colonialism to feudalism and Franks. Non-historical interests include music of all kinds, as well as writing and reading fiction.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.