Each year, around August 9th, much of the world celebrates the International Day Of The World’s Indigenous Peoples. The event has been commemorated ever since 1995, after the United Nations General Assembly voted to observe it.
The main idea has been to strengthen international cooperation to solve the many problems faced by indigenous peoples around the globe. The main issues involve such areas as social development, economics, education, health, human rights, culture, and the environment.
Indigenous people and mainstream cultures have encountered, clashed, and cooperated with each other for many centuries. The usual result has been the exploitation, subjugation and/or oppression of the native peoples. The most recognizeable example of this propensity happened when European peoples discovered, settled, and colonized territories on other continents. This tendency continued after the various colonies freed themselves from their respective colonizing powers.
Representative of this type of activity was the settlement of North America by immigrants from the major European countries of Great Britain, France, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands, and later, Central European principalities. The native people were forcibly elbowed out of their traditional homelands, driven into exile to undesirable lands, and sometimes endured efforts towards ethnic cleansing. The last of the Indian Wars happened within a few hundred miles of my home.
One of the most impoverished places in North America is in South Central South Dakota, The Pine Ridge Reservation. Allegedly, one of the most contentious places in the United States is in the neighboring Sheridan County, Nebraska village, Whiteclay. Sheridan County is where the inhabitants of the “dry” South Dakota reservation go to obtain alcoholic beverages. The struggle between the prohibition of alcohol consumption and possession at Pine Ridge and permission to sell it in Nebraska, has been lengthy and heated.
The alcohol problems of White Clay and Pine Ridge Reservation are sad reminders that there is much unfinished business regarding the indigenous people of North America. The Oglala Sioux people were relegated to the Pine Ridge reservation before the last battles of the Indian Wars.
The last noteworthy incident with the tribes of the Great Plains took place in the winter of 1973, when a large group of armed Oglalas reclaimed Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the name of the Lakota Nation. That crisis received worldwide news coverage.
The Pine Ridge uprising was fueled by more than the alcohol issue. The traditionalists within the native community wanted the Federal Government to honor the terms of the 1868 Sioux Treaty, which is still legally in force. Part of that treaty states that the Black Hills of South Dakota still belong to the Sioux People. Activists wanted that territory returned to the original owners.
The other serious Pine Ridge problem was strip mining of the land. The natives alleged that toxic chemicals used by mining operations were causing illness and birth defects among the residents of the reservation.
Activists of the American Indian Movement, AIM, were upset with the passive nature of the official overseers of the Pine Ridge Reservation in dealing with the Black Hills, the contamination issues, and other problems facing the native people. AIM charged that the tribal government was little more than a puppet of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Confrontations became a daily occurrence.
The occupation of Wounded Knee and its siege lasted 71 days. There were deaths and disappearances plus the federal authorities arrested some 1,200 people. Only 15 were convicted of any crimes. Meanwhile, there was little positive action in favor of the Lakota Nation and many long-standing issues remain unresolved.
Problems of jurisdiction, poverty, indigenous culture, lack of quality education, and self-determination are present throughout much of the world. That’s why today’s International Day Of The World’s Indigenous Peoples shouldn’t be just a feel-good, photo-op event. There is much real work to be done.