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Speaking the Truth to Stop Racism Against Native Americans | Commentary

The United States’ historically racist Indian affairs policy cost Native Americans millions of lives and millions of acres of land. At a recent hearing, Rep. Norma J. Torres, D-Calif., acknowledged the devastation wrought by the allotment policy on American-Indian nations and tribes. She is our new hero in Native American country.

Don Young of Alaska, chairman of House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular Affairs and Alaska Natives, is a longtime friend of Indian country. Yet his staff committed an error in preparing for a hearing held on Native American land issues on May 14.

Ominously, the hearing was titled, “Inadequate Standards for Trust Land Acquisition in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.” In framing the issue, the staff relied on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in South Dakota v. Department of Interior. In that case, South Dakota brought a constitutional law non-delegation doctrine challenge to Interior’s authority to acquire Indian trust land for Indians and tribes under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. After the 8th Circuit held for the state, Interior developed rules to allow for timely judicial review. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the 8th Circuit decision, declining to hear the challenge. Scalia dissented.

Reliance on Scalia’s dissent shines new light on the 8th Circuit decision in South Dakota v. Interior, which was sitting in the dustbin of obscurity. Perhaps the staff did not realize the decision’s racist nature, where the 8th Circuit speculated the IRA “would permit the Secretary to purchase the Empire State Building in trust for a tribal chieftain as a wedding present.”

The truth is the IRA offers Indian tribes a chance for restorative justice. It authorizes the secretary to restore some of the lands that were stolen from us, lands to make our tribes whole again.

America’s wars against the Sioux Nation reflect its insatiable hunger for Indian lands. After Red Cloud fought to save the Powder River Country, the United States signed a treaty in 1868 pledging its “honor” to maintain peace so war could “forever cease” and our Lakota would have “absolute and undisturbed use” of our “permanent home,” the Great Sioux Reservation. While allowing allotment of land to individual Lakota families, the treaty prohibited land sales, unless three-quarters of adult men consented.

In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant said U.S. Indian policy must be “civilization,” or it would have to be “extermination,” while Grant’s closest friend, General William T. Sherman, gave free ammunition to white hunters who slaughtered our buffalo for their hides.

In 1876, the U.S. Army attacked the Lakota at Wolf Mountain, the Rosebud, the Little Big Horn and Slim Buttes. The goal was to steal our Black Hills (the biggest gold mine in the Western Hemisphere, 7 million acres and 14 percent of South Dakota). The Army assassinated Chief Lame Deer and Crazy Horse.

Congress passed the Allotment Act in 1887. To make way for South Dakota statehood in 1889, the U.S. took 11 million acres from the Sioux Nation (22 percent of the state). Chief Sitting Bull stood against this theft. Statehood followed in November. The United States broke its promises again, cutting treaty food rations and starving our people after the slaughter of our buffalo. In 1890, the Standing Rock BIA agent ordered Sitting Bull arrested or killed. The BIA police shot him in the back and killed him. When the shooting started, the cavalry rode in. Sitting Bull’s people fled to Chief Big Foot at Cheyenne River, who was on his way to negotiate with the BIA and tribal leaders at Pine Ridge. When Chief Big Foot and his people were stopped at Wounded Knee by the 7th Cavalry, they were surrounded, the men and large boys were lined in front of guns and cannons, disarmed and the 7th Cavalry massacred more than 300 men, women and children.

That is the allotment policy. A committee memo refers to it as “humane.” Yet, the allotment policy was, is and always has been, an instrument of America’s genocide against Native Americans.

Torres stood up for Native Americans when she said, “The United States’ Allotment Policy, which robbed sovereign tribal nations of their ancestral land, was and has always been racist and misguided. The allotment era was a disaster for Indian country and has caused Native Americans significant and lasting damage  . . .  the loss of 90 million acres of land  . . .  and untold historical trauma still being felt today.”

She spoke the truth.

John Yellowbird Steele is president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

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