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11 June 2009updated 24 Sep 2015 10:16am

Old wound, same pain

The conquest of the Wild West left North America’s first inhabitants scattered, diseased and broken.

By Simon Akam

The past is not well buried at Wounded Knee. The bodies themselves are long gone, and little more than a sheet-metal sign covered in scrawled, bleached-out graffiti commemorates the events of a bitter winter’s day in 1890. But for the Oglala Sioux, who inhabit the squalid trailers and drafty bungalows scattered across the grassland around the battle site, old memories are preserved in the people’s present-day suffering.

It is nearly 119 years since the Hotchkiss guns of the US 7th Cavalry massacred hundreds of their ancestors, ending the Indian Wars and leaving Chief Big Foot sprawled dead in the South Dakota snow, and with him the dream of native resistance to the white man’s westward expansion. Yet today on Pine Ridge, the tribe’s reservation close to the state line with Nebraska, life expectancy is still the lowest in the United States: the men of the Sioux live on average only to the age of 56.

The story of how the native inhabitants of North America have fared since the arrival of the first European settlers is a sad one. Their numbers depleted by foreign diseases to which they had scant resistance, they were cheated and defrauded out of their lands, and then stereotyped as tomahawk-wielding savages by Hollywood. Recently, however, much has changed; while some tribes such as the Oglala Sioux remain in desperate straits, others have begun to find new ways to make livelihoods for themselves in a modern world. And in this pivotal year for race relations in the US – with a black man in the Oval Office for the first time – it seems timely to investigate where the continent’s first oppressed people find themselves today. What does it mean to be a Native American in the age of Obama?

Fittingly, my first encounter with Native American culture was in Washington, DC in January, during the heady few days around the presidential inauguration, the city packed to the gills, the grass on the National Mall trampled and chunky Humvees crowding the street corners. I was there to speak with members of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the body that represents native interests to DC lawmakers and Capitol Hill politicos.

My arrival coincided with a tribal leaders’ meeting in Crystal City, a suburb across the Potomac River in northern Virginia. There, the Hyatt hotel was packed with delegates: downstairs in a subterranean chamber were dancers in magnificent feathered headdresses; upstairs in the conference chamber, the talk was of the new administration and the president’s promise of help to Native American communities through the economic stimulus package, a fund that would eventually amount to more than $2bn.

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Yet when I spoke to Jacqueline Johnson Pata, a Tlinglit Native American from Alaska and chairwoman of the NCAI, she explained that, for some native communities today, the most important economic support is not through handouts from Washington, but in fact the money generated by these communities’ own casino operations. US law treats Native American tribes as sovereign entities, in a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government, and since the 1970s various tribes have exploited this status to run gaming operations that remain outside direct state control.

“Casinos build schools, build bridges,” Johnson Pata said. “Gaming has been the one economic opportunity that’s actually benefited . . . Gaming has made some tribes have some revenues that have helped them build their communities, send their kids to school, provided college, diversification for other businesses.”

Just how much money some tribes have made from gaming became apparent months later when, at the newly opened New York Yankees baseball stadium in the South Bronx, Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole tribe in Florida, smashed a Fender guitar to open the ballpark’s outpost of the Hard Rock Cafe. The Seminole, flush with gaming wealth, bought the entire Hard Rock chain for $965m in 2006, in the largest ever purchase of a corporation by an indigenous people.

But even in January, it was clear that gaming was key to understanding the contemporary Native American experience and both ends of the wealth spectrum it had created. The apparatchiks in DC had insisted that while a few tribes had been able to make substantial profits from their casinos, many others, despite having gaming operations, were still mired in poverty.

A few weeks later, I made my way to south-eastern Connecticut and the reservation of the Mashantucket Pequots, a tribe massacred by European settlers in 1637, now owners of the largest casino in North America. Their operation, Foxwoods, began life as a bingo hall in 1986; a cash injection from a Chinese-Malaysian businessman, Lim Goh Tong, underwrote a huge programme of expansion. Today it boasts 340,000 square feet of gaming areas, 7,200 slot machines and six separate casinos. The vast concrete-and-mirrored-glass complex towers above the treetops, amid concentric rings of parking lots and hotels.

Yet when I spoke to Michael Thomas, chairman of the Pequots, he explained that the crucial factor that allowed his tribe to profit from gaming in such a spectacular fashion was its location, close to major population centres. “We have 26 million people within two and a half hours’ drive of the reservation,” he said, agreeing that the spoils of Native American gaming were not equally distributed across the United States. “For a select number of tribes, like mine, that still reside in heavily populated areas, it has been an economic blessing. The vast majority of the tribes continue to be mired in poverty.”

In some respects, Foxwoods seems an extraordinary success story. With its themed restaurants and leisurewear-clad punters, it may be no Monte Carlo, but it is still a brash reversal of centuries of oppression. However, in other ways the Pequots also embody many of the controversies attached to this new form of native enterprise – in particular the vexed issue of tribal membership.

Although the gleaming museum that the tribe has built with casino revenue is full of dugout canoes and mannequins in traditional dress, the idea that the 870 current members represent an unsullied heritage is disputable. Like most Native American peoples, the Pequots were severely weakened by the white man’s diseases, to which they had little resistance. Yet their lineage is more fraught than most. By the 1970s and before the rise of gaming wealth, there were only two tribe members still living on the reservation. Others returned subsequently, but still today most of those who profit from Foxwoods are of only fractional native descent. And unlike some other tribes, the Pequots do not enforce a blood quantum – a minimum amount of Native American ancestry – as a requirement for membership. Instead, anyone who can prove lineal descent from two censuses, completed in 1900 and 1910, is eligible to join.

Lori Potter, a member who now works for the casino, argued that it was irrelevant to question the present Pequots’ ancestry. “We determine that it is not necessarily how much blood you have, but it’s your ties to the community and to the land, and to the culture and heritage here,” she said. “Just like Britain doesn’t use a blood quantum to define a Briton.” Potter herself, who moved back to the reservation in 1996, is one-eighth Native American.

Foxwoods provides an extraordinary insight into how some of the tribes have transformed their way of life, but the gilded trustafarians of the Mashantuckets are far from typical Native Americans. To travel to South Dakota and the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Sioux, however, is to see how the other half lives. Located out on the vast prairies that dominate the state, it is the poorest tribal homeland in the country, and has become a byword for Native American social deprivation.

The contrast between Prairie Wind Casino, the Oglalas’ own venture into gaming, and Foxwoods back in Connecticut could not be more complete. Under a great sky squatted a low brick-and-steel building, an island far out in the endless grassland. In a parking lot smeared with windblown snow stood muscular pick-up trucks, bearing licence plates from neighbouring Nebraska and Wyoming as well as South Dakota. Inside the casino itself was a compact gaming floor where slot machines buzzed beneath a replica wigwam.

In a partitioned back office, I spoke to Pam Giago, a tribe member and the casino’s general manager. She explained how Prairie Wind laid on transportation to bring in customers to the remote casino. “We do busing from the various locations,” she said. “Sometimes we have buses that come in just for the day; other buses bring customers for night stay. We have slow days and we have good days.”

Nevertheless, it was clear, given the Oglalas’ isolated location, that a Foxwoods-style gaming operation was never going to be an option for them. Their casino provides 288 much-needed jobs for local people and, according to Theresa Two Bulls, the tribe’s chairwoman, contributed $125,000 per month to the community. On Pine Ridge, however, a reservation with a population of 40,000-plus and an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut, that is not nearly enough to lift the Sioux out of poverty.

Some poverty it is, too. Keen to see conditions on the reservation first-hand, I drove across the prairie to Wounded Knee, the old battleground synonymous with the Native American plight in the United States. There, a stone’s throw from the massacre site, I met Emerson Elk, one of the few remaining speakers of the Lakota language, whose 100 per cent native ancestry makes him a “full-blood” member of the Oglala Sioux. He lives with his wife and sons in a bungalow streaked with mould and surrounded by a bone yard of cannibalised cars and a van full of animal hides and pelts. Lifting a stone-bladed tomahawk axe from beneath the table, Elk explained how, in the 19th century, the US government reneged on its treaty obligations to the Sioux, confining them to a shrinking area as their ancestral lands were annexed for settlement by the white man. Elk, 52, was grimly matter-of-fact about the present conditions on the reservation, too.

“We, the people, are living in extreme poverty,” he said. “It’s very bleak here. It’s very hard being Lakota. We have government housing: [there’s] a cookie-cutter effect, all the houses are the same. The insulation, it’s not very good. It’s not doing its job in the wintertime. We can’t even have a wood stove in these houses. In 1890 our people were being exterminated, and that mentality is still here today. Under the US government we’re barely surviving. We have treaties that are not doing their obligations – to health, education and welfare. By the time the money trickles down to the Lakota people, it’s zero.”

That afternoon Elk, whose Lakota name Sai-Moto translates as “Bad Bear”, took me out to see the manner in which his tribe now lives. As he directed from the passenger seat, I drove up a rutted track of ice and mud to the mass grave where the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre were buried, and there he spoke to his ancestors in the clipped tones of the indigenous language. Then we traversed the reservation, passing battered trailer homes with no indoor sanitation; in some cases, their desperate inhabitants had stripped the aluminium coverings to sell, leaving their trailers naked and looking like husks.

Ninety miles from Wounded Knee, in the eastern part of Pine Ridge, we visited the hamlet of Wanblee, where I saw a tiny, four-bedroom bungalow awash with dark-eyed children. Twelve people call it home. Seeing the scant insulation and propane heating, I asked Elk just how cold it could get in a hard winter.“Sometimes you can saw a gallon of antifreeze in half,” he replied. “When the wind blows, it gets right through the wall.”

A vast divide exists at Pine Ridge between the full-blood members of the tribe and those with lesser native ancestry, who dominate the local administration and business community. In Wanblee, I spoke to Fred Sitting Up, a full-blood who had lost much of his vision to diabetes, which is endemic to the reservation.“The federal government allowed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enrol anyone in our tribe,” claimed the 55-year-old. “They assumed more leadership roles. They get in by saying, ‘My great-great-great-grandmother was Indian.’ They want our land base. Right now they’re trying to dig for uranium. They’re all non-Indian. They’re not doing anything to protect our people, our land. Three-quarters of the reservation is owned by non-Indians. They don’t like us.”

Elk added: “When I die, I don’t want to see no half-breeds.” It was clear then that even though the Oglalas were a world away from the Mashantuckets (far from their casino’s money being sufficient to fund the education of the tribe’s children, some tribespeople claimed they received just $10 per child) they were still negotiating the same identity issues as their eastern counterparts.

My visit to South Dakota also helped to put my earlier experiences in Washington into perspective. Much had baffled me during Obama’s investiture, when I had attended the Native American inaugural ball at the Hyatt in Crystal City, and the ballroom shook late into that historic night. In particular, I was puzzled by the dress code of ornate feathered headdresses worn over jeans and tuxedos laced with beads. But after I’d witnessed the residents of Mashantucket and Pine Ridge thrashing out their identity politics at both ends of the Native American socio-economic spectrum, that sartorial melange seemed more appropriate.

I understood the real irony that underpinned the night of the ball. For the United States had just inaugurated its first black president, yet the system of tribal sovereignty that governs Native American affairs – and indeed underpins the gaming enterprises that have brought great wealth to some communities – remains a riff on the “separate but equal” doctrine of institutional inequality that the civil rights movement fought so hard to dismantle.

And so, on that frigid but joyful evening of the ball on the Potomac River, as Barack Obama was on his way to the White House, most of the revellers would be returning, sooner or later, to their American bantustans.

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