I never would have thought to compare buffalo—that mighty member of the bovid family that roams and stampedes across the prairie—to a Walmart, until I heard an interview with Bamm Brewer of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Brewer is a buffalo rancher and member of the Oglala Lakota tribe that lives on Pine Ridge. Reporter Fred de Sam Lazaro of the Under-Told Stories project, based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently spoke with Brewer for a PBS NewsHour segment on the tribe’s mission to regain control of vast tracts of its ancestral land in South Dakota.
De Sam Lazaro’s story begins with video footage of buffalo racing across open land on the reservation, their dark brown bodies stirring up clouds of dust among the rolling hills of muted green and pale gold.
Then the camera cuts to Brewer, in sunglasses and a Crazy Horse Rider T-shirt, talking with de Sam Lazaro. “The buffalo was significant to our ancestors because it provided everything,” Brewer notes, before linking the animal to the superstores known for cheap but perhaps indispensable goods.
“The buffalo was like the Walmart: food, clothing, medicine, and also a sacred being, a symbol of power for our people.”
Tribes like the Oglala Lakota endured genocide, the loss of their Native lands, and the subsequent isolation and poverty that comes with life at Pine Ridge.
But the buffalo, adds de Sam Lazaro, also became a “symbol of loss.” The expansion of white European settlers into the West wiped out much of its prairies and grasslands and led to the near-extinction of the buffalo who thrived there.
Tribes like the Oglala Lakota endured genocide, the loss of their Native lands, and the subsequent isolation and poverty that comes with life at Pine Ridge. But they are still here, and Brewer and other leaders are part of a renewed effort to reclaim the land illegally taken from Indigenous people by the U.S. government.
Under a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Native tribes are owed more than a billion dollars for the land in South Dakota, including the Black Hills, that was part of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Tribal leaders have continually rejected this attempted payoff. They want the land instead—a concept likely foreign to many Westernized minds. But Brewer, like other Native Americans, wants his grandchildren to be able to grow up without the kind of poverty that has inhibited generations of Oglala Lakota people.
This point is echoed by Nick Tilsen, who was also featured in de Sam Lazaro’s report.
Tilsen is a young Oglala Lakota leader and entrepreneur. He is president and CEO of the NDN Collective, a redevelopment and advocacy agency based in Rapid City, South Dakota, on the eastern edge of the Black Hills.
In July, Tilsen was arrested while leading a protest at Mount Rushmore during a campaign stop by President Donald Trump. He is facing multiple charges, including a felony count of robbery for an incident in which a state trooper’s riot shield was taken and spray painted with the words “land back.”
What Tilsen and others are advocating for, according to de Sam Lazaro’s report, is “Indigenous-led development to reduce the near total dependence on appropriations from Congress, managed by various federal agencies.”
The NDN Collective takes in millions of philanthropic dollars each year and uses the money to support groups and issues including the reallocation of land and the blocking of mining and pipeline construction built for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry.
The urgency of these efforts has intensified due to the unmitigated spread of COVID-19 across South Dakota. The state’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, has actively resisted taking steps to control the pandemic, even as it raged through a meatpacking plant near Sioux Falls and otherwise pushed the state to the brink of a health-care collapse.
In July, while Tilsen and others were blocking the road outside Mount Rushmore, Noem was indulging Trump’s fantasies about adding his face to the other Presidents depicted on the monument.
Rather than model a cautionary approach, Noem has encouraged South Dakota citizens to defy infectious disease experts and gather together, albeit perhaps in smaller-than-usual groups. On Saturday, as South Dakota set a new record for daily deaths due to COVID-19, Noem urged residents to hit the shopping malls.
This crisis is disproportionately impacting the state’s Indigenous residents.
I have written before about Noem’s disastrous lack of leadership regarding the pandemic, but I think it bears further examination. Currently, for example, half of all people who take a coronavirus test in the state are testing positive—a staggering share.
This crisis is disproportionately impacting the state’s Indigenous residents. Democratic state representative Peri Pourier, a member of the Oglala tribe whose district includes the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, spoke about this recently for an MSNBC report.
“We are losing our elders, our knowledge keepers, all the fundamentals that make us Oglala,” Pourier told reporter Ali Veshi. She said the current and historic neglect and marginalization of Indigenous people in South Dakota has left the community vulnerable: “People are scared.”
“We are Lakota. We believe we are all related,” Pourier told Veshi, contrasting this to what she called Noem’s endless “hammering” that personal responsibility trumps any obligation to call for mask mandates or to temporarily close businesses.
The pandemic offers an opportunity, albeit a tragic one, for us to reconsider some important questions. Are we all responsible merely for ourselves, as Noem keeps insisting? Or are the Lakota leaders right in saying that we are all related and thus responsible for each other?
If we follow the Lakota worldview, then giving land back to help sustain and nurture future generations would seem like a logical next step, once the pandemic is brought under control.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.