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GUEST COLUMN: Treaty of Fort Laramie often forgotten

Of all the months of the year, April seems to hold ownership as the month with the most recognized holidays – Easter, Good Friday, April Fool’s Day, Earth Day, Arbor Day. Beyond the high-end sacred celebrations and environmental commemoratives, there’s also an entire plethora of confounding secular memorials. There is National Peanut Butter-and-Jelly Day, sharing its considerable weight with National Ferret Day on April 2. National Read-A-Roadmap Day holds sway on April 5, as well as National Big Wind Day on April 12 (I’m not quite sure what is being commemorated on that day). April 15 is National Tax Day, which coincidentally shares its annoying gravitas with National Rubber Eraser Day. Can there be any better example of idyllic synchronicity? Of course, who can forget National Hug-a-Plumber Day on April 25, and National Sense of Smell Day on April 27? Why those two were never combined, I’ll never know. And last but not least, there is National Bugs Bunny Day on April 30. What a maroon! We are, as Americans, one celebration-happy bunch.

And yet, as Americans, one of April’s most noteworthy days is so often forgotten – the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie on April 29, 1868. Sorry to burst your lighthearted, all-American bubble. The treaty, signed in Wyoming, was negotiated as a direct result of Red Cloud’s War, the Lakota chief after whom it is named. Red Cloud and his Lakota warriors had wreaked extended havoc on forts along the Bozeman Trail in the year prior to its signing. The treaty closed the Bozeman Trail and demanded removal of all troops from the area. It also recognized the right of the Sioux to hunt the Powder River area of Wyoming. Had the treaty been adequately honored, the Sioux would now own the entire western half of South Dakota, as well as huge parcels of what would soon become North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Of course, as was the case in many of our signed treaties, the articles were quickly ignored by both government and settlers once gold and other “valuable” minerals were discovered. In this instance, in the sacred Black Hills. The purposeful neglect of the Treaty of Fort Laramie led directly to the confrontation and slaughter at the Little Bighorn in 1876, and 14 years later, to the massacre at Wounded Knee. The rights of the Lakota to ownership of the Black Hills has never been re-established.

I was reminded of this dishonor recently, after hearing the self-righteous political pandering of Democratic candidates discussing slavery reparations in a backdoor attempt to attract black votes. To be honest, I have no opinion one way or another about the viability of reparations. I understand the value of the conversation, but remain dubious about any possible outcome. The possibility has been discussed by several other European nations involved in slavery in the past, yet no policy considerations have ever bore fruit. There is no reason to believe it will ever bear fruit in our own nation. But who's to know? What caught my attention, however, was the first candidate to openly discuss the possibility – Elizabeth Warren. Of course, we’re all aware of the deceitful drama surrounding Warren’s genealogical battle to prove her Indian bloodline. If you are not, you may come out from beneath your rock now. “Pocahontas”, as Donald Trump has taken to calling Warren, has displayed a long-suffering belief in her own Native American ancestry. Why? I haven’t the slightest idea. Whatever political gain she must have believed she would attain was lost long ago in the bizarre trappings of the story.

Still, I suppose my curiosity lies in just one simple question – if you are truly interested in minority reparations, why not aim at reparations for a minority lying so near and dear to your heart? I suppose the reason I ask is the simple fact that judicial rulings on the Treaty of Fort Laramie already have precedent. It was not always so. Beginning in 1920, the Sioux Nations sued the government for compensation. At the time, Indians were not allowed citizenship nor the right to vote. The 1920 suit was given little consideration. When resubmitted in 1942, the court ruled the Sioux were not entitled to compensation. After decades of grievance hearings, the case was sent again to the court in 1974. The Claims Court ruled that the Sioux were entitled to $17.5 million for land taken in violation of the Indian’s constitutional rights. The fact that the land is sacred to the Sioux, as well as the Sioux interest in protecting the Black Hills from further environmental damage, have forced the tribe to refuse payment and demand return of the land itself. Another offer of $43 million has also been refused, although haggling continues among tribe members. The Court, remarking on President Grant’s duplicity in ignoring the government’s obligation to keep trespassers out of the Black Hills, and his pattern of purposeful duress by starvation of the Sioux as a way to coerce them to sell the Black Hills, concluded, and I quote: “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”

In short, if Ms. Warren wishes to speak of reparations, let her attempt to include those she seems so hungry to include in her own family album. Will the Black Hills ever be returned to the Lakota? Not in my lifetime. Is the question worth asking? Absolutely, if for no other reason than to speak calmly and clearly about all who have lost, both lives and a reason for living.   

PAUL WHEELER, a former member of The Write Team, resides in Ottawa. "The River at Both Ends," Wheeler's most recent book of poetry, is available at Prairie Fox Books in Ottawa. He can be reached via

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