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Origin Stories

Does the United States have a homeland? Is it truly a nation? Or is it still just a colony that exists to exploit the homelands of other peoples?

people protesting with raised fists and signs reading "defend the sacred"
Jolanda Kirpensteijn

The following is an excerpt from STANDOFF: Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story

Does the United States have a homeland? Is it truly a nation? Or is it still just a colony that exists to exploit the homelands of other peoples? The federal government presently recognizes 537 tribes within its claimed territory. This number is continually growing and doesn’t include state-recognized tribes and Indigenous people lacking any political recognition. Although homelands can be shared, this extreme example of nations within a nation plainly describes an occupation, not a country, and therefore, an ongoing colonial endeavor.

If the United States is still a colony, it could be described as a colony without portfolio—that is, without a homeland. It broke with its homeland, Great Britain, during the Revolutionary War in 1776, and
now occupies sans terra firma the homelands of other countries, our nations—Native nations.

How can you tell if something is a colony? How can you determine if it never stopped being one despite vigorous marketing? Well, examining how it operates can be enlightening. We can begin with:

What does a colony do? What is its definition? The Cambridge Dictionary defines a colony rather simplistically as “a country or area controlled by a more powerful country.” I would go further and describe how it operates, how it functions. A colony extracts resources and wealth from other nations and sends the profits gained from that enterprise back to the ruling elite of its home country—its 1 percent. In a colony without a homeland, as I propose the US is, that 1 percent, that ruling elite, is corporations.

This should come as no surprise when you remember that corporations founded the United States. The Hudson’s Bay Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and the Virginia Company, among others. These joint-stock companies were formed to meet the high risk and vast costs of exploration and colonization. Expenses that even the monarch, the Crown itself, could not afford. The French ancien régime discovered this after losing its colonies in America and funding the English colonies’ Revolutionary War against King George III, which became a factor in precipitating the French Revolution.

In exchange for the capitalization of colonial aspirations and the assumption of risk, these early corporations were given rights by the Crown not only to lands and markets but also to government powers. In India, of course, the East India Company’s role evolved over the seventeenth century, from trading to ruling large parts of India in the eighteenth century, which culminated in India’s British rule.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to attend the hearings for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline held by the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. There, I met a coalition of Native activists and leaders and white farmers and ranchers from South Dakota and Nebraska who called themselves the Cowboy and Indians Coalition. Before attending the all-day hearings and embedding with the coalition in their rented house in Pierre, the state capital, I had not spoken to white landowners opposed to the pipelines. As we sat around a dining table after a long day of testimony, they described their outrage and shock when they discovered the US government had given TransCanada (now TC Energy Corporation), a foreign corporation from Canada, governmental powers of eminent domain over their lands. These landowners were faced with the hard choice of either giving in to the corporation’s demand for right-of-way and risking a pipeline leak that could damage their operations, or fighting an expensive and protracted legal battle with the pipeline company and its army of attorneys—a battle they would surely lose.

Looking into these incredulous white men’s faces, the first thought that ran through my mind was, “Don’t you know history? How do you not know the history of this country?”

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In my high school history class, I learned about the founding of the earliest settlement in Jamestown and the role the outlandishly named Virginia Company of London “adventurers” played in it. A company (it’s in the name) started the state, the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Who can forget watching Richard Attenborough as Lord Burgh- ley tartly informing Cate Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth I that she had to marry because she was inheriting a bankrupt country with no army. The Virgin Queen lacked the funds to embark on such a risky endeavor as exploration and colonization on her own. She relied on the piracy of “Sea Dogs” like Sir Walter Raleigh to replenish her coffers, which technically made her a pirate queen.

All of this illustrated to me why a clear understanding of this blend of corporate and governmental power was necessary to explain not only the invasions of our homelands, but the role this fundamental dynamic plays today: How this dynamic dictated past outcomes and future ones, too. How the “Age of Discovery” was funded. How the English came to be in what they called the “New World,” and which my ancestors called “Our World.” Each of these factors play a role in our relationships to this day. This powerful and fruitful engine, the modern corporation and its relationship to governance and domination, is why the interview I conduct with the white landowners four hundred years later is in English. It’s also why this book was composed in English. Most farmers in South Dakota are of German, Scandinavian, or Czech descent. English is not their native tongue either.


Origin stories operate not merely as history lessons, but as algorithmic functions structured by the nature of the relationships the origin story details. Algorithms are “a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.”2

The rules, or “original instructions,” origin stories describe function like directions given in a recipe and, when followed, produce specific outcomes. In the case of a colonial algorithm, the pervasive rule is the demand of profitability free and unbound by Malthusian limits to growth. In a country, particularly an island nation like Britain, these limits were real and created by a set limitation on arable land. The end run around these limits is colonization, that is, the domination of other peoples’ resources. Applied to the “New World,” this has culminated in a powerful engine of consumption whose endgame appears to be the present specter of catastrophic climate change.

The United States’ origin story begins primarily with a financial incentive driven by colonial interests that are evident in the corporate origin of many of the colonies and in the land speculation that fueled the revolutionary furor of the Founding Fathers. In contrast, an Indigenous origin story encodes a set of rules that produces vastly different outcomes. A People’s story begins with transformative contact with a spiritual being and the agreement or original instructions that are made with the being, who is a manifestation of the land itself.

When we compare the colonial origin story or algorithm to that of the People, as Native nations often call themselves, a distinct difference in orientation presents itself. Sometimes Indigenous peoples will call themselves the “real People” as in the case of my mother’s people the Diné (or Navajo). In the context of the Bundy worldview versus an Indigenous one, the two narratives can be labeled by political outcomes desired by protagonists in these respective movements: sovereign citizen vs. sovereign nation. These are part of a broader analysis comparing the Bundy takeovers of public lands, an expression of the sovereign citizen movement, to Standing Rock, an assertion of an Indigenous nation’s sovereignty as a People. Depending on define them as a People and, consequently, as a nation. This is exemplified (and reinforced) by the way my the dialect, Dakota or Lakota means “allies” or “friends.” This meaning emphasizes the relationships that father’s people end their prayers with the phrase Mitákuye ‘Oyás’iŋ, “we are all related.”

Lakota/Dakota origin stories (stories of us becoming a distinct people) begin with the meeting with the White Buffalo Calf Woman (Pte San Winyan) and her gift of the canunpa, the sacred pipe, and the seven sacred ceremonies. My Lala, Phil Lane Sr. (my grandmother’s cousin) used to say, “Before we met the White Buffalo Calf Woman, we were not Dakota. We were something else. After we met her, we became Dakota.” It was in this meeting with her, a sacred being who was a manifestation of the Great Plains itself and the Buffalo Nation (Tatanka Oyate), that we became Dakota. It is our origin story as a People.

“My people, the Dakotas,” my great-great-aunt Ella Deloria recalled in her 1944 book Speaking of Indians, “understood the meaning of self-sacrifice, perhaps because their legends taught them that the buffalo, on which their very life depended, gave itself voluntarily that they might live.”3

It is said that the meeting with the White Buffalo Calf Woman took place while the people were camped near the Pipestone Quarry in Minnesota. This soft claystone bed was the sole source of the red stone (now called Catlinite to honor the white American painter George Catlin) used in our sacred canunpa. They say the rock is red because it is the congealed and fossilized blood of our ancestors who died in the great flood. Until 1928, the quarry was part of the Yankton Sioux Reservation of my father’s tribe, who were its traditional protectors in the Océti Sakówin.

This demonstrates how, for us, the land itself is sacred. When we traverse it, our mother’s body, we are reminded of the stories that recall the myriad ways we have experienced a sacred relationship with the land, with our mother, Unci Maka. It is a relationship necessarily built on respect, awe, and gratitude. An interdependency that is not only the core of our identity as a People but also defines and frames the experience of our very humanity. When we travel across our mother, we are reminded of this agreement we made with her. Because the moment we became a People, we became her people. The responsibilities we agreed to obey are imbued with the honor that kinship implies.

This relationship is something the Dakota Access and Keystone XL companies (Energy Transfer and TransCanada, respectively) can never understand as corporate entities with origin stories dependent on a colonial imperative. The colonial relationship is not contained by boundaries, only the calculus of profit—more rightly described as plunder, because the real costs are never deducted from the taking. The original colonial instructions are not bound by a specific place on earth, like the Great Plains, or, for my mother’s people the Dinétah, our homeland between the four sacred mountains and the four sacred rivers. Without boundaries, the corporation does not have to pay for the consequences of its moneymaking ventures. It merely moves on to somewhere else when the oil field runs out.


Even as thousands took a stand at Standing Rock to prevent a pipeline, an oil by rail pipeline was quietly completed beneath Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The tribe already has over four thousand miles of pipelines crisscrossing its reservation. The Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara (MHA) Tribe also had the opportunity to stop the DAPL in 2015 and refuse Energy Transfer Partner’s right of way on fee land the tribe owns and uses as a buffalo ranch a couple of hundred miles north of Standing Rock. The tribal council ultimately chose not to fight a losing battle over eminent domain in the courts.

The MHA is a tribe with over sixteen thousand members, their million-acre reservation encompassing fully one-third of the Bakken oil fields. The tribe, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, issues leases for hundreds of fracked oil wells on their reservation, which pump out the same fracked heavy crude oil the DAPL is transporting, and have brought the tribal treasury and individual tribal members who are fortunate to have oil-rich land (not all do), more than two billion dollars in oil revenue since 2009. “We are of the firm belief we will become more sovereign by the barrel,” former MHA tribal chairman Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall declared in a 2011 speech before the North Dakota legislature. Hall was later embroiled in a murder-for-hire scandal by a business associate, covered by the New York Times in 2014 with the headline “In North Dakota, a Tale of Oil, Corruption, and Death.”


In 2013, after several years of an oil boom, MHA tribal members on the Fort Berthold Reservation worried the tribe was not putting money aside like they had promised to do for tribal members without mineral rights. Despite not all tribal citizens profiting equally, they still paid the price in a reduction of quality of life created by fracking. One tribal member I spoke to was concerned about his parents driving to the grocery store due to increased danger from numerous water trucks driven on their rural roads to supply the fracked wells. In addition, there was an increase in sexual assaults as nearby camps filled with oil workers.

The fracked wells also produced uranium waste and irradiated commercial detritus with little oversight of the waste’s disposal and storage. Yet Tribal Chairman Hall testified before Congress opposing federal Environmental Protection Agency oversight, claiming it violated tribal sovereignty. At the same time, he gutted the tribe’s environmental program.

Many MHA tribal members told me they could foresee a future where, having trashed their reservation, they would need to buy a new one. These are not concerns corporations have to concern themselves with since the capital they represent is not constrained to any homeland. Many corporations, like Peabody Coal and other mining companies, have a history of declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying for cleanup. Their investors and owners then structure capital to form new corporations, like a bad spirit or monster in possession of a new body. The MHA tribal council passed a resolution in 2016 supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its fight against the pipeline. Chairman Mark Fox brought the MHA flag to be flown on flag row with other tribal nations in support of the opposition to the DAPL.


Native studies scholars will tell you the Lakota or Dakota people originally came from the East Coast and that we may have relatives in faraway Virginia. They say there are/were tribes of people that spoke ou language. Sometimes, these linguistic and even genetic ties are used against Indigenous peoples to invalidate our land claims. At the 1974 Wounded Knee trial in Lincoln, Nebraska, William S. Laughlin, the dean of American Bering Strait scholars, gave testimony on academic speculation regarding our migration across a land bridge, now gone, that may have made travel between North America and Asia possible. After hearing his testimony, white audience members left the court concluding that Native people, like themselves, were merely earlier immigrants and had no greater claim to the United States than their own. But these theories are not relevant to how we understand ourselves. For the Lakota/Dakota, who we are as a People begins with the White Buffalo Calf Woman and the gifts she gave us. Today, that identity is mixed with pain, as I imagine it is for any of our co-linguists anywhere on this continent who still retain an identity as a People.

Perhaps now, for the Dakota, our story begins in 1862 on the day after Christmas, when thirty-eight Dakota men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass hanging in US history. President Lincoln signed the order for their deaths just days after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Dakota rose up against the Americans. What did they have to lose? They were facing starvation, consigned to a narrow strip of land after signing treaties and losing their hunting grounds. They were utterly dependent on treaty provisions, which never arrived. The uprising was precipitated when Dakota men confronted a trader suspected of stealing treaty supplies. He allegedly told them to feed their hungry children grass or dung. Little Crow, a Dakota headman, called a war council and decided to go to war to drive the Americans out of their lands. There is no official account of the death toll from the war. In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln claimed eight hundred had been killed. Little Crow and his son were killed by a white homesteader seeking the bounty. Little Crow’s skull and scalp were displayed in St. Paul, Minnesota, and remained on display until 1971.

For the Lakota, our western cousins, the moment when the door shut on the past and the present epoch became inevitable was undoubtedly the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. The shock of these events impacted both Dakota and Lakota, for we are and were one People, despite living scattered across five states on separate islands of reservation land left after the storm.

“The web of inter-relationship among the various tribes of the Sioux Nation is very intricate and extensive,” an anonymous minister wrote to Secretary of War Redfield Proctor just weeks after Wounded Knee in January 1891. “The fact that at the recent engagement at Wounded Knee, a number were killed has deeply affected all tribes, as they consider the killing of women and children an unpardonable offense.”

As a child, I heard stories from my dad’s family that gave me a personal perspective on how my ancestors viewed and experienced both of these events. I first heard about the Dakota 38 incidentally, while reading a book published by my dad’s tribe called Remember Your Relatives that my grandmother had sent to us. The story was a transcribed oral retelling by my grandmother’s uncle, the Rev. Vine Deloria Sr., which recalled a shocking deed committed by his grandfather Saswe Deloria.

He begins the story explaining how the Santee Dakota became refugees and fled Minnesota after the uprising. They came to our people, the Ihanktonwan Dakota, seeking refuge. We took them in, because how could we not? They were our relatives. The Yankton were told by the army they had to fulfill their treaty obligations by killing a Santee. If they did not, the soldiers would attack them all, Santee and Yankton. After discussing this all night, the headmen were at a stalemate. No one wanted to do it. At that point, Saswe announced he would because he’d had the vision of the four black lodges as a boy and had been told they represented the four men of his own people he would kill. So, he killed one Santee to save the rest and our people from mass slaughter. It was a decision that, despite the vision, haunted him for the rest of his life. After the killing, he announced he would sit, unarmed, for four days and nights on a hill, and any relatives of the Santee he killed who wanted retribution could come and kill him and that there would be no retribution. He sat for four days and nights, and no one came. The Santee Sioux Reservation is across the Missouri River from ours, in Nebraska.


The second story is of my grandmother’s uncle mentioned in an earlier chapter, the Rev. Charles Cook, the mixed-blood Yankton Dakota Episcopal minister at the first Wounded Knee in 1890. I have only seen his story portrayed once, in the HBO movie about Charles Eastman’s life. In it, my grandmother’s handsome young uncle is characterized as a balding, middle-aged white man. Eastman is more accurately depicted by First Nations Saulteaux actor Adam Beach. Still, the notion there could be two college-educated Dakota men working together for their people in 1890 was obviously a story beyond the imagination of white television screenwriters and casting directors more than a century later.

But getting the story right has always been a challenge. Toward the end of his life, Vine Deloria Jr. tried to produce a more accurate retelling of the life of Saswe. The family had been unhappy with a book written by Sarah Olden in 1918 called The People of Tipi Sapa about Saswe and his son Tipi Sapa, the Reverend P. J. Deloria. Deloria’s Singing for a Spirit, published eighty-one years later, was an attempt to correct the record. While I appreciate Vine’s effort, I miss the cadences of the spoken word, the oral stories told to me by his father and Phil Lane Sr. that I heard as a child. These stories, even told in English, captured for me something that I have yet to see duplicated in print.

That old intimacy of familial, first-person storytelling has been given new life in the twenty-first century via the internet. Social media carried over Wi-Fi connections have obliterated the challenges of time and space that once hindered transmission of cultural sharing. Yet, despite this great interconnectedness within our communities and families, what is newsworthy to Indian country hardly ever makes it into the mainstream news—and, yes, we Indian people are used to it. We never expect the issues near and dear to our hearts to be covered twenty-four hours a day on CNN or to trend on Twitter or be gossiped about on BuzzFeed. Yet, a few years ago, I felt more connected than usual, perusing my social media feed.

As we entered the holiday season, it felt good to see, on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, hundreds of posts, videos, and retweets hailing the Dakota 38 plus two memorial riders (the plus two refers to two more Dakota men who were hung after the thirty-eight). Dakota people were posting images of the riders, descendants of the Dakota men hung by Lincoln, as they began their 330-mile trek in early December. Following the dream of an elder, they were starting from Sisseton, in northeastern South Dakota. Some of the Dakota survivors of the Dakota uprising in 1862 had been moved to this reservation after being driven out of Minnesota. Updates kept coming as the riders made their way down snowy roads, from Sisseton to the Lower Brule Reservation in South Dakota and then east to Mankato, Minnesota, where the Dakota 38 had been hung. Their goal was to reach the site the day after Christmas to commemorate the Dakota men executed for rising up against the Americans for not honoring the treaty by which they gave up twenty-four-million acres. President Lincoln, who at first glance appears to be the villain for signing the order to hang the Dakota 38, can also be credited for reducing the number of executions requested by the military commission: 303 souls. How many of us Dakota would not be here today if he had not spared some of our forebears’ lives?

Reportedly, some of the money owed to the Santee was realloated by Congress to cover the costs of Mary Todd Lincoln’s redecorating the White House. In addition to that stolen through years of graft by Indian agents, the money would have prevented Dakota children from starving. Andrew Myrick, a trader who refused to release any food from his stores without payment, is said to have instigated the uprising, saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass—or their own dung.” Myrick was the first white man killed in the rebellion, and his body was found days later with grass stuffed in his mouth. General Jon Pope was then dispatched to Minnesota to defeat the insurgency. Pope’s assignment was, in part, a demotion for losing the Second Battle of Bull Run against the Confederacy; he wrote, “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so.”

In December Lakota/Dakota people have another ride commemorating the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Native people fill social media with posts decrying the murder of hundreds of defenseless Lakota, mostly women and children, by the US Army on the December 29 anniversary each year. Commemoration of this tragedy occurred just three days after the Dakota 38 riders reached Mankato bearing gifts of reconciliation for the town. To be a Native person on social media during the month of December is always tinged with sadness. Images show a group of horse riders, bundled in winter parkas, their faces barely visible under caps and sometimes cowboy hats, led by a lead rider holding aloft a medicine staff strewn with eagle feathers. They ride relentlessly, bravely, on a background of white, showing us that we have more to celebrate in that holiday season than a countdown of shopping days. We are still here, we remember, and we carry that knowledge with intent, with our ancestors guiding us.

One year, a tweet with the image of the burial of the frozen victims’ bodies was retweeted hundreds of times with my Twitter handle attached to it. All day long, my Twitter stream became filled with that painful image and caption repeated ad infinitum: “123 years ago today, 150 #Lakota men/women/children were massacred by the US 7th Calvary @ #WoundedKnee H/T @jfkeeler.” Each time someone retweeted, it showed up again on my timeline. Even though I clicked on the image only once, the long rectangular hole dug for mass burial with the bodies of Lakota people strewn inside it kept reappearing before me. Over and over again, I saw it. Our people, our ancestors, lying frozen in the ground while white men pose, holding guns or with hands at their hips as if for a job well done—and I am a descendant of someone who was there.

That photograph is filled with all those things that, as Native people, we cannot name. It remains a symbol of all the ways in which we are not allowed to be ordinary Americans merely living our lives in the most powerful nation in the world. December 29, 1890, is the date when we became a marginalized people denied the comfort of being part of a country that recognizes our experiences and commemorates them with us. We live out our American lives in a twilight existence where the only way other Americans, our compatriots, remember us is as we were then—when we were truly separate from them and each of us a member of our own nations, not theirs. Then they dress up like us with feathered headbands made in China and cheer for their sports teams on weekends named to “honor” us. The people of the United States do not acknowledge us as we are today—as our encounter with America has made us. But still, after all this time, we are different because we remember Wounded Knee, Mankato, the Long Walk, and every broken promise that we must, for our own good, put aside to live in our new country, the United States. It only makes it harder that citizens of a country that claims us and all we possess do not join us in this, the pain that is their legacy in our lives. This blithe disregard makes what we lost, the millions of acres, the lives of our loved ones feel cheapened and unappreciated and forgotten, and makes present-day ignorance of us even harder to bear.

As we Native people mourn and reflect upon these painful events in our history, we do so very much apart from the rest of the country. There is no national news coverage of the Dakota 38 riders. No one is following their journey down icy roads and freezing temperatures except for us—we look for updates on their Facebook event page and watch their YouTube interviews, creating our own piecemeal media coverage that does not exist elsewhere. Instead, on that Sunday, the 123rd anniversary of Wounded Knee, a Washington Redsk*ns football game was on TV.

Seeing photos of Redsk*ns and Chiefs and Braves fans dressed up in fake eagle-feather headdresses, I think of a photograph of Owl Man, my great-grandmother’s grandfather. In it, he stands with  delegation of Yankton Dakota headmen at the White House in Washington, DC, to sign the treaty with the United States in 1868. A diminutive President Andrew Johnson stands in a frock coat on the balcony above the Yanktons, flanked by the Miami Tribe’s delegation, who tower over him in turbans and eagle-claw necklaces. My ancestor is easily identifiable since he is the only one wearing the full eagle-feather headdress. What would he have thought of all this? Each feather is said to have represented the confidence the people had in the leader. It was something very precious, but it came with a great deal of responsibility and accountability to the people. When the headmen returned home, the women chastised them for signing away the salt mines, which they needed to preserve meat. Even then, there were no good deals to be made in DC. The people were focused on securing their survival. They were focused on living, to protect and raise the young, and yet sometimes, like at Wounded Knee, even that was an impossibility.

Looking at this image of Wounded Knee, I want to run—run like the Ihanktonwan man my dad used to tell us kids about around the dinner table when I was growing up. He told of a Yankton man who was at Wounded Knee just visiting, and despite being shot through the middle of his body, he ran all the way across the state of South Dakota to our people.

We kids would pepper our dad with questions. “How could he run all the way across the state with a gunshot wound in the middle of his body?” “They were just tougher back then.” “But why did he do it?” “Because he thought our people really needed to know. It was important to the people.”

I want to run like that man and keep running, carrying the story with the pain still lodged inside of me, the worry and the doubt eating me up. And only by putting my feet to the ground and feeling the tempo of my movement, a heartbeat upon the body of my mother, Maka, can I shake loose the overwhelming despair the specter of the assault on our people brings up in me.

I suppose a lot of Native people feel this way, and this is why we share our stories with each other on social media—because these things are terrible and the country we are supposed to be part of cares not at all, or it cannot care without assuming guilt, and it is unwilling to do that because of its enduring belief in Manifest Destiny. In their minds, it was all for the greater good, the creating of this country, a necessary evil that led to nations being buried in the snow, bodies left in the cold.

When they share the images with each other, they use the photos of our ancestors’ bodies for shock value and feel no shame in doing so. They share those images thinking, perhaps, that it will change America, and yet it never does because the algorithm doesn’t allow for it. The only way change will happen—real, lasting change—would be to change our origin story, to change the algorithm itself. And so we live in a country where Wounded Knee and the Dakota 38 do not receive the same amount of broadcast time as does a perpetually losing NFL team, its fans sporting redface and doing tomahawk chops, failing weekly on the field in every way they possibly can.

Even as we mourn publicly for the first time in a long time, we are confronted by those who tell us to “get over it” on social media sites like Twitter. They refuse to see that we cannot do so as long as our concerns remain shunted off to the side of our daily American experience. We are mourning the dead, but also the death of our own centrality in the story of our lives. We are surrounded by stories of white men and boys overcoming obstacles and triumphing in their quests—to get the woman of their dreams, to save the world, to become rich—on TV, in films and books.

One white guy felt compelled to respond to the tweet of the photograph of Wounded Knee by saying it was okay because Indians were not “noble savages” after all, and did far worse to each other, so we should stop remembering or feeling bad about what happened. In rejecting one stereotype, he had embraced something even worse. The notion that unless Native people are better than any other people in the world they do not deserve basic human rights is the most dehumanizing thing anyone can say to alleviate white guilt.

Does he mean that we, having fallen off our pedestal, must endure any atrocity? Even the murder of unarmed women and children, and even infants? In his myopic attack on the “noble savage,” this man has returned full circle to the mindset that initiated the genocide on this continent in the first place.

I’m reminded of Colonel Chivington’s words to his soldiers before the Sand Creek Massacre. “Kill them one and all; nits make lice.”

To Americans like this gentleman, Indigenous people and our tragedies are annoying reminders of the actual price paid for this land, reminders that must be silenced.

In her blog post, “On telling Native people to just ‘get over it’ or why I teach about The Walking Dead in my Native Studies classes,” Cutcha Risling Baldy explains why Native people cannot just “get past” these experiences. She compares the trauma felt by her ancestors, survivors of the wholesale slaughter that took place in northern California at the hands of the forty-niners, to the characters depicted on the television show The Walking Dead after a zombie apocalypse.

Professor Baldy describes the miners and pioneers celebrated in California’s history books and an NFL team as “hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them than there was of you.” And yet, she notes the atrocities were committed not by monsters, but by white people.

Jim Miller, the Dakota elder who had the vision for the memorial ride, has said that part of the ride’s purpose was for the Dakota to be the first to apologize for their role in the historical tragedy. Another Dakota organizer, Peter Lengkeek, a veteran, explained, “We’re trying to reconcile, unite, make peace with everyone because that’s what it means to be Dakota.”

On YouTube, you can see a video of Redbone, the Native rock band, singing in 1973, “We were all wounded at Wounded Knee for Manifest Destiny.” I’d take it a step further than “wounded.” Even if your tribe had no runners present to bring them the news, that was the day that, as Black Elk said, the tree was cut.

I always feel the contrast between what we lost after those terrible events and how little white America appreciates or even comprehends that loss. On social media, white men are busy telling Native people to “get over it” or carrying on about how terrible it would be to give up their team’s racist mascot. Meanwhile, the genocide and how we survived it burns within me. Choices made by my ancestors to revolt, take in those fleeing American domination, dance the Ghost Dance, and tend to those shot by the US Army were not made for the benefit or comfort of these white men. It was all for me, for us, for their descendants. We are the reason they did these things and made these hard choices and survived. It was for the hope that we would be alive, living today, and loving life—loving the beauty of the sun on our faces, and even the blistering snow of the Great Plains, our homeland, on a long ride, as we remember them and all they sacrificed for us.

I write down these family stories in an attempt to preserve the dignity of our ancestors’ actions because no one else will. No one in the American media cares as much as we do about these things. And, ironically, it is because social media provides these communal spaces to grieve and remember and to take courage in these Indigenous-led acts of reconciliation, like those of the Dakota 38 riders, that I feel even more the vast, yawning distance between my experience as a Native woman and mother, and my experience as an American citizen. I wish the two were closer together. The distance is part of the pain, and being told to be silent about it makes me think others know this, too.


The stories told by my father’s family have taken on a life in the past century that extends beyond our immediate relations. They have traveled beyond the confines of White Swan, an Ihanktonwan village located on the Missouri, from which we derived our primary kinship relationships and resulting responsibilities as relatives, leaders, and even dreamers. Guided by these visions and driven by a desire to restore our people’s well-being, my father’s family tree is full of writers, more than is usual for an American family, and unique in Indian country.

Books and articles written by Delorias, Bordeauxs, and even a Keeler, provided me with breadcrumbs to understand myself. The privilege of possessing my ancestors’ perspectives on the history that had placed me, a child of Relocation, outside of the hocoka of my own people helped me to arm myself in this war—and make no mistake, it is a war. Not just a cultural or a metaphorical war, but one with a body count that can be seen in the high rates of death by suicide and murder of Native people to this day. We have not just high rates, but, consistently, the highest rates. These terrible statistics are nothing to brag about, but they are a measure of the war that the US continues to wage against Native people with our pesky land claims that won’t go away until we do. This ongoing body count is the real price our women, children, elders, and men pay every day for the continued existence of the United States. These are small daily massacres—the body count did not end at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Members of my dad’s family undertook this writing decade after decade. Each generation was doggedly trying to understand, frame, and find solutions to our predicament. Their writing finally found a broader audience in the 1960s, beginning with the book Custer Died for Your Sins by my grandmother’s cousin Vine Deloria Jr. Growing academic interest by Native scholars in the ’80s and ’90s led to the publication of manuscripts written decades earlier, like Waterlily by my grandmother’s aunt Ella Deloria and With Mine Own Eyes by her great-aunt Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun. These books helped to lay
the philosophical basis for a Lakota/Dakota response to an ongoing occupation of our lands. This Lakota/Dakota philosophy was dealt a deathblow after the first Wounded Knee, but was reborn in defiance at the second Wounded Knee in 1973. This made Standing Rock a powerful moment not only for our own Lakota/Dakota people but for Indigenous people across the world engaged in a life and death struggle with their occupiers.

Both of my paternal grandparents were enrolled members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe (my maternal grandparents were Navajo), as were all four of my paternal great-grandparents, but only five of my paternal great great-grandparents were Ihanktonwan Dakota. The others were Lakota, French, Pennsylvania Dutch (German), and English.

These Dakota and Lakota stories my father’s family carried both on paper and orally were shared with me when I was very young. These stories were primarily accounts of how my ancestors once lived and survived through the war with the Americans that led to the end of our way of life. These stories, coupled with my mother’s Diné family stories, forged my perspective for comprehending the world in which I found myself. The European stories were understood only in the broadest strokes. These great-great-grandfathers became part of a Dakota family and community, not the other way around.

The primacy of these stories, often introduced by a family member as counter to what I was learning in school, makes me wonder how my worldview would have been different had I fallen prey to US programs bent on separating Native children from their families. In 1977, a study presented to Congress found 25-35 percent of Native children were being removed from their homes by the government and placed with white families. In 2011, NPR reported that the state of South Dakota was still removing Native children at an incredibly high rate and profiting from it.

The stories I was lucky to receive from my parents include the origin stories of my parents’ Peoples, Dakota and Diné. Even as I appreciate how fundamental these stories were in providing me with the tools and perspective to fight back, both intellectually and emotionally, against a colonial system that seeks to deny my humanity, I realize the extent to which a Native child raised by a white family would be at a distinct disadvantage. I try to imagine myself with parents whose worldview is shaped by an origin story based in white supremacy and exploitive principles and I cannot imagine I’d be the person I am today. The stories of colonizers are imbued with the negation of the relationship to the land that defines the very identity of an Indigenous People. The colonizer wants the land, but their relationship is no longer tied to it per se, but to how they can profit from it. Without profit they cease to have legitimacy as a human being. They become “white trash.” Being non-white, I could never be white trash even as I could never fully enjoy the benefits of being a colonist when whiteness is the ticket for full membership in the club.

A “humanness” based in profitability absent a relationship to the land can be traced to the closing of the commons in England (beginning in the Tudor period). The old Anglo-Saxon link to “the bounty of the land” was largely severed then and the right to live was now conferred by employment. It is provided by the “job,” which is now necessary to stave off starvation, homelessness, and vagrancy, all criminalized as the commons were enclosed, even as privatizing public lands caused them. It also led to the definition of persons who did not own land or possess jobs as “waste.” This term could be applied to the majority of people from the British Isles who were transported to America, and later, Australia. In this New World, the term “white trash” was coined to refer to white people who were poor and uncouth.

This is a fate the Bundys seek to prevent by owning land—or at least by maintaining a right to privatize public lands or “the commons” primarily for their use.

Even as a large segment of the population in England was consigned to the status of human waste, the colonial rulers promulgated abroad a self-serving legal status so that Native people, who did not “improve” the land, did not possess rights to the land. This is still the law of the land in the United States. In an 1823 Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall solidified a fledgling nation’s claims (and future claims) to the land it occupied by claiming that Indigenous peoples had no title to the land they had lived on for thousands of years beyond that of occupation and use—similar to the title animals possess.

The case, Johnson v. M’Intosh, was brought before the Supreme Court to settle a dispute between two white men in Illinois—an area then still the frontier and largely Indian territory—who each held titles to the same plot of land. In 1775, Thomas Johnson, while still a British citizen, purchased title from the Piankeshaw (now the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma). William M’Intosh’s more recent title had been sold to him by Congress. In that opinion, Marshall claimed Indian nations’ “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished, and their power to dispose of the soil, at their own will, to whomsoever they pleased, was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.”

Within the context of invasion and conquest, this ruling gave all Native nations’ land to US settlers, who derived basic control over the land from the “Doctrine of Discovery” that Marshall’s ruling first articulated.

Johnson later became a Supreme Court justice and the suit was brought by his heirs, while M’Intosh, a fur trader and Scottish immigrant who ostensibly won the suit, had heirs who were, according to one account, left destitute after his death, unable to inherit any of his land holdings. M’Intosh had lived with a former slave named Lydia and had several children with her. This legal victory was not for the Black M’Intoshes, nor was it for Indigenous nations that had survived invasion because the precedents set by cases related to any tribe, a category of constitutional law called federal Indian law, applied to all federally-recognized tribes, even those not yet subject in 1823 to US domination.

Also, the Doctrine of Discovery implied the existence of a wasted land, an entire continent that required the supremacy of Europeans to reach the best use of its resources. This perception can be seen in the name for the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency established in 1902 whose goal is saving “wasted” water through large-scale projects like hydroelectric power generation, and which flooded many Native communities.

Europe’s unequal social structure was also perpetuated by the idea of the frontier as a wasteland for a waste people. Many of the earliest colonists were sent to America under a system of indentured servitude and headrights. Later, the term pioneer was borrowed from the French military. It was a term used for peons who were sent ahead of the regular army because they were considered expendable.

The extent to which the Doctrine of Discovery informs the Bundys’ belief system probably lies not in actual knowledge of this early nineteenth-century Supreme Court ruling, unknown to the majority of Americans, but in the principles it expresses, which are central to the origin story of the colonizer.

The Bundys’ philosophy received a full airing on national media during their standoffs with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada and at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon via round-the-clock coverage on CNN and Fox News. Mainstream outlets like BuzzFeed featured Cliven Bundy’s YouTube videos, where he shared his fringe legal theories on the absolute power of the county sheriff. This “county supremacy” theory is based on an ahistorical concept of feudal Anglo-Saxon society and a debunked reading of the US Constitution denying the federal government’s right to own any land outside of the nation’s capital and military forts.

In contrast, there is only one video on YouTube of Phil Lane Sr., my grandmother’s cousin, who taught me our family stories. It is titled “The Man From Wakpala” and made by his grandson, who captures so well his storytelling style. Great storytellers like him exist in a family chain of storytelling, passed down because the stories are not merely stories of long ago. The passing down of the stories is for us, younger relatives, a living expression of our ancestors’ love. I think often of what he gave me, a child growing up in the sagebrush of eastern Washington State, where he and his wife, Grandma Bow, had already made their lives.

People think these stories are only on the reservation, but I’ve found them everywhere because our people are everywhere. It is a manifestation of the Lakota/Dakota concept of the great holy, the wakan, as taku skan skan, that which moves. We are a people whose lives and movement over the land were not governed by an uncaring authoritarian government, but by a supernatural force that directed us in unexpected ways across the face of Maka, our mother. So it was that when we moved to this strange place in Washington State, our stories had preceded us and were waiting for us in the person of my Lala.

For a long time, the oral stories were the only ones I knew, despite my father’s bookshelf filled with books written by members of his family. Many of his tomes were quite old, first editions from the early twentieth century. There was, of course, the first Dakota dictionary written by his great-aunt Sophie Williamson’s father-in-law, the Rev. John Williamson, in 1902. The Dakota Episcopal hymnal Wakan Cekiye Odowan. There was also a tattered first edition of Speaking of Indians written by his great-aunt Ella Deloria in 1944; my mother kept it in a plastic freezer bag since it was falling apart. There was Conquering the Mighty Sioux, written by his grandmother’s cousin William Bordeaux in 1929. On that shelf he also had a signed first-edition copy of Custer Died for Your Sins by my grandmother’s cousin

Vine Deloria Jr. He also kept a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer magazine that included a book review of Custer Died for Your Sins. The photo of the man on the back of the book looked like a version of my dad: the black curly hair, five o’clock shadow, meaty hands, large eyes, and glasses.

As the years went by, the shelf grew to include recently released books by my dad’s great-aunt Ella, called simply Aunt Ella by his siblings and my grandmother when the family would reminisce about her in the family home in Lake Andes. She had taken care of her nieces and nephews and been a constant beneficent force in their lives. Both my grandmother and her cousin Phil Lane Sr. grew up motherless, their mothers (her sisters) having died in childbirth or shortly afterward, and she was not insensitive to this. When my grandmother was a young woman, her aunt had obtained for her a paid position as her
assistant in the field through Columbia University. Going through my grandmother’s things after she died, my father and I came upon the paystubs. Aunt Ella had begun her career as an ethnographer in 1916 while a student at Columbia Teacher’s College, translating George Sword’s (Oglala Lakota) narratives for Franz Boas, the “father of American anthropology.” She collected ethnographic interviews of Lakota and Dakota elders throughout the twentieth century and the body of her work is invaluable to Native scholars today.

Aunt Ella’s numerous unpublished manuscripts were released in the 1980s and ’90s after her death. These included her well-regarded ethnographic novel, Waterlily. As each new book was published, my dad would purchase them and give them to me for my birthday or Christmas. Each book had an inscription from him in his distinctive handwriting, which consisted of tight, perfectly formed capital letters he had learned in engineering school that suited his left-handedness. His missives generally included the date and a stern reminder to read these stories and remember my family.

I only skimmed the books until I went to college and was assigned to read them in Native American studies classes. There, I read them in classrooms filled with white, privileged, young Ivy League men. When we read Waterlily, these young men, headed to Wall Street to take part in financial machinations that would culminate in the 2008 financial crisis, bristled at the notion that Lakota/Dakota society could have been so perfect. My professor, Elaine Jahner, who had been a student of my great-aunt’s, assured them that everything was as Aunt Ella had written it. This reply was met with open scorn by these future masters of the universe.

I read my aunt’s books in a lonely place, in the dark woods of New Hampshire far from the open vistas of the West that was my home. It is a state with no reservations, no extant Native communities. Surrounded by hostile, unbelieving white people, I saw in her books, when I finally read them, that lost community where I would have been entirely accepted, wholly a part, and fully loved. I remember lying in my bed covered in my grandmother’s star quilt. I had rented a small house with another Native student, near a creek that, although in the center of town, lay in empty woods and gave me the sense of being far from that campus filled with fraternities and self-satisfied expressions of whiteness. As I lay beneath a giant star created by pieces of triangular fabric, I felt home.

My grandmother had made the star quilt for me and given it to me at my graduation from high school. I spent many a night in my dorm room at college studying all the colors of it and the careful construction of it, making out every hand-stitched thread. She kept a massive quilting loom upstairs in her house on the reservation. She would always greet me with a warm smile, her eyes shining, calling me “my girl.”

She grew up in the vicarage that was built for her grandfather, the Rev. P. J. Deloria (also known as Tipi Sapa, Black Lodge), when he retired from serving as the Episcopal priest on the Standing Rock Reservation. It was next to the old White Swan church, which had been moved to Lake Andes after the Fort Randall Dam was built in the 1950s. St. Philip’s was the church where I was baptized. She pointed at the square single-story house next to the white clapboard church and would tell me about the winyan omniciye (women’s meetings) held every Wednesday, when the women would quilt together. I wondered if this quilt had been finished on such a Wednesday and examined the hand stitching to see if I could find slight differences in the length of stitches that might be the signature of each hand that had touched it.

Despite all the oral stories and books written by family members, there were things that did not get passed on. In the introduction to the 1998 reissue of Aunt Ella Deloria’s book Speaking of Indians, her nephew
Vine recalled:

Strangely, Philip’s [Reverend Deloria, Tipi Sapa’s] mother,
and several older family relatives lived to be quite old, so
Ella knew many things from the very olden times. I tried one
time to get her to talk about these things, but she grew very
angry and told me that these things were so precious to the
old people that my generation would not appreciate them and
should not know them. They should not be talked about by
people who cannot understand, she argued, and so when she
died, an immense body of knowledge went with her.

Tipi Sapa’s mother, although enrolled by the Americans on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, was Minneconjou Lakota. Because of this, he was born in 1853 with her people near present-day Mobridge, South Dakota, across the Missouri River from the Standing Rock Reservation, and just south of what would become the NoDAPL Océti Sakówin camp in 2016.

So, when I arrived at camp, I felt that force, that taku skan skan, that had led my people and brought us back to this place where we had made our agreement with that manifestation of the land, Ptesáŋwiŋ, White Buffalo Calf Woman.

Perhaps a part of me is always standing there at that Océti Sakówin camp with its tribal flags, brought by tribal leaders or by proud tribal citizens, flapping in a row like a fluttering heartbeat. Many hearts were left at that camp or carry some spark from it with them forever. The Americans knew what they were doing when they separated us in square homes far apart from each other. Being reconstituted at the Océti Sakówin camp as a camp circle society, as my great-aunt Ella called it, was a more powerful experience than we could have ever known—and once given, it must be sought again and again. what is right for us. It truly was, as Aunt Ella said, “a way of life that worked.”

As I walked through the camp in winter, the snow swallowed up the sound. The muffling gave me a sense of purpose, carrying my camera with its shotgun mike as I interviewed those who remained in the yurts and tents.

In October, just a few months earlier, the camp had been bathed by the warmth of a hot yellow sun as I watched people from the Cheyenne River Lakota camp trucking over tipi poles I had purchased from them for a tipi cover I had found lying abandoned on the ground in the Yankton camp. After we tied the poles together with assistance from members of the Lower Brule camp, I was astounded to see what was painted on the tipi cover, not visible to me before, folded up as it was. In orange and black and red, there they were—the Seven Council Fires, the Océti Sakówin. It seemed at that moment like we were in the grips of prophecy, of something that was beyond us, wakan, serendipity, that which moves us across the prairie, across the world.

Yankton elder Faith Spotted Eagle was there. She had been driving up regularly from Lake Andes, South Dakota, my dad’s hometown, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. This wasn’t her first camp. She had told me the story a few years earlier while we were at the local powwow, a small community wacipi, as they are called in Dakota. It is held each year outside Lake Andes in the tribal housing community of White Swan, named for my grandmother’s band’s village that was put underwater by the Army Corps of Engineers while building the Fort Randall Dam.

“Your grandmother and another elder came with us to the camp at the Point—you know, where White Swan was before the dam flooded it.” Spotted Eagle runs the Brave Heart Lodge located on the main street in Lake Andes. She is an energetic woman in her late sixties, her long gray hair is in a bun, and her usual uniform is a ribbon skirt and T-shirt that celebrates cultural events and initiatives in the community.

“Then a young man, just a young thing, a park ranger, approached these grandmas and told them we couldn’t go to the camp. And your grandmother”—Faith laughs—“she held up her hands and said, ‘What
are you going to do, arrest me?’”

The camp at the North Point Recreation beach is near where our underwater village of White Swan lies under Lake Francis Case, created by the Fort Randall Dam. Fort Randall is one of several dams that put thousands of acres of Indian farmers’ land underwater to bring power to white North and South Dakota farmers. In 1999, the Army Corps of Engineers lowered the water, and bodies of family members buried in the old cemeteries and ancient burial sites that dotted the riverbank came up. They had not been moved like the corps had assured my grandmother and other former residents of White Swan. These were her relatives coming up, and she joined her niece, Faith Spotted Eagle—who had grown up at White Swan with her father, Henry Spotted Eagle—at the camp to prevent the corps from raising the water again before reburial could take place.

Seventeen years later, I arrive at another camp on the shores of another human-made lake, Lake Oahe. To the south of the Océti Sakówin camp on a ridge above the Missouri River are the Dakota and Lakota survivors of another drowned village called Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Reservation. The ridge is separated from the plain upon which these tipis stand in this new Lakota encampment by a small tributary of the Missouri, also called Cannonball. Before the dam was built, the whirling eddies created when the Cannonball emptied into Mníšoše formed perfectly round stones. The Americans called these stones “cannonballs,” hence the name for the river and the town. But the Húŋkpapȟa (Hunkpapa Lakota) and Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna (Ihakntownan-Yankton Dakota) call it Íŋyaŋ IyÁ Wakpá, the name derived from the sacred act of the creation of these stones. The initial camp was named Sacred Stone in honor of this. Once the dam was built and the fast-running river became a lake, the stones ceased to be produced.

The Army Corps of Engineers inundated the original Cannon Ball community and much of its river-bottom farmland. The federal claim to the crossing of the Missouri arises from this violent and traumatic taking. The Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944, was a compromise of two plans. One by Lewis A. Pick, director of the Missouri River office of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and the other by William Glenn Sloan, director of the Billings, Montana, office of the United States Bureau of Reclamation. The plan passed by Congress made sure the five dams would flood mostly Indian bottomland, which constituted each tribe’s most fertile farmland and valuable timber. The members of Congress were well aware that after the Tennessee Valley Authority flooded thousands of acres of white-owned land, white farmers would not allow their property to be flooded, even if it meant electricity and irrigation for dryland farming. These were the same sorts of calculations that some eighty years later led to the Dakota Access Pipeline being rerouted to protect white communities, leaving Native communities with the costs of the cleanup if the pipeline failed. Tribes, including my dad’s tribe, lost 90 percent of their timber and 75 percent of the wildlife. Vine Deloria Jr. said “the Pick-Sloan Plan was, without doubt, the single most destructive act ever perpetrated on any tribe by the United States.”

When will this end? When will our own origin stories no longer dictate these outcomes? Can America ever live up to its narrative of exceptionalism?

When I give lectures about how the US is still a colony, I often say to my audience, mostly composed of well-meaning white Americans, “You consider yourself a good person, a moral person, and yet, you are a colonist. These are not your homelands. You occupy them by force of arms. That raises the question, what would ethical colonialism look like?”

I think this is where the answer lies. As impossible as it sounds, an oxymoron. How do we marry the two algorithms? That of a real People and that of colonists?

Jacqueline Keeler is a Native American writer and activist, enrolled in the Navajo Nation and of Yankton Dakota descent, who co-founded Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, which seeks to end the use of Native American racial groups as mascots. You can follow her on Twitter @jfkeeler.