Our History is Our Key
Our children must learn the stories of the time
before poverty, alcoholism, and drugs
When there was a time
before the reservation
of the men who humbled the Blue Coat Armies
of warriors who rode 30 miles in the night
to defeat general Crook at the Battle of Rosebud
And two weeks later
defeat General Custer
The only people to defeat the United States,
twice, within two weeks
The grandchildren of Crazy Horse
Holy Black Tail Deer
And to never let the memories of these people die!
– Richard Two Dogs, Oglala Lakota
Richard Two Dogs is not only a highly respected Oglala Lakota elder but also my grandfather. He was born in 1951 and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Till 12 years of age, he was raised by a Battle of the Little Bighorn Warrior, Ben American Horse, and even saw the gunshot wounds on his grandfather’s leg. During this famed battle in 1876, the Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho defeated the U.S. Calvary, killing General Custer in the process.
Shortly after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S government retaliated and attacked Bigfoot’s band as it was crossing the bitter and ruthless winter prairies to get away from the Badlands. It was still seeking refuge, even as the rest of the Oceti Sakowin bands across the Midwest had been forced onto reservations. In 1890, the U.S massacred more than 300 unarmed Lakotas, mostly women and children, at Wounded Knee and Richard’s grandmother survived the massacre. When Richard turned 12, he was sent to the Pine Ridge Agency boarding school under federal mandate. He would run away from boarding school just so he could spend more time with Ben American Horse and his parents. He continues to assure me today that he learned more about life in those 12 years than he ever did at boarding school.
Growing up, Richard heard these accounts firsthand. To him, these aren’t mere historical events: they're real-life memories. Even in places void of Indigenous voices, I am reminded of this everlasting intergenerational hope. The narrativisation of Indigenous history through oral storytelling has become a dominant strand of Indigenous self-determination.
Intergenerational hope emanates from the continued transmission of knowledge across generations despite the state’s concerted effort to quell expression of Indigenous identity. Throughout the 20th century the United States continued to violently expand westwards, extracting resources like gold and coal, while simultaneously destroying Indigenous land-stewardship practices across the country.
The Dawes Act is an example of policy rooted in stripping Indigenous sovereignty, culture and identity. On February 8, 1887, led by Senator Dawes and signed by President Cleveland, the Dawes Act enacted the introduction of private land ownership to Native Americans. Dawes believed that the disenfranchisement of ‘mixed blood’ Indigenous people from their land would destabilise the tribes and further institutionalise Native Americans to become ‘civilised’. This also made it easier for non-natives to buy land. In 1881, Senator Teller of Colorado had stated that the aim of expansion into the west was to essentially “despoil the Native Americans of their lands and to make them vagabonds on the face of the earth.” This mentality was broadly accepted and results in the deeply rooted structural racism we see today.
Along with the expropriation of land, the American invasions into Indian territories also suppressed Indigenous religion. In 1978, through the pressure of the American Indian Movement, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) legalised spirituality and ceremonies. Before this Act, Lakota men and women were forced to practice their culture underground, and often had to find ways to keep our traditions secret. The preparation of our ceremonies required a close engagement with our land. We gather medicines and supplies from the mountains and the prairies. For instance, tipi poles – used to build traditional home structures – can only be produced with wood from the mountains. But colonial excursions have radically altered the North American landscape. The Ponderosa pine, a relatively fire resistant conifer that keeps the wildfire ecosystem in check, has seen a reduction in its coverage due to felling as the pioneers moved westwards. The systemic erasure of indigenous ways of living has destabilised their ecosystems and it is in this obfuscated cache of indigenous knowledge that remedies for climate change can be found.
The hope instilled in my grandfather by his ancestors is the key to transforming the present.
Richard Two Dogs, my grandfather, is the link between life before the reservation and what it is today. He is the bridge between human existence before contemporary concerns of climate change and the world as it is today. The hope instilled in him by his ancestors is the key to transforming the present.
The need to make space for Indigenous voices
Apart from a source of intergenerational hope, I consider the stories passed down to Richard to be blueprints for overturning climate change. My relatives have fought for peace, our way of life, and Indigenous Peoples Rights which have historically been reflective of the needs of the environment. I myself chose to study environmental engineering because – for centuries –urban development and environmentalism has stripped Indigenous peoples of their culture, land, and their sovereignty. It is time they are heard.
Indigenous peoples’ ways of living are erroneously relegated to a time in the past. But it must be noted that many important aspects of Indigenous culture and land stewardship – that are grounded in science and transmission of cultural knowledge across generations – are necessary for global climate change interventions. Discussions on environmentalism and clean energy, two prominent threads for climate change mitigation, are conspicuously devoid of Indigenous voices, and they continue to be othered now as they were in the 1800s.
International and domestic goals for global temperature and carbon emissions control are already in freefall as their deadlines near. In 2013, the plea for carbon mitigation for all countries was famously established by the COP 21 Paris Agreement. The United States vowed to mitigate its carbon emissions by 2050, but it released more than 15 gigatons of GHGs as recently as 2018. Such pledges, distanced from Indigenous representation, didn’t offer any real transformative solutions – only promises. Conservation efforts and mitigation strategies are backfiring as they do not align themselves or have a dialogue with Indigenous voices. Institutional responses to climate change fail to recognise that the issues we have today are grounded in the suppression of marginalised voices and lives.
Mark Jacobson, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, has explicated the ways in which the world can transition to clean energy in his book 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything. He elucidates that the biggest barriers to such transitions are ‘social and political barriers’. The incorporation of Indigeneity into ideas of energy transitions offers an avenue for their success. We need to come to terms with Indigenous livelihoods and their efforts to retain their culture as much as possible to achieve energy security.
My grandfather’s stories give me undying hope about what life could be.
Apart from the acknowledgement of Indigenous survival strategies and cultural traditions as essential to the fight against climate change, there is also a need to recognise the parallels between ecological and colonial imperialism. While the United Nations Rights of Indigenous Peoples Declaration includes ‘free prior informed consent’ as a right of Indigenous people before changes to their land holdings can be commenced, it is rarely upheld. Legal provisions of the American government for the protection of Native land are not upheld either. The 1851 and 1868 Treaties of Fort Laramie laid down in law that the US government would do everything in its power to protect the Sacred Black Hills from external encroachment and gave the Great Sioux Reservation and the Lakota rights to the region. However, extractive industries continue to ignore the legally-binding rights accorded to Indigenous Nations. The government itself breached the Treaty when it built Mount Rushmore in the Sacred Black Hills.
Today, the Oceti Sakowin Camp or a gathering of several Indigenous Nations is protesting at Standing Rock Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline citing a similar violation of Indigenous people’s rights to their land and sovereignty. The urban, upper-class American demographic has also fallen prey to the rhetoric of NIMBY-ism or the ‘not in my backyard’ movement that revolves around the protection of suburban lifestyles and access to the environment. This notion fails to recognise that Indigenous Nations have inherent and binding rights to their land bases as well.
This dismal picture of barriers to climate change can be tempered with what my grandfather constantly reminds me: the intergenerational hope, perseverance, and strategy that Lakota people still practice. This is our culture and our way of life that lives through the stories of our elders. I, as a young Oglala woman, am unraveling the hope my ancestors had in future generations and their ability to overcome apocalyptic challenges like climate change through the integrity of their culture. My grandfather’s stories give me undying hope about what life could be, and how the pursuit of returning to Lakota traditions could help steer the globe away from today’s colonial descent into climate destruction. Our narrative started before the reservation and it will continue long thereafter, but will the rest of the world listen in time?
Anpotowin Jensen (Twitter | Instagram) is a Oglala Lakota writer, poet, and global health advocate who did her B.S/M.S Civil Environmental Engineering training at Stanford University. She was the first Indigenous woman on Stanford's Global Health Student Board and is currently a North American Focal Point of the UN Global Indigenous Youth Caucus.
Artwork by Karolina Uskakovych.