At Wounded Knee

The southern portion of Badlands National Park is jointly managed by the National Park and by the Oglala Lakota. The hope was that one day this section of the park would be the first Tribal National Park in the country. Those plans have not yet become a reality. The northern unit of the park hosts the scientific interpretation of the land and holds all of the associated resources you’d expect at a National Park.

The southern unit is entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation. At the White River Visitor Center, you can hear the historical interpretation of the people of this area, from paleo-Indians to European settlers to US Army Air Force troops in WWII who used the reservation land for a gunnery range and bombing practice. Just under 350,000 acres were acquired by eminent domain from the Oglala Lakota in 1942 on the pretext that it was “unused, unoccupied, and blighted”. 

Wounded Knee is not within the boundaries of the Park. Its history is told in signs, tombstones, graffiti and the living words of people who live in extreme poverty, mistrustful of neighbors and governments and directly impacted by changes in climate and habitat for the animals that provide their sustenance. I am grateful to Mr. Apple (age 25) and Mr. Fast Horse (age 13) for sharing their story. 

My heart aches for these people, for their wounded dignity, for their invisibility, for their spoiled livelihood. That “living off the land” was ever possible for humans in this place year-round is doubtful, especially after the buffalo herds were decimated by European immigrants. This is an area of seasonal extremes, a place to which you’d make a sacred pilgrimage, spend a time in awe, and respectfully vacate. 

To see the land as sacred, wild, and autonomous allows an attitude of humility to flourish and banishes thoughts of domination, extraction and exploitation.  It brings truer balance and harmony to the relationship. Perhaps from this new understanding, a more sustainable future will develop for our species. 

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