Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in the southwest corner of South Dakota. It is the home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Covering 2.2 million acres, Pine Ridge is one of the largest reservations in America. Unemployment nears 80% and median income is less than $10,000. Approximately 35,000 native peoples (primarily Lakota Sioux) live there. The reservation is extremely remote and very few non-residents travel there.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe has a rich history. As powerful and important members of the Lakota Sioux nation, they once shared controlled of a vast territory stretching from the western banks of the Missouri River to the Big Horn Mountains. Their territory included all of the Black Hills. This land was protected for the Lakota nation forever (“as long as grass shall grow and water shall flow”) by the United States government through the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868. In 1874 however General Custer led a military expedition into the Black Hills (in direct violation of the Treaty). The expedition “discovered” gold (referred to by the Lakota as ‘the yellow metal that makes the white man crazy’) and the region was soon flooded with prospectors and settlers. The Government then told the Lakota Sioux (and other tribes of the Northern Plains) that the Treaty could no longer stand and that they would have to give up their land and move onto reservations. By this time, the buffalo that the Lakota people depended upon were nearing extinction due to reckless overhunting by fur traders. Many in our government encouraged the overhunting as they saw it as a means of taming the Indians of the Great Plains and ending their nomadic way of life.
The governments violations of the Treaty of 1868 led to war. In June of 1876 many members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, including the powerful war chief Crazy Horse, met and defeated Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn River. After this great defeat the U.S. Government sent nearly ½ the standing army in America to round up the remaining free Indians of the Northern Plains. In 1877 Crazy Horse surrendered at Camp Robinson and was killed while being arrested shortly thereafter. In December of 1890 the last armed conflict between the Lakota Sioux and the U.S. Government took place near Wounded Knee Creek where over two hundred members of Chief Bigfoot’s band were killed and left to freeze in the snow as they traveled to Pine Ridge in search of safety and at the invitation of Chief Red Cloud.
The reservation system was originally designed to segregate the Lakota people from mainstream American society and then to “remake them as white people”. There were to be taught to farm, dress as white’s and become Christians. From the 1890’s until the 1960’s cultural genocide was waged on the residents of Pine Ridge. It was illegal to gather or to practice traditional Lakota ceremonies at Pine Ridge. Children were rounded up and sent off to Indian boarding schools to be “remade”. Adults ‘caught’ practicing traditional religious ceremonies were detained and sometimes even sent to insane asylums as it was assumed that a native individual must be ‘crazy’ to continue to hold onto their cultural beliefs (and not readily adopt our own). This is all a true story, but little is known or remembered about it off the reservations.
Today the Pine Ridge Reservation is governed by the Tribal Council in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Statistically, it is the poorest place in America. Miraculously however the Lakota culture has survived at Pine Ridge. Their language is intact and traditional values are once again being taught. The population at Pine Ridge is growing even though the overall population of South Dakota is in decline. The history of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Pine Ridge are symbolic of the history of all native peoples in America. Many of the most famous war chiefs and holy men of the Sioux Nation were Oglala including Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Spotted Tail and Black Elk to name a few. What began in 1492 with Columbus ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Kevin fortuitously began traveling to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during the peak of the housing market collapse in 2010; a time that put a lot of strain on his professional life and in turn personal life. Later that year he was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia (SD), a rare neurological voice disorder which has no known cause or cure and affects only speech. As he traveled to South Dakota he learned to slow down and listen. Over time he learned that before the reservation era, when the Lakota people were strong, most of the power in their society went to the individual. The strength, freedom, responsibility and voice of each person was encouraged through tribal values, political systems and cultural rites such as the Vision Quest. After the reservation was established, pretty much all the power in their society was rounded up and placed in the governing center… with the Great Father in Washington, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribal Council. Under this structure of central over-reaching, the community suffered. Kevin brought these learnings back to his own culture and back to the company he was leading through trying economic times. What resulted was an employee-centric workplace where employees felt valued, heard, and empowered.
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