Emily Ford column: The Forgotten Sioux

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 11, 2009

LOWER BRULE, S.D. óForced onto a reservation in the 1800s.
Flooded by the federal government out of homes, businesses and even burial grounds in the 1960s.
Harassed and persecuted. Stereotyped and caricatured. Plagued by unemployment, alcoholism and poverty.
Despite the injustices, the Lower Brule Lakota Indians have endured.
And they are opening their home, and their culture, to us.
To outsiders.
My family visited the Lower Brule Reservation this summer. The land features rolling grasslands, sacred buttes and stunning views of the Missouri River and its unusual Big Bend. The loop is noted in the Lewis and Clark journals as encompassing a “butifull inclined Plain in which there is great numbers of Buffalow, Elk and Goats in view.”
Those goats surely were antelope, “skipping,” as William Clark wrote, across the plain that Lower Brule would like to share with the world.
“We are welcoming everybody. Everybody is welcome if they come,” tribal member and conservation officer Sheldon Fletcher says. “It’s a beautiful place, and we’re willing to share that.
“And our story.”
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Just 1,850 people live on the Lower Brule Reservation in central South Dakota, about 15 miles off I-90 on the two-lane Native American Scenic Byway. The tribe is so small, it’s sometimes called the “Forgotten Sioux.”
But the small tribe is making a big name for itself, finding innovative ways to bring economic independence to Lower Brule, where the unemployment rate is 44 percent.
Of course, the tribe operates a successful casino.
But the Lower Brule also own a construction company, a farming company that operates on 45,000 acres and Lakota Foods, the top manufacturer of popcorn in the nation.
The tribe made news last week when it purchased New York-based Westrock Group Inc., the first financial services firm 100 percent owned by American Indians.
In a controversial move designed to combat alcohol abuse that afflicts children as young as 9 and 10, the tribe recently banned alcohol sales, even at the casino.
But in perhaps its most unique and bold endeavor, the tribe has opened the reservation to cultural tours.
Outsiders can find and learn about native plants and grasses like sage, purple cone flower and chokecherries.
They can view and photograph wildlife in its natural environment, including hawks, migrating birds, fox, coyotes and the tribe’s 400 buffalo and 160 elk.
They can harvest corn, make sweetgrass braids and pick currants and plums.
They can even spend the night in an authentic, buffalo-hide, brain-tanned tipi.
“There is a fine line between exploiting a culture and tourism,” Sheldon says. “We like to have more of an educational approach.”
Even people who grew up in South Dakota, like me, don’t know well the history of the Lakota Nation or the modern story of a tribe like the Lower Brule.
“There are so many stereotypes out there,” Sheldon says. “We’re trying to break those. We are real people with real-world needs and concerns.”
Efforts like cultural tours, sharing a meal and a buffalo or elk hunt can help foster new understanding between Indian and non-Indian.
“They’re not any different than us,” Sheldon says. “We want to provide a good home, have things for the kids and have health and safety.
“That’s what it comes down to in the end. And to be happy.”
– – –
On a hot, sunny afternoon in August, Sheldon kicked at the rocks and brush as he led our family up a footpath.
“Snakes,” he explained.
After hiking for a mile, we reached a breathtaking panoramic view of the Missouri River and the Big Bend, the largest natural loop of a river in the country.
The river nearly meets itself at a one-mile wide point called the Narrows, a landmark used for thousands of years by indigenous people of the Missouri River basin.
The tour lasted more than two hours. It cost $5 each.
Tribal members recently constructed a large earth lodge at the Narrows in collaboration with members of the Arikara Tribe from North Dakota.
While the temperature outside pushed 90 degrees, inside the lodge was cool and peaceful.
Most tourists start at the tribal administration building, constructed in 1997 with funds from a $39.3 million settlement with the federal government.
The money arrived about 40 years after the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers finished work on the Big Bend Dam just below the reservation and flooded 80 miles of the Missouri River basin.
The tribe lost almost all of its prime farmland and cottonwood forests, some 7,000 acres.
They had to move their homes, stores and cemeteries to higher ground. And the name “Lower” Brule became somewhat of a misnomer.
During the time we spent with Sheldon, anger crept into his voice only when he told that particular story.
“You don’t really get over it,” he said.
– – –
Sheldon is perhaps the ultimate ambassador for the tribe. Born of a white father and Indian mother, he talks often about reconciliation and mutual respect for all races.
My sisters called him South Dakota’s Barak Obama.
Sheldon can trace his lineage directly to Meriwether Lewis. Old photographs of his ancestors and other tribal leaders line the hallway at the conservation office where he met my family.
While Sheldon didn’t grow up on the reservation, he visited his grandfather’s ranch here often.
“I just loved it,” he says.
After four years in the Coast Guard, Sheldon returned to South Dakota in 1995 and took a job with the tribe.
He’s one of three wildlife conservation officers. The tribe also employs two full-time biologists, one who specializes in habitat and another who reintroduces endangered species to the prairie, most notably the swift fox and the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in the world.
A buffalo herd manager, shop manager and two administrative assistants round out the staff, which balloons to nearly 30 in the summer with seasonal employees who plant trees and improve shelter belts and habitat.
The tribe sells a limited number of tags, or licenses, to hunt on the reservation each year.
A trophy buffalo tag costs $2,000, while a trophy elk tag will set you back $5,000.
Tribal members can purchase tags at substantially reduced prices, part of an effort to return buffalo meat to the local diet.
While buffalo hunts and cultural tours and museums and gift shops can raise revenue for the tribe, to Sheldon they raise something far more valuable ó awareness and understanding.
“We do view it as an economic opportunity, because they are very few and far between,” he says. “On the reservation, we are very isolated.
“But the biggest impact of tourism is that educational component. Dividing lines are there because of ignorance.”
The American Indian culture has endured for more than 500 years, despite the near decimation of their animals, separation of their families and suppression of their religion.
“Basically, our story is of survival,” Sheldon says. “We’re still here.”
Here, ready to share their home, and ready to tell their story.
For more information, go to www.LBST.org.
Contact Emily Ford at eford@salisburypost.com.