- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2010

By Jeffrey Ostler
Viking, $22.95 227 pages

The legendary Black Hills encompass an area about 120 miles long and between 40 and 50 miles wide. Most of this often wild and beautiful terrain lies in southwestern South Dakota. A portion is across the border in Wyoming.

It’s a region that has long been in deep dispute, as University of Oregon history professor Jeffrey Ostler shows in his lucid and always even-handed “The Lakotas and The Black Hills,” subtitled “The Struggle for Sacred Ground.”

The Lakota regard the area as sacred, the place where their holy men and women have visions. The tribe, Mr. Ostler shows, sees the Black Hills as the spiritual “center” of its history, territory where the Lakota should be sovereign.

But Lakota land it is not, except for a small portion. Much of the region is state and federal land, and when the land isn’t government property, it is privately owned - a network of ranches and towns that have been in the hands of non-Lakotas for many generations.

Even more directly insulting to many Lakota, notes Mr. Ostler, is that each year more than 3 million tourists visit Mount Rushmore.

For most of them, the reason for their visit isn’t interest in the Lakota, but a desire to witness the likenesses of four U.S. presidents on the side of a mountain.

Mr. Ostler traces the 19th-century origins of the dispute in the confrontation between an increasingly larger numbers of white settlers with the Lakota, a highly migratory tribe that followed buffalo herds and ranged widely across the region.

It is a familiar story in the annals of frontier America: The Lakota had vague notions about land ownership, while the whites arrived with highly evolved ideas when it came to private property.

But the author also tells a second, equally dramatic story, and that is the sea change that came in the attitude of white Americans toward the Indian.

From the 19th-century view of Indians as savages worthy of extinction if they resisted assimilation into white society, the 20th century came to regard them as people deeply wronged by white aggression and whose just grievances call out for remedy.

It’s this 180-degree change, as Mr. Ostler explains, that has given the Lakota hope that the Black Hills will some day be theirs. As the author notes, however, ownership is now in limbo, and how it will be resolved “is anyone’s guess.”

The Lakota are a Northern Plains tribe divided into several smaller groups with names like Hunkpapa and Oglala. (The Dakota, a closely related tribe, speaks a very similar language that sounds the name with a “D” rather than an “L.”)

As Mr. Ostler points out, several Lakota are among the best-known of American Indians. In the 19th century, Sitting Bull (who defeated Custer at Little Big Horn) and Crazy Horse (another great warrior) were Lakota leaders whose names became household words in their own time.

In the 20th century, the great visionary Black Elk was a Lakota, whose book, “Black Elk Speaks,” published in 1932, is an enduring Indian classic, still widely read.

Also a Lakota is Russell Means, one of the most visible leaders of the radical American Indian Movement of the 1970s. Mr. Means played Chingachgook in the 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans.”

What the Lakota sought in the 19th century, Mr. Ostler shows, was survival. From the 1840s on, tribal leaders complained that white settlers encroached on their land without permission, but few white leaders paid attention.

That encroachment grew rapidly after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in the 1870s. But even more damaging for the tribe than white settlement, writes Mr. Ostler, was the disappearance of the buffalo in the last decades of the century.

Lakota depended on the animal for food and much else. Its absence rendered the tribe dependent on the federal government for sustenance, a fact recognized by tribal leaders, as well as by the U.S. government.

And Lakota dependence on the government, Mr. Ostler writes, played right into the hands of federal Indian policy, which focused on assimilation into white society and Christianization (and assumed Indians would one day disappear).

But federal policy failed. The Lakota maintained a vigorous tribal identity, and though many - like the visionary Black Elk, a Catholic convert - became Christians, they nonetheless preserved strong connections with Lakota tradition.

In the 20th century - Mr. Ostler tells this complex story with impressive clarity - the tribe spent many decades trying to get monetary recompense for the loss of the Black Hills.

Yet when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the Lakota had been unjustly deprived of their land and awarded the tribe $106 million, the settlement was turned down.

Why? By that time, according to Mr. Ostler, the Lakota recognized that a payment for property - however large - would mean that the land was no longer theirs.

This would not do. They now realized that their identity as Lakotas was so closely tied to the Black Hills, that they feared the loss of region would spell their end as a tribe.

Mr. Ostler shows that there have long been those who think that the Lakota don’t seriously regard the Black Hills as their spiritual home and accuse the tribe of making cynical use of this claim to grab what it can.

No doubt there are impure motives on both sides of the dispute. But it is equally clear, as Mr. Ostler argues, that for many Lakota, the Hills do mean a great deal, and have for more than two centuries.

Does that mean the region should be totally Lakota? What would that mean for non-Lakota who have lived there for centuries? These questions remain up in the air, Mr. Ostler concludes, with no resolution in sight. Meanwhile, the 1980 settlement collects interest, now amounting to nearly $800 million.

Stephen Goode is a writer in Albuquerque, N.M., and Milton, Del.