When I was a little girl, a long time ago, we would go camping in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had to pay, just as tourists do, to camp there and enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills or, in Lakota, of the Paha Sapa or He Sapa. When I say we had to pay, I always remember someone griping about having to pay to camp in our sacred hills. But perhaps the way we enjoyed the Black Hills was a little different than the way the average tourist experienced them. We felt at home, at peace, as content as a soul could feel, unless, otherwise, in heaven. We were taught to walk with care among the soft pine-needle beds and treat every living being from the smallest of creatures to the tallest of trees with respect. We breathed deeply of the pine-scented air and appreciated how the sun would find us, even through the thick veil of trees. We were taught how to pray and give thanks there, and as children, we ran and played among the hills without fear. Even to this day, you can ask any member of the Oceti Sakowin, or Sioux Nation, how their hearts feel when in the Black Hills: there, they find a mood of melancholy and an inner peace that some people seek all their lives. And then, we would go home to the reservation. What some people on the reservations refer to as modern-day prison camps that were given to us after the United States whittled Indian land down to only nine reservations from the whole western half of South Dakota and parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, which was the territory originally negotiated in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The reservations broke up all the bands of the Sioux Nation; some say this was part of a campaign to weaken us. Our reservation has been in the news many times for the poverty and deprivation that most people are shocked to find exist right here in America. So, for us to go from the beautiful Sacred Paha Sapa back to the reservation was always a downer. Especially when you learned from your parents that not only are the Black Hills sacred and that they belong to us, but they were stolen by the United States after the discovery of gold. The Fort Laramie Treaty granted the Black Hills to the Sioux Nation, and prohibited white settlement of the land. At first, in his exploratory expedition in July 1874, General Custer deemed the Black Hills worthless – maybe good for agriculture but "infested with Indians". That assessment changed, just weeks later, when gold was discovered in the hills, in August of 1874. The Sioux peoples' treaty rights were constantly violated by gold prospectors, who kept crossing the reservation border. When they were attacked by our people defending their land, the United States government seized the Black Hills, in 1877 – illegally. This occurred just one year after Custer and the 7th Cavalry were defeated at the Battle of Greasy Grass, in which our ancestors were defending their land and their way of life. And so the Black Hills were stolen from us.
The battle for the Black Hills has been going on ever since, for as long as I can remember. Nearly a century after the expropriation, in 1975, the US court of claims described the US government's conduct thus: "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history." But it wasn't until June 1980, in the case United States v Sioux Nation of Indians, that the United States supreme court upheld an award of $15.5m for the market value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years worth of interest at 5%, for an additional $105m in damages. Today, that sum is over $1bn – and remains untouched – as Paul Harris called it in the Observer, in 2007, "a heroic, some might say unfathomable, act of defiance". In the same article, my mother explained: "They should not touch it [the financial compensation]. Then white America will never own the Black Hills." But we are tired of waiting for the government to come through, realize they are in the wrong and restore our land rights. We are tired of the promises: our President Barack Obama gave us hope in 2009 by telling the Native American population that "You deserve to have a voice", and "You will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House." We hadn't received a presidential nod like that since President Clinton – and we had hope. Just this year, United Nations special rapporteur James Anaya conducted a 12-day tour of Native American land, to determine how the United States is faring on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a survey endorsed by the Obama administration in 2010. Anaya met with tribes in seven states on reservations and in urban areas, as well as with members of the Obama administration and the Senate committee on Indian affairs. The UN special rapporteur tentatively recommended the return of lands to some tribes, including the Black Hills to the Sioux. His full official report with recommendations is due in September 2012.
We still have hope, but we know such encouragement has come and gone before. But we know in our hearts that the Black Hills, or what we call Cante Wamakaognake ("the heart of all that is"), because we belong there, because we come from there. Our origin, our beliefs, our entire way of life all revolve around the Black Hills. It is because of the history we have with this sacred land and the stories passed down from our elders that we know who we are. While the United States government labeled us savages long ago, claiming we needed to be civilized, they had no idea that we had astronomers, philosophers, doctors, teachers, midwives, artists, warriors, and more among us. This is the same land we fight for today. One of the most sacred areas of the Black Hills, Pe' Sla, is under threat of turning into a saltwater taffy stand, or condos, or a golf course, or some other tourist trap – like the hundreds already spread through our sacred Black Hills. The state of South Dakota even has plans to put a road through the middle of this, one of our most sacred areas. For this reason, our flagship media group lastrealindians.com and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe have combined in an attempt to buy back Pe' Sla – land due to be auctioned off for development on 25 August 2012. You may see the irony that the Sioux Nation, having put aside the $1bn offered in compensation for the original theft, is now trying to buy back the land we believe always belonged to us. All the same, that is what we're doing: raising money to buy back our birthright. Whatever I do in this life and whoever I become, I know in my heart that I belong to that land, as my ancestors did and my children do. This is why we must do this. The Black Hills are, for us, the heart of all that is. • See here for more information about the fundraising campaign to buy back Pe' Sla for the Sioux Nation