Sunka Wakan (horse) & the Lakota Oyate (people)

By Monica Terkildsen
(Member of the Lakota Tribe and ISPMB’s Tribal Relations Coordinator)


Introduction Long before any European set foot on the shores of what is today known as America, the Teton Nation lived here. With our borders being an area that covered many miles. I have been told that the borders of the Teton Nation ran from the Great Lakes of Michigan to the Rockies of Montana, up into Canada and down into what is now known as the Gulf of Mexico. My family history is one of traveling to the Gulf of Mexico and Florida to trade with the different bands that lived in these areas. The life of the Tetons was one of interpersonal relationships with all that exists. The relationship with the horse was one that exemplified this relationship it was a relationship of extreme honor. To be able to give a horse was very honorable. In the hunt, in protecting and play, the horse was the most respected of animals.


Historical Perspective

Shifting lifestyles, Evolution of the trust responsibility:

Making of treaties began once the colonies became one nation. Agreeable relations with Indigenous tribes had to be maintained because “England and France were still very much involved in the acquisition of land and power on the continent and it was to the best advantage of the United States to have strong Indigenous allies to prevent a European invasion of the fledgling United States.” With this fact known the U.S. government continued the policy of treaty making between sovereign nations as the accepted procedure with dealing with indigenous tribes. Some 400 treaties attest to the fact that for nearly a hundred years (1778 –1871) treaty making was the chief instrument utilized by the national government in dealing with Indians, to secure peace, define land boundaries and acquire land. It was during the treaty period that a special, complex relationship called the trust relationship evolved between the Indian tribes and the United States. The basis for this relationship is land, and the word “trust” refers specifically to the restricted status in which the lands not ceded by tribes are held by the United States for their use and benefit. Indians retained certain lands for their own use, which were inalienable and tax exempt. More land was ceded than was kept. In exchange for the land the Federal Government agreed to provide services such as education, medical care and technical and agricultural training. Treaty making ended in 1871. Indian tribes ceased to be treated as sovereign nations and were instead treated as defeated nations. Congressional agreements took the place of treaties. These agreements took the form of Acts of Congress and, since they often continued the process of land cessions, were different from formal treaties only in that they had to be ratified by both houses of Congress, not just by the Senate.


Allotment: the encroaching white civilization

A massive drive toward ’severalty’ – the breaking up of tribal lands into individual units for distribution to the members of the tribe – began which culminated in the Dawes Severalty Act of 1877. The adverse impact of the allotment Act of 1887, as the Dawes Severalty Act is commonly called, continues today, in that much of the land allotted to individual Indians is now in non-Indian ownership. This shift in ownership came about in two ways. Tribal land not allotted to individual Indians was regarded as surplus land, which the federal government bought at low prices, it is unknown who collected on the proceeds, and then made available to the non-Indian population. Secondly, many individual Indians unaccustomed to a lifestyle based on private ownership of land and constantly under the pressure of poverty, sold their allotments to non-Indians. The motive for severalty is obvious: the greedy land-hungry white settlers. A compliant government simply legalized under the guise of allotment, a rapacious land grab. The effect of allotment on tribal sovereignty, tribal identity and tribal cohesiveness is incalculable. The United States, with its European value system, equated individual ownership of property with civilization, but the Indian did not. With the Indian being more concerned with the welfare of the tribe, “the blow was less economic than psychological and even spiritual. A way of life had been smashed; a value system destroyed.”


The new era:

With the Indian way of life gone, and a new era and new ways of life facing the Indian a slow process of termination began. Boarding schools, Christianity, the Bureau of Indian Affairs were and continue to be processes of termination of the American Indian. The Pine Ridge Reservation is approximately the size of Connecticut, roughly two million acres and has a population of 28,000. The reservation has nine organized districts. Based on population in each district the community can elect one to two tribal council representatives. The representatives are equivalent to legislatures. We also elect a President and a Vice President. All terms of elected officials are two years. This becomes a development issue, as the previous council and tribal officers are not reelected, along with them not getting reelected all projects that were being worked on, go out the door with them. And so the new council starts new ideas and new plans and before they know it their term is up. And so the cycle continues to repeat itself over and over again. Today the Oglala Lakota have the highest rate of poverty anywhere in America. Shannon County has been ranked as the poorest county in the nation in the 1980 census and the 1990 census. The 1990 census shows that 63.1% of all persons in Shannon County live below the poverty level. Individual per capita income is no more than $6700 annually. Life expectancy for the male in Shannon County is 45 years of age. The Pine Ridge Reservation, although considered to be one of the largest reservations shrinks almost daily; through different types of policies or lack of policies.


Return of Sungnuni glugluka (mustang)

The Lakota people once relied on and lived with the wild horse. The horse was used in ceremonies, games, hunting, war and in every day life. The horse was a symbol of freedom, strength, pride and courage. The Indian people believe that they had the horse long before the Spanish arrived. The horse was bred for specific purposes. Similar to the Arabian it was bred for endurance and speed. It was necessary to travel many miles sometimes non-stop for days. The speed was required for hunting, war and games. A fast pony was a highly cherished animal with the Indian people. Today we have the privilege of having the wild horse in our midst again. As the Indian people search for their roots and regain their ceremonies, language and culture it becomes evident that the return of the wild horse is part of becoming whole again.


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