A goal of the Talking Capitalism project is to stimulate conversations with (and ideally between) people living with a variety of the many expressions of capitalism in the U.S. Early in the planning I knew wanted to include Native American communities. This last week I was very glad to be able to work with college and high school students in Kyle, SD, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
A weekend in the area before the work with the schools gave me time to explore other parts of the Reservation, Badlands National Park, and the the communities bordering the Reservation.
The 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of hundreds of captive Lakota men, women and children took place between Kyle and the town of Pine Ridge. The site is marked simply. The small cemetery nearby includes a monument to some of the victims.
On Sunday I went to Interior Community Church, in Interior, SD. I was the only non-local that day and the church community was extremely welcoming when I arrived at the end of their Bible study. Before and after the service I met a number of people, all from ranching families.
The sermon, by the Pastor Nathan Bice (with his family, above), a native of West Virginia newly arrived in Interior, focused on how to overcome original sin. After the service I spoke at length with Kevin Kruse (with his wife, below) a cow-calf rancher from Interior who had a lot to say about how capitalism works in the region.
Mr. Kruse told me about half of his land is on the Reservation and is "deeded". He inherited this land from his father and wasn't sure how his father had gotten the land but said, "the best land, the land with ground water", had been sold to non-Natives. He also said that while in the past ranchers had to rely on ground water, these days it didn't matter if land had ground water because, "anyone could get water with a well", although when I asked, he acknowledged that digging a well could require significant capital.
The taking of Native land by the U.S. government and white settlers is a critical - and insufficiently understood by most non-Natives (me, for example and even apparently Mr. Kruse) - part of the history of U.S. capitalism.
The Native land Mr. Kruse now owns was probably originally taken by the federal government under the Dawes Act of 1887. The Act mandated the division of tribal land into individual "allotments" to Native individuals and families and made the "surplus" (equivalent to approximately 2/3 of the total) available to non-Natives, for purchasers or claiming as settlement. As described on the Indian Land Tenure Foundation website, a fundamental justification was the need to replace traditional Native collectivism - viewed as "communistic" - with individual ownership of private property. However, Native people's "private" property rights were held in trust by the government for 25 years and even after that period often reverted to the federal government for a variety of reasons. When land became eligible for sale Native families often did sell it, due often to its lack of productivity, loan money, training and support, or inclination to farm (again, see Indian Land Tenure Foundation website for summary history).
Land not sold was passed down through generations of Native family members, resulting in hundreds and sometimes thousands of individuals co-owning a single parcel (fractionation) and an extremely complex set of property rights (see Fact Sheet from Montana State University, "How Reservation Land is Owned by Individuals"). These conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, to use land productively. The Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the most fractionated in the country (High Country News, 4/4/16). And one of the poorest.
A 2009 legal settlement with the Federal government has resulted in two "land buyback" programs (2013, 2018) intended to consolidate fractionated land under tribal control. During my visit I saw outreach efforts for the current buyback program in posted signs and newspapers ads.
In light of the history of Native land two of Mr. Kruse's concluding observations were particularly interesting to me. First, he attributed many of the problems on the Reservation to a lack of emphasis on private property. "The Natives, he said, are hard-working and entrepreneurial but they need to feel more individually accountable". Second, he talked about the problem of governmental regulations protecting prairie dogs and ferrets which he attributed to the misguided perception that "just because at one point a hundred years ago there were more prairie dogs it means they're endangered and we have to protect them". Doing research about the issue I found a 2003 Rapid City Journal article quoting Kruse and other ranchers who feel their property rights are threatened by such regulation.
As always on this trip, I can only barely scrape the surface in understanding how the fundamental elements of capitalism play out locally. Bu in my brief visit to this part of South Dakota I was struck by how readily apparent basic issues of access to and control of capital (and land as a form of capital or not), the role of government (federal and tribal) and varying opportunities to create livelihoods, individual and collective wealth are.