The Role of Low-income Housing in Devaluing the Social Capital of the Oglala Lakota

David BARTECCHI, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

Background on the Oglala Lakota Nation

Home of the Oglala Lakota Nation, the Pine Ridge Reservation was established during the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and encompasses a territory of approximately 2 million acres of the Northern Great Plains in southwest South Dakota. With a population of over 26,000, the Reservation exists today as one of the poorest places in the United States and lags far behind other parts of the United States in virtually all standards of human well-being. The historical legacy of the U.S. Government forcefully alienating people from their allotted lands has contributed to the unequal land-use patterns on Pine Ridge today, where 20 people control nearly 46% of the land base.

Traditional Lakota government was organized around the band or tiospaye (One-Feather 1974). Each tiospaye was an autonomous political and economic entity, engaging with other tiospayes for ceremonies, limited trade, and warfare (Pickering 2000). Leadership responsibilities within the tiospaye were centered in a camp council composed of band chiefs, headmen, war leaders, active warriors, and holy men (Price 1991). Each council recognized one or more tiospaye chiefs who were usually people with good reputation within their tiospaye. In addition to the chiefs, each family appointed a senior male to participate in the camp council. All tiospaye leaders were bound by obligations of mutual aid and respect and were subject to ostracisms and desertion for violation of these Lakota values (Cornell and Kalt 1992; Price 1991).

Most decision-making within the tiospaye was conducted informally and the loosely organized Lakota Camp Council convened only in situations of great importance such as the Sun Dances, warfare with other tribes, or treaty making with Euro-Americans (Price 1991). When decisions were to be made by the camp council they usually occurred through deliberate periods of dialogue with the objective being consensus rather than majority rule (Price 1991).

Euro-Americans who were charged with negotiating treaties with the Lakota’s as early as the 1850’s failed to recognize the decentralized political structure of the Lakota as well as the individual status of representatives from particular tiospayes favoring negotiating with Chiefs with no formal or informal legitimacy to represent the entire Lakota people (Price 1991). Recognizing the chiefs as the principle negotiator rather than spokesman for the tiospaye compromised the consensus of the tribal council Furthermore, Euro-American commissioners recognized particular chiefs as leaders of all of the tiospayes, compromising the decentralized political structure of the Lakota (Price 1991). This presented a two-fold challenge for the Lakota: First, the chief’s primary obligations and expectations were to his tiospaye and not necessarily to other tiospayes. Second, people did not recognize the leadership of a single individual within the tiospaye, and especially an individual from another tiospaye.

This conflict of loyalties challenged the internal relations within the tiospayes as well as between tiospayes. The tiospaye-centered norms of reciprocity, solidarity, and mutual-aid are derived from habitus, as these are unregulated dispositions shared by the Lakota. As such, Lakota habitus, being the product of the historic dialectic between itself and the objective structures of the Lakota society, experienced less internal conflict and change than when they were placed in a dialectic with the foreign structure of Euro American forms of government.

The Impact of Housing Clusters on Lakota Extended Families

Low-income housing projects, called “cluster housing” have played a large role in disrupting micro-level social capital among the Lakota. Started in 1960s, cluster housing was designed to be a cost effective solutions to the housing needs of the Reservation (Pickering 2000b). However, the disruption it caused to the effectiveness of the social capital of the tiospaye. The spatial dislocations it caused, the high cost of heating, and the dilapidated state of the houses, has had the negative effect of creating communities of place where people feel no sense of reciprocal obligation to their neighbors.

To understand how the cluster housing impacted the embedded social capital of the Oglala Lakota we must first look at the prior patterns of shelter and how it related with their habitus. In doing so we will look at three distinct housing orientations; the pre-reservation, early reservation, and contemporary cluster housing.

The pre-reservation housing orientations were the most spatially and socially fluid fitting well with their nomadic lifestyle and the fluid nature of their political system. Prior to the reservation system, the Oglala Lakota lived in lightweight and moveable structures called tipis.

Family’s that made up a tiospaye would set their tipis up in a single camp in close circular orientation. The tipi was intricately related to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the fluid nature of politics, and the symbolic importance they place in the circle. The shape of the tipi also had symbolic significance to the Lakota as well. The Oglala people see the circle as a symbol many relationships including the cycles of the seasons and the cycles of life and death. As such, it is believed the tipi has a great deal of power.

After the establishment of the reservation system the different tiospayes settled along the creeks, which flowed off the white river. By this time the Lakotas were receiving treaty payments in the form of rations from the United States Government for their land. They were told that anyone who built a log cabin on a piece of land would receive a cookstove, doors, and windows. They would also receive a plow, wagons, mowing machines, and other equipment for free if they farmed the land. In the early stages of the reservation, eight head chiefs were recognized by the United States. The head chiefs from each area were responsible for picking up the rations and distributing them to the members of his tiospaye. “Through the respect people had for their head-man, the Lakota were able to continue the old way of life in the new setting. The headman always thought of his people before himself” (One-Feather 1974: 19).

The different tiospayes were distributed in this way until the early 1960’s when the pressures of population demanded that new houses be built.

Cluster housing, introduced as part of an attempt to reduce federal and tribal spending on utilities, concentrated many of the reservation’s residents in densely settled clumps of new housing and severed the connections many families had to particular pieces of land traditionally held by their tiospaye. The allotments abandoned by the new cluster housing tenants were immediately swept up by Indian and non-Indian ranchers, who today use the land primarily for grazing purposes (Record and Hocker 2002).

The housing clusters had the negative effect of breaking apart traditional communities bound by close familial connections and placed individual families in clusters with other families to whom they shared no connection with. One Lakota man from the village of Oglala explains:

The cluster housings came in 1962 in Oglala. I moved, and my tiospaye dissipated, all moving towards the housing. So did other communities, they all moved to a central location. And you know what happened, those old tiospaye feuds are still active, still there, so you have those nasty looks they give each other, progresses to words, then it progresses to hissycups, broken windows, crime, because you have several tiospayes living together. That’s why I moved.

Another participant illustrates the difference between the two types of living and how it impacts reciprocity and mutual aid within his tiospayes:

“Years ago, people used to live in Tiospayes and we all live together, helping each other and working together. We had a lot of time to make things for each other, with everyone’s help. But today, we don’t all live together like we used to. I don’t’ think that its that they don’t have the value, or don’t want to be that way. It’s hard socially and economically. Because when we have ceremonies or give away, it pretty much falls on the immediate family…where it used to fall on the whole tiospaye and people helped each other. Over a hundred years ago, they had to help each other…everyone in the extended family has to help. Now it’s only a smaller part of the family. Giveaways are huge and expansive and people have to prepare now for a whole year. But the value is still there, the circumstances have just changed (URBAN - 2 : 89 - 89 ).

The breakup of the traditional communities that the cluster housing caused had a negative effect on social capital found within the tiospayes. The durability of habitus, the disposition for the expectation and obligation of trust within the tiospaye did not necessarily change because of the imposition of the structural reorientation that cluster housing presented. Rather, people’s reliance on their tiospaye as their primary locus of identity, mutual-aid, and social support remained regardless of the fact that people are now living in an area away from their family and in a community comprised of families from different tiospayes.

However, despite the durability of the tiospaye networks, the fragmentation of the extended families that the cluster housing has had a negative effect, forcing a change in the habitus of its occupants. One woman, while explaining the negative impact television has had commented that the

The housing did that too with these big houses. People just don’t live as close as they used to (YLFinterviewsa00 : 751 - 752 ).

The cluster housing has created communities of place by forcing people to leave their traditional communities in order to find housing and how once those individuals were in the cluster housing the closed and cohesive nature of the tiospaye made it difficult for people to extend trust to new people. This, combined with how the centralized structure of the government divided families along the lines of those who are in power and those who are not, makes the clusters housing the battle ground for the conflicts between habitus and structure.

Resistance to Cluster Housing and a Return to the Land

Despite the impositions, and negative impacts created by the Cluster housing, there has always been a strong resistance of Lakotas at the grassroots calling for “land-use” and “land-recovery.” These concepts refer to a general movement to restore traditional Lakota Governance and to recover of their natural resources from a Tribal elite and non-tribal lessees. Related to this movement is the broader demand for a recognition of their Treaty Rights (e.g. Return of the Black Hills) and broader aboriginal claims shared by Tribes throughout North America. Grassroots groups on the Pine Ridge Reservation who make-up this movement include the Knife Chief Buffalo Nation who has been working since the 1990s to restore bison to the Reservation, modeling their organization on traditional Lakota governance models.

The Wounded Knee Tiospaye Project, since 2003, has been working to mobilize the various tiospayes in the Wounded Knee District to be recognized as legitimate units of organization and governance. Families like the Red Clouds, the No Braid’s, White Plumes, and the Brave Hearts represent families who have reclaimed their legally allotted lands in an attempt to restore their tiospaye communities. There is also a growing user-built-home movement growing on Pine Ridge – a critical step to freeing one’s family from the cluster housing projects. Organizations like Earth Tipi, Winyan Maka, Lakota Solar Enterprises and Buffalo Boy Foundation are developing low-cost and energy efficient housing such as straw-bale, rammed earth, compressed earth block, earth bag, and log cabins.

One of the biggest obstacles to land reform on the Pine Ridge Reservation today is the lack of information available for tribal members about their lands, the opportunities that exist, and the procedures for doing things like consolidating fractionated lands, partitioning undivided lands, and creating wills. Village Earth has sought to lessen these obstacles by providing training workshops across the reservation, providing one-on-one consultations with families, advocating on the behalf of allottees, and developing the Strategic Land Planning Map Book, a valuable tool for allottees to locating their lands and identify the options and procedures for recovering, protecting, utilizing and managing those lands.