Organizing the Lakota

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Biolsi, Thomas. Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1992


Written in 1992, Organizing the Lakota details the relationship between the federal government and the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota during the New Deal. Biolsi begins the book by explaining how the Lakota people on the reservations were dominated by the federal government’s Office of Indian Affairs though methods of administrative domination and surveillance. According to Biolsi, this domination extended into all matters of reservation life included reservation politics, economics, and even the minute personal details individual’s lives.

The goal of the New Deal for the Native Americans living on these reservations was to bring about a greater level of self-reliance and autonomy to the reservations. Central to this was the establishment of Tribal Councils that would, theoretically, play an important role in the governing of the reservations. Despite the good intentions of those who came up with this New Deal, the results of this experiment were far different than what was expected. Biolsi argues that the failure of the New Deal for those living on the reservations was for several important reasons.

One of the major problems with the Indian New Deal was that the plan was created by federal employees without serious Native American input and an adequate understanding of Native culture. For example, the Tribal Councils would establish a central government for the reservation, in this case, the Lakota. The problem with this arrangement is that the Lakota traditionally functioned in small bands, without a central organization. Thus, the federal government was attempted to establish Lakota self-government in a way that was unfamiliar to them and their culture. Another problem with this arrangement is that prior to the establishment of these Tribal Councils, tribal decisions on the reservation were made according to a three-fourths majority vote, in accordance to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. This caused a great deal of conflict between “New Dealers” who supported the Tribal Councils, and “Old Dealers” who opposed them, instead supporting the prior system of self-governance.

Another problem with the Indian New Deal was that the governments centered around the new Tribal Councils had very little power and authority separate from the Office of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior. With the way that these tribal governments were established, with heavy influence from the federal government, many actions of the Tribal Council required the approval of either the reservation Superintendent, or the Secretary of the Interior. In addition, any attempted autonomy by the Lakota people living on these reservations was undercut by the fact that most residents, especially during the Great Depression, relied on federal employment, aid, and entitlements for survival.

In the end, Biolsi argues that while the goal of the Indian New Deal, with the establishment of Tribal Councils, was to bring self-government and autonomy to the Lakota, the end effect was the opposite. Because the Tribal Councils ran counter to traditional Lakota forms of self-government, and because they had little independent authority, the Tribal Councils simply added another form of governmental control of the Lakota people.


Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

As someone who knew little about life on reservations, I enjoyed reading this work. Often, it seems, the history of Native Americans on the reservations is often overlooked when we study their history. Overall, I find myself agreeing with most of Biolsi’s argument, though I do feel that his belief in the surveillance of the Lakota was rather overstated, given the technologies available at the time and the relative isolation and low population of the region. However, I do agree that the federal government, though its actions and policies, did keep the Lakota on them for support and governance. In addition, it is clear that the Tribal Councils were set up to fail, even though this was obviously not the intention of those who created their model of government.

I think that the book would be improved if it explained how the Indian New Deal functioned on other reservations during this time period. I would be interested to know if other Tribes, especially those that might have been more centralized, ended up having a greater deal of success with self-government. Also, I am curious if the Tribal Councils ever were able to established greater autonomy apart from the Department of the Interior.

After reading the book, there are several important questions to ask. For example, would the Tribal Councils have been successful if they had been granted more independence from the Office of Indian Affairs? Or were they simply too much of a departure from tradition for the Lakota people to understand and accept. In addition, when one looks at the crushing poverty that still exists on these reservations, and on other reservations throughout the American West, should additional action be taken? Should tribes be given a true chance at self-government, or should the reservation system that we currently know of be radically changed, or perhaps even abolished?

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