This Month in Lakota History - March

Spring is in the air of the Lakotan homelands. The snow has melted, moistening the earth as she warms beneath her dormant color palette in preparation for the annual exuberance of rebirth. Geese are northbound, though it is uncertain whether they are early migraters from the south, or locals who wintered in a nearby National Refuge.

There will likely be more snow before the meadowlarks return. They are a reliable indicator of springtime. Yet even after they are here, gracing us with their melodic songs, more snow will come. It is, after all, still the winter season.

 Waniyetu is the Lakotan word for winter. According to James Walker, who worked and studied in Pine Ridge Reservation during the early 1900s, the winter season consisted of four or five of the thirteen full moons (months) of the Lakotan year. He wrote that there were two spring moons, four summer moons, and two fall moons. However, he did not indicate which of these seasons would contain an additional moon when winter had only four.

By all published accounts, Ishtawichayazan Wi is the Lakotan moon ascribed to the modern month of March, which dates back to Roman times and was named Martius after their god of war, Mars. Martius was the first month of the Roman year. Today, for most of Western Civilization, March is the beginning of the spring season in the Northern Hemisphere. Walker, however, wrote that Ishtawichayazan Wi (Sore Eyes Moon) is one of the Lakotan winter months.

Perhaps the most disastrous March event in Lakota history occurred on March 2, 1889. That is when the remaining Lakotan treaty homeland, called the Great Sioux Reservation, was reduced for a second time, and also split into five reservations: Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, and Lower Brule. On that day, the Great Sioux Reservation was legislatively erased.

Interestingly, the moon was new—in astronomical terms—at 3:00 PM the previous afternoon. In Lakotan, a new moon is called Wit’e, a Dead Moon. Therefore, the day after the moon was dead is when millions of acres were taken from the Lakotan homeland. Eight months later, on November 2, 1889, all of this taken land would be given to the new state of South Dakota that was established on that day. At the same time, 160,000 acres of it was granted by the U.S. Congress to the Dakota Agricultural College that had been founded in Dakota Territory on February 21, 1881. Eventually that institution was renamed South Dakota State University. Today there are 540 full-time faculty members at SDSU, according to the South Dakota Board of Regents Fact Book for fiscal year 2021, yet only three of these faculty members (0.56%) are American Indians. In a state where American Indians constitute over 9% of its population, and at a university that was given 160,000 acres of Lakotan land, it seems unconscionable that barely one half of one percent of that institution’s full-time faculty members are American Indians.

The Great Sioux Reservation was originally established by Article 2 of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Its area was reduced on February 28, 1877, when its west border was moved about 45 miles east. Also taken from the reservation by the 1877 Act was all of the land east of that line that was also between the Belle Fourche River and the Cheyenne River.

The land taken from Lakotas on that last day of February, 1877, included all of the Black Hills, the spiritual center of the Lakota nation. Then twelve years and two days later, the remaining Great Sioux Reservation was killed by the Congress of the United States. It died that winter under the dead moon of March.

But there was hope. Five reservations had been established. The citizens in four of them ratified constitutions in 1935, and in 1959, Standing Rock citizens ratified their constitution. The collective land base of these five Lakota nations is significantly less than that of the Great Sioux Reservation. Nevertheless, over 131 years after the Great Sioux Reservation was abolished, Lakota nations, their citizens, and their lands, are still here.

Can you hear the meadowlarks singing?