Land Issues: The Sioux and the Black Hills

lakota-sioux-black-hills-sacred-landIt is safe to say that Native Americans have had their fair share of problems in the course of American history. In fact that is an understatement at best. And it seems their constant battle to secure land rights continues. By the first of September 2012 the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar would have to decide the fate of land considered sacred by the Sioux people of the Black Hills. And although the history of Native Americans and the United States Government has been characterized by broken contracts, this time the public stepped in and helped save land sacred to Tribal Nations including the Lakota Sioux.

The land in question is a beautiful stretch of prairie land in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just west of Rapid City. It is called Pe’ Sla. The land is considered to be the Center and Heart of everything that is. It is presently undeveloped and privately owned. Each year it is used for ceremonies sacred to the Sioux tradition. The land is associated with the Sioux creation story and the ceremonies performed there are believed to keep the universe in harmony.

Two thousand acres of the land was in danger of being auctioned off to bidders who proposed the development of either a road or a golf course. The auction was to be held September 1st, but fortunately the auctioneers caved to public pressure, for now. Seven bands of Native Americans also made a collective effort to buy as much of the land as possible at the auction. Those bands included the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Oyate people (also known as the Great Sioux Nation). At the same time, these bands also acknowledge that land cannot be owned and that their sacred places were illegally taken by the United States. Their efforts are being made so further desecration is not committed to their environment. They are trying to work within the current United States system of laws to regain custody of their sacred sites.

If the lands are lost so are the sacred traditions that are so connected to that specific environment. Future generations will be unable to access and understand their culture and way of life without this land and the ritual associated with it. Not only that but the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) is home to many plants and animals that should also be protected. When the stars align the Lakota people, just as their ancestors did, fo to Pe’ Sla to pray and they cannot go anywhere else. The goals of the Great Sioux Nation are to protect the area and that plants, animals, water, and air that they believe should be respected and honored.

Sara Jumping Eagle of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe started the petition that provoked this government response. She proposed the land be designated a historical landmark. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has the ability to declare the land a historical landmark. He has yet to do so, but on August 24, 2012 the auction of the Reynold’s Prairie portion of Pe’ Sla was cancelled at the owner’s request. The land is still for sale and the Naïve Americans are still hoping to purchase it in order to preserve it for future generations. Sara belives the land is still in danger though. She stated, “Pe ‘Sla is a symbol of a resurgence and belief in who we are as Lakota Oyate (the people). If somebody were to come and build a road or desecrate it in any way, it would be like the Wounded Knee Massacre happening all over again. Can you imagine the Vatican, or Mecca or Bethlehem being bulldozed for an amusement park?” Please sign Sara’s petition to make sure that the injustices of the past do not continue and that Native American sacred land is protected. Help the Lakota Sioux Save Ple’ Sa.

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Land Issues: the Maasai and Loliondo

maasai-tanzania-tourism-big-game-huntingAll around the world, indigenous people struggle to hold onto the land that their people have been occupying for centuries. These populations are displaced in the name of development and the expansion of industry. In the case of the Maasai people of Tanzania, the case boils down to the royal privilege and excess of Middle Eastern princes and kings who want to use their land, particularly Loliondo, for corporate sponsored big game hunting. Forty-eight thousand Maasai people would be displaced if the big game hunting industry takes their land away.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic group of herders who have lived in Eastern Africa, specifically Tanzania and Kenya for centuries. Like most indigenous groups they play a critical role in preserving the delicate ecosystem they inhabit, as do the animals that the Middle Eastern royals want to slaughter. Royals from the United Arab Emirates are pushing the plan so they can hunt big game and the plan is dangerous to both the wildlife and the surrounding communities like the Maasai.

The Maasai have a fighting chance in the fact that the Tanzanian President, President Kikwete, will stop deals like this if they generate negative press coverage. Unfortunately, President Kikwete is favoring local elites who want the deal in order to support development. Wealthy Middle Eastern princes and kings would displace the Maasai, who actually live and use the portion of the Serengeti in natural accordance with environmental interests, in order for the royalty to hunt endangered animals like wild lions and leopards.

Unfortunately this is not the first time the Maasai have been pushed off their land. It’s not even the first time this same corporation has pushed the Maasai off their land. In fact, the last time the big game hunting multinational corporation did so, the Maasai were beaten by police and their homes were burnt down and their livestock dies of starvation. A media frenzy followed the 2009 incident and President Kikwete of Tanzania tried to avoid controversy and embarrassment by returning the Maasai to their land.

This time around the Tanzanian government is less concerned. They are presently claiming there is no threat to the Maasai. The Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism put out a statement saying there are no Maasai in Serengeti Park or the Serengeti District and he claims they live in the bordering regions. The Tanzanian government officially denotes this area part of the Serengeti ecosystem, yet are failing to allow for its protections. The land grab has the potential to continue and evict the Maasai, even if there are none in the region the government claims will be affected.

Because tourism is a major source of income for Tanzania, President Kikwete is trying to keep the controversy under wraps. By signing the following petition you can let the international community know that this story should be in the spotlight and you can pressure the Tanzanian government into saving this land for the Maasai and these animals for tourist who want to shoot them with a camera rather than a gun, as Avaaz, the site hosting the petition to save the Maasai, so cleverly puts it.

Avaaz is also suggesting users leave comments at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism’s Facebook page.The petition itself can be found at Avaaz: Save the Maasai. If signed you will stand by both indigenous communities and their right to their ancestral land as well as by animals and their right to live in their environment (thus preserving their ecosystem) without being slaughtered by wealthy Middle Eastern royals.

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Save the Earth: Green The Sand


garden-in-the-sandWhen I met my WWOOF[1] host Alexis Torres in 2008, he was living on a South American island and growing a flourishing garden…… sand.

Today at age twenty-seven this Chilean is one of his country’s foremost experts on permaculture, the design of sustainable and self-sufficient human environments.  Since permaculture’s a rather broad area, Torres does several things, but they all fall under a common theme: teaching people and communities how to lead a comfortable lifestyle in which they render all their own necessities from their local land without damaging or exhausting the natural resources.  

Unfortunately one of those natural resources, fertile soil, the base of nearly all our food, has already been decimated throughout several regions of the world.  “Modern agriculture has destroyed a total of farmland equal to the area of Canada and the United States combined,” Torres explained.  “Heavy machinery compacts the soil so plant roots can’t penetrate it.  Pesticides and tilling kill the microbes that fix nitrogen and break organic matter into the minerals plants need to grow. 

“Additionally, most farmers leave soil bare, exposing it to the elements.  Wind and rain erode uncovered soil while the sun fries microbes and evaporates water before it can reach the deeper layers of soil where many plant roots are located.”

The result is desertification and less space to cultivate food in an increasingly populated world.  Throughout central Chile, one can see acres of barren dirt, former fields that are now glazed with dust whenever the wind blows.  Similar sites blot Asia, Africa, and the other inhabited continents.

It’s this expanding collection of scorched earth that prompted Torres to start farming sand.

“I want to inspire people to recuperate the soil where they live,” Torres said.  “Whether fertility was lost from war, modern agriculture, or urbanization – for example, buildings that got torn down and now there’s just an empty plot – that land can be recovered and used to grow things.  People just need to see that it can be done and understand the basic principles of how to do it.”  

How did Torres make his sand garden?  In 2006 he began creating a border between the island’s sands and the river that ran by them.  Since the island was a thirty-minute walk from the village where he grew up, he was already familiar with the seasonal patterns and challenges he faced.  In summer the river bordering the island was merely a trickle, but when the winter rains came the waters swelled and carried a portion of the bank away.  Torres and some friends first altered the flow of the river by strategically placing small sticks that tilted the water away from the island and allowed sediment to build up against the shores.  They planted cattails along the banks, which raised the soil as the plants grew, the next generation growing out of the decay of the previous generation.  In winter then the elevated rooted banks protected the island’s sands from being washed away by the river.     

Another dilemma Torres faced was the absence of organic matter in the sand he wished to cultivate.  Without organic matter, the sand was unable to maintain water in the hot summer sun.  Torres and friends dug a series of banks and lined them with sticks and rocks.  They planted weeds at the bottoms of the banks and covered the tops with leaves, cardboard boxes, straw and sediment that had accumulated from the altered course of the river.  To provide gradual irrigation to the beds, plastic bottles were cut and the top portions were encased at the tops of banks to funnel water into deeper layers of the soil.  The second year chards, strawberries, and lima beans, which nitrated the soil, were planted.  As the sand gained fertility over the years other vegetables and fruits were placed in the garden.   

Obviously, Torres’s methods cannot be successfully copied detail by detail everywhere; basic conditions like protection from erosion and accumulation of organic matter will need to be reached in some form suitable for the environment of the desolated land.  Luckily Alexis Torres is not alone in his effort to save humanity’s source of life and nourishment.  If you are interested in learning more about how to turn a wasteland into a green land, you can check out these links to see what more people are doing:

For a great National Geographic article on fertile soil click here.

For an instructional video about see balls click here. 


Photo Credit: Alexis Torres-Peña

[1] WWOOF = World-wide opportunities on organic farms