Off the Reservation: Lakota Life and Death in Rapid City, South Dakota



On December 19, 2014, thirty-year old Lakota man Allen Locke along with hundreds of Lakota people gathered for a Native Lives Matter rally at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota to demand justice and answers for rampant police violence against Natives in the city. The next day, Rapid City police knocked at the door of an address in the low-income housing development, Lakota Homes. As the name suggests, this neighborhood in the city’s north side is home to a majority of urban Lakota residents. That night, police responded to a call to remove Locke after a domestic dispute. Dispatched officer Anthony Meirose entered the residence and, later, an intoxicated Locke allegedly said to him, “It’s a good day to die” before charging the officer with a steak knife. Meirose believed he had no other choice but to shoot Locke five times, killing him in the kitchen within earshot of his family. The South Dakota Attorney General’s office ruled the shooting “justified,” stressing what Locke allegedly said before Meirose killed him implying suicide by cop. The consensus by law enforcement and the local media was: on the one hand, if Locke wanted to die that day, police were not at fault; on the other hand, if he did not want to die, then he surely was “dying” like so many Natives — a belief that naturalizes the myth of the disappearing Indian. There is no more stereotypical colonial encounter than one between police and the “drunk Indian.” In this scenario, a violent death was expected if not inevitable.

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Flags from top to bottom: Oglala Lakota Oyate, the American Indian Movement, the United States, and the United Nations. Many Lakota view their relationship with the United States as international, evidenced in treaty-making, and contest the United States’ claim as sole owners of the land / Photograph by Nick Estes (2013)

There was nothing innocent about this encounter. Settlers claim Rapid City as a white space. Persistent urban Native presence gives rise to the meticulous management and design of the city along racial boundaries administered by the police, the arrangement of low-income neighborhoods, and the fabrication of a criminal element found most commonly in the “drunk Indian.” The Native poor are cordoned off to mark racially and politically distinct settler and Native spaces. The arrangement of these colonial geographies reflects the same historic and ongoing patterns of violence that displace and contain Indigenous peoples to reservations and remove them from the ancestral territories. Enforcing these spatial arrangements requires the continual policing of space and the continual performance of settler ownership over lands and people that they claim as their own. Law enforcement plays an integral role in upholding these violent spatial practices. Encounters between police and the racialized poor in the U.S. have a murderous and well-known history. How vigilante white slave patrols in southern states evolved into modern police departments is well-documented. Lesser known is policing’s colonial origins: settler colonialism — the physical and spatial process of eliminating, disappearing, and forcefully displacing a native population from their lands to be replaced by a foreign, occupying settler population — is the longest, most enduring, yet least acknowledged structure in the U.S. Indian reservations are commonly considered the forgotten, rural pockets of poverty where violence is abundant and hope in short supply. According to U.S. Census figures, however, almost four of five Natives live off-reservation in places like Rapid City. Rapid City is the epitome of a colonial city. In local vernacular, it is called a border town, the white dominated settlements that ring Indian reservations where persistent patterns of violence and criminalization define everyday Native life.

Established as an illegal settlement in 1876 in direct violation of the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty that guaranteed the Lakota as the sole owners of the Black Hills, Rapid City served as an eastern gateway to the mountains’ highly-prized goldfields. That same year, a Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho confederacy crushed the U.S. military, famously wiping out the Seventh Cavalry and killing General George Armstrong at the Battle of Greasy Grass. Months later Congress passed the Black Hills Act, nullifying the 1868 Treaty. Although never militarily defeated or surrendering, the Lakota found their treaty lands significantly diminished and overrun with settlers. Reservation life was not a choice, but a means for survival. In 1889, South Dakota was granted statehood, solidifying settler claims to Lakota treaty territory. In his book To Have This Land (1991), Philip Hall shows how Rapid City businessmen and newspapers played a crucial role in drumming up anti-Indian sentiment and calling for the violent conclusion to South Dakota’s “Indian Problem” to secure white ownership of remaining Lakota lands. Meanwhile, white vigilantes in Rapid City formed “cowboy militias” and led sporadic sorties against “hostiles,” or Indians going “off the reservation” and those who ventured too to close white-dominated settlements such as Rapid City. This kind of frontier homicide came to a head when the U.S. deployed Custer’s former regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, to stamp out what was believed to be an imminent insurrection among Lakota people leaving their assigned reservations. Spotted Elk’s band (also known as “Chief Big Foot”) left the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation without permission only to be greeted by a vengeful U.S. military. On December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry detained and opened fire on these fleeing Lakota people, killing some 300 at what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

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Lakota Homes, a low-income housing development, is home to the majority of the urban Lakota in Rapid City where Allen Locke was killed by police / Photograph by Nick Estes (2014)

To “go off the reservation” is a U.S. expression current in military, law enforcement, and political circles. It means to defy orders or to deviate from what is expected. Soldiers who “go off the reservation” are rogues or mavericks in military lingo — those who “cross the wire” of military bases called “reservations” and enter hostile territory called “Indian Country.” For Native people to “go off the reservation” refers to those who historically refused reservation life or refused to respect its borders, where Native life was contained and managed. In those days, those willfully crossing frontier borders were renegades, outlaws, or hostiles, who were usually hunted down and summarily shot, hanged, or imprisoned. It is not coincidence this phrase arose from of the nineteenth century Indian wars, the confinement of Natives to reservations, and the murderous consequences inflicted upon those refusing to live by imposed rules and boundaries. Native bodies “off the reservation” in places like Rapid City are loaded with meaning. They are the nightmarish reminder of settler precarity, the living proof of a counter and prior claim to the land. In 1980, the Supreme Court confirmed this fear when it ruled that the U.S. had illegally taken the Black Hills from the Lakota. The court ordered a monetary compensation to which the Lakota refused by saying resolutely, “the Black Hills are not for sale.” In spite of this, the occupation of the Lakota lands continued unabated, and so too did colonial violence. Asserting ownership over the Black Hills, however, does not simply boil down to living on stolen land: settlement requires a continual inflicting of discipline, pain, violence, and death against the bodies whose mere presence elicit so much anxiety about the legitimacy of the colonial project — that indeed this is stolen land. They are bodies that refuse to go away, refuse to disappear, and refuse to sell their lands.

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Despite ongoing occupation, Lakota presence in Rapid City is a continual reminder of refusal to disappear, to go away, and sell their lands / Photograph by Nick Estes (2013)

As a result, Lakota people are subject to enforced poverty and mass incarceration, most of this taking place off-reservation. According to a 2013 American Community Survey, Natives in Rapid City live in poverty at rates higher than many reservations. More than half of the city’s Natives, mostly Lakota, live below the poverty line. Most of the city’s Native poor are concentrated in neighborhoods like Lakota Homes. This rate of urban poverty is the highest of any urban demographic in the United States. Barely twelve percent of the city population, Natives make up half the city’s jail population and more than three-fourths of the city’s homeless. Natives in Rapid City are also five times more likely to get arrested and nearly twice as likely to receive a traffic citation. A recent “independent” review of Native and police relations, however, found fault not in “racially biased” policing, but blamed a political “radical minority” of Lakota people who, according to the report, “can be racist in their own right” towards the predominantly white Rapid City police. This sentiment displaces blame not just onto the Native community, but allows for the police to continue to create and enforce the frontiers or boundaries of the city. The police hold down the fort in Rapid City’s racialized poor neighborhoods. The phrase “hold down the fort” captures the kind of violence that is imagined and projected to take place in these “frontier” neighborhoods between Native and white settler spaces. On this frontier, the law sanctions its own nonexistence and calls for the continual violation and subduing of Native bodies with impunity, especially those who appear to possess the ability of calling attention to tenuous settler claims — such as political dissidents and the criminalized Native poor. Scenes of violence and poverty — of “savagery” — contrast against those of white civilization. Police often see themselves as “the thin blue line” between a “civil (White) society” and a “savage (Indian) society.” Holding down the fort is a euphemism for ongoing colonial occupation and the civilizing mission — civilizing savage spaces, people, and a Native political sovereignty that rightfully claims the land. According to this view, settler society is always the victim, and police keep at bay a savage sovereignty from reclaiming the city.

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A Lakota man is draped in an upside down United States flag, a sign of distress / Photograph by Nick Estes (2012

In police dialogues, history never takes precedent. The criminalization of political “radicals” dates back to the reservation era when Lakota political dissidents, such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, were targeted and assassinated by reservation police. Between 1903 and 1934, hundreds of Lakota spiritual leaders, homosexuals, women, and other “subversives” were also imprisoned at the Canton Indian Insane Asylum for Indians in South Dakota. One of three unceremoniously died there. Thousands of children, too, were taken from families and forced to attend boarding schools, such as the Rapid City Indian School or were sent farther away to places like the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. In the 1960s and 1970s, a new revitalization of national liberation came in the form of the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM formed in 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to address rampant police brutality and border town violence against urban Natives. Soon after AIM’s famous 71-day siege at Wounded Knee in 1973, federal and state law enforcement led a violent revanchist campaign against Native “radicals” and against the political threat of an overt anti-colonialism that intended to reclaim stolen lands, such as the Black Hills. Following the political repression of AIM, a study found from 1977 to 2012 South Dakota’s prison population increased more than 500 percent. About one-third of that population is Native, while Natives making up less than nine percent of the state’s population. Colonial cities such as Rapid City simply re-enact these spatial politics of colonization on a daily basis by removing and eliminating “subversive” Native bodies from what are perceived to be “settled” urban geographies, or cityscapes believed to belong solely to white settler society.

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Nick Estes is Kul Wicasa (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) and a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He studies Indigenous political theory, Indigenous internationalism, American Indian history, and border town justice. Estes also co-founded the Native activist group The Red Nation.

Police violence and incarceration is colonial violence because it has always been premised on the spatial and physical elimination and displacement of Natives. It is also a political art that attempts to erase and conceal its role in colonialism to the point that we assume the historical relationship between colonizer and colonized has ended. It actively constructs “threats” that must be eliminated and contained by criminalizing “drunk Indians” and political “radicals” — when neither activity is illegal by definition. It is used to reject an unfavorable history and legitimate Native claims to territory. The police shooting of Lakota man Allen Locke (and many others in recent years) epitomizes this process. The killing of Natives forces us to consider the immense amount of material resources and ideological labor necessary in order to claim control and ownership over Native spaces and bodies. Locke’s death, like so many others, demonstrates the underlying precarity and anxiety surrounding questions of settler ownership. In this sense, Rapid City is as much a material manifestation as it is a geopolitical buffer that forcefully disavows Lakota life off reservation and claims to the Black Hills.