One word I learned quickly after becoming a correspondent for a Native American newspaper in South Dakota was the Lakota word Wasicu (pronounced Wa-see-choo). I’ve heard a few different translations and stories, both similar in their meanings of “someone who takes the best part of the meat” or “someone who takes all the fat.” One story tells of some Natives who invited a few lost and hungry white men to eat with them, and when the plate of meat was passed around the white men took the most tender pieces for themselves, not considering the Elders of the tribe and their poor teeth, so when the plate got to the Elders there was nothing on it they could eat. Other stories tell similar tales of white men sneaking into a tribe’s camp at night and stealing the meat from their kill.
However it translates, the meaning and tone of the word Wasicu is consistent and clear – it means someone who takes for themselves without regard or concern for others. It is apparently considered a derogatory term for white people, but as a white person, I have to say that I think it’s a pretty accurate description.
I see evidence every day of my life of white people hoarding the meat while the Lakota struggle to survive on our scraps. I live in Rapid City, South Dakota which is located between the Black Hills and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (From here on out I will refer to Pine Ridge as the Oglala Lakota Nation; the word “reservation” is a term white people used to name the Prisoner of War camps that we forced the indigenous people to live on. Every reservation in the United States was originally a POW camp. Pine Ridge’s first name was American Prisoner of War Camp #344.)
The Black Hills and the Oglala Lakota Nation have been a hotbed of controversy and headlines for decades and the history in this area is deep and dark. The Black Hills belong to the Oglala Lakota people, according to treaties and supported by a decision of the United States Supreme Court which ruled the land was wrongfully taken from the Lakota and awarded them money as compensation. For decades, the Lakota have refused to take the money, insisting the Black Hills are not for sale and all they want is their land back. The situation is in a deadlock as the Lakota refuse to sell out and the white people continue to develop and desecrate the Black Hills.
Tourism is South Dakota’s number one industry, and guess where all the tourist attractions are built? In the Black Hills. The main tourist attraction here, Mt. Rushmore, the country’s “Shrine of Democracy” is literally carved into a sacred mountain. Faces of white men – one who signed an Executive Order in 1904 which returned some Lakota land to public domain, thereby creating Whiteclay, Nebraska – carved into the sacred Black Hills that we stole. We built hotels and shops and lakes and campgrounds and roads and trails, opened up caves and carved demigods into mountains, built fences to hold the animals in so people can drive by and look at them, we have motorcycle rallies, and we take people’s money to come see all of these things. All of these things that we built in the Black Hills.
Meanwhile, as us white folks live our privileged lives on stolen sacred land and get fat on the best parts of the meat, about an hour away, the Oglala Lakota Nation is the second poorest nation in the entire western hemisphere (Haiti is the poorest). Do just a little bit of online research (from reputable sources) about the Oglala Lakota Nation and you will find some very heartbreaking and shocking facts and statistics. The statistics for Lakota people in Rapid City aren’t much better; the majority of homeless and incarcerated people in Rapid City are Lakota or Native American. The numbers are staggeringly disproportionate. The way the Lakota people are treated in general in Rapid City is reductive to stereotypes and only further perpetuates the cultural oppression.
In South Dakota, I see every day the spoils of the Wasicu and the suffering of the Lakota. It is so clear to see and impossible to deny when you really look.
To the Lakota people I say this:
I am Wasicu, and I am sorry. I have driven through your lands, swam in your waters and walked upon your sacred places without regard for you or the spirits that dwell there. I have lived a privileged life built on the foundation of your suffering. My ancestors have whitewashed the history of this country. My people have profited off the sickness of yours. I cannot change the history of this country but I refuse to deny it, and I accept the legacy my ancestors have bestowed upon me. I am Wasicu, and I am sorry.