Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota

The Lakota Nation and the Legacy of American Colonization

Annie Coombs & Zoë Malliaros

The American landscape we know today is marked by a history of genocide, forced relocations, and the search for one people’s freedom at the cost of many others’. The Indigenous populations across this land were murdered, traumatized, and relocated to often unfamiliar territory to create what is now the United States. Once removed from sight, Native voices have been stifled by the conditions on reservations and the legacy of colonialism.

returning to our cheyenne river lakota nation from a trip to pierre, sd. Photograph by Dawnee LeBeau

Today, many in the dominant society1We use the term “dominant society” to represent what many people we interviewed described to us as the “white world.” It refers to a colonial, Judeo-Christian mindset and capitalist culture that is dominant in the United States. think of Native Americans as people from the past or stereotypes in the present; there is an astonishing lack of understanding of the lives Native Americans lead, both on and off reservations. The continuing racism and omission of Native voices in mainstream American culture has profound effects on Native communities. To discuss the American landscape without mention of Indigenous populations and the reservations they were forced onto would perpetuate this problematic culture of omission.

This collection of interviews focuses on the Cheyenne River Reservation2This Lakota reservation is named for its proximity to the Cheyenne River. in South Dakota. Within the context of American Roundtable, it is crucial to recognize that the forces that created Cheyenne River and other reservations across this country are fundamentally different than those that led to communities elsewhere in the United States. It was the genocide and destruction of vibrant Indigenous communities that made “typical” American communities possible. It is a myth, perpetuated by the dominant society, that the Indigenous populations on this land have equal rights and opportunities or that reservations themselves were created to give Native Americans sovereignty. They were solutions to an “Indian problem,” camps for isolation, assimilation, and control. Today those intentions remain visible in the lack of community planning, the lagging of infrastructure development, the unsuitable designs of many houses, and the siting of communities on largely inhospitable land. 

The history of the Lakota3The Lakota are sometimes referred to as the Lakota Sioux. The term Sioux is a French-Canadian word that refers to three linguistically and regionally different groups: the Lakota (Teton), Western Dakota (Yankton), and Eastern Dakota (Santee). The Lakota comprised seven bands: Brulé, Oglala, Itazipco, Hunkpapa, Mnikoju, Blackfoot, and Two Kettle. The Cheyenne River Reservation is home to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which includes representatives from four of the seven bands: Teton Sioux: the Minnecoujou, Two Kettle (Oohenunpa), Sans Arc (Itazipco) and Blackfoot (Sihásapa). people, one of the original stewards of the Great Plains, is marked by a series of broken treaties and promises by the US government. The land base for the Great Sioux Nation was delineated by the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties. Six years later, these treaties were broken when settlers discovered gold in the Black Hills. The tribes fought with the US government over the Black Hills and surrounding area until 1889, when the Great Sioux Reservation, by act of Congress, was reduced and divided into separate reservations known today as Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Standing Rock, Crow Creek, Yankton, Sisseston, and Lower Brule. 

Lakota Land Loss Map, 1851–present. Image Credit: Mark Nowlin, The Seattle Times

At the same time, across the United States, tribal land was being reduced by the 1887 Dawes Act. This act created a new “trust” relationship between the US Government and tribal members: The government would hold the title to tribal land in trust, keeping it exempt from federal and state taxes for 25 years. Under this new system, parcels of communal tribal land were allotted to individual tribal members,4Present-day tribal membership is defined individually by each tribal government, and differences can be found at the federal, tribal, and state levels. For further information on South Dakota tribal membership, see the SD Tribal Court Handbook, page 51. and the “surplus” was sold off to non-native homesteaders. After 25 years, these allotments to individual tribal members automatically converted to private, fee patent, land. For many reasons, including tax foreclosure, financial hardship, and misinformation about the trust relationship, this policy of “forced deeds” led to widespread loss of Indian5We sometimes use the word “Indian” rather than terms such as Native American or Native as most people we spoke with identified themselves as Indian. Furthermore, many political movements, tribal organizations, government agencies and laws use the term Indian: examples include the American Indian Movement, American Indian Congress, Indian Land Tenure Foundation, Indian Reorganization Act, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. land.6Land within the boundaries of the reservation is legally considered “Indian country.” The law was ultimately found to be unfair and repealed in 1934. 

Prior to the Dawes Act, the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Reservation encompassed 2.8 million acres of land. Over 50 percent of this land was converted out of trust before the Dawes Act was overturned.7Learn more in the feature Cheyenne River Surface Ownership. 

Tribal land was again reduced in size following the passage of the Pick Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944, which authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to build a series of hydroelectric dams along the Missouri River. With the construction of the Oahe Dam, over 104,000 acres of land along the eastern edge of Cheyenne River were seized through eminent domain and flooded, leading to the relocation of 30 percent of the population.8Griffin, Karen M., “Reservoirs and Reservations” (1996). Nebraska Anthropologist. Paper 94. Table 2. The area destroyed by the flood included the Cheyenne Agency, previously the center of life and commerce on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Families who relied on the river and its surrounding fertile land were forced to leave their homes and established community for less-desirable land inland. The compensation was inadequate and the trauma irreparable. 

Sustained, systemic racism, enacted through policies such as these, has led to conditions of poverty and staggering health statistics of high suicide rates and life expectancy well below the national average.9In 2014, Ziebach county, where the bulk of the population lives, average life expectancy is 71, the national average is 79. See source. Today there are an estimated 8,10210Per the 2010 census, which is believed to be a low estimate due to people’s lack of trust in the US Government. people living on the reservation, with inadequate infrastructure and an unemployment rate of 47.7 percent.11Cheyenne River Voices Data Report 2013. This statistic takes into account only people who are actively looking for work. A 2005 Department of Labor report found unemployment to be 88% for the tribe, not the reservation. The 2000 Census reported a 15.20% unemployment rate for the whole reservation, not the tribe. See source. 

The present-day Cheyenne River Reservation is now centered around Eagle Butte, with other towns and rural outlying communities dispersed across the reservation. We first visited as volunteers with the Sioux YMCA over 20 years ago and were greatly impacted by the experience.12We were introduced to the Cheyenne River community through the Sioux YMCA’s REACH program and are current members of the Sioux YMCA’s Board of Trustees. In the years since, we’ve spent significant personal and professional time on both Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge, the Oglala Lakota Reservation located about 100 miles south. While Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge are both Lakota reservations facing many similar economic and infrastructural challenges, they have their own tribal governments, political histories, and relationship with geographic isolation. The main town of Pine Ridge (the name of both the reservation and town) is at the southern border of the reservation, making it more accessible to goods and services than Eagle Butte. 

We bring together voices and images from Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge; members of the community speak for themselves. In our dialogue with Tatewin Means, we first described this project as “looking at” on-the-ground conditions on the reservations. She pointed out that the phrase “look at” was the language of a colonized mindset, saying, “We’ve been looked at enough. We’ve been studied enough. We have held her words close and urge those who engage in this American Roundtable discussion to do the same. We’ve been humbled by the candor and trust given to us in all of our conversations.

We spoke with artists, community leaders, architects, and directors of government organizations and nonprofits: people working from both inside and outside the US government system to effect change. A diversity of perspectives was essential; there is no singular Native or community voice, but rather many voices sharing their lived experiences, critical reflections on the past and present, and vision for the future. 

Throughout the interviews, there is a common theme: tension between engagement and partnerships with dominant society and the assertion of sovereignty and self-sufficiency. This is perhaps most obvious in discussions around land ownership and whether sovereignty or self-sufficiency can be achieved on tribal trust land or privately owned land. The trust system and the treaty rights set up by colonizers were not intended to support a long-term thriving nation. This begs the question, what can? 

The featured voices and images explore this question through the intersection of educational, infrastructural, economic, environmental, and cultural forces that affect the lives and health of the Lakota people. Our conversations started with a focus on one topic, but they naturally drew connections across multiple topics. The discussions with all our contributors were framed around the following:


Education on the reservation is shadowed by a history of boarding schools, a state-sponsored system designed to assimilate Native children by breaking their cultural and family ties. We spoke with Dana Dupris and Ben Elk Eagle, Lakota elders who were forced to attend boarding schools, about the lasting impacts of these experiences on family dynamics and health in their community. We also spoke with Marcella Gilbert about the American Indian Movement “Survival School” she attended: a grassroots school created by her mother to give children an education rooted in the history, current issues, and politics relevant to Native people.  

Many of the struggles that youth face today are rooted in this history of boarding schools, forced acculturation, and the trauma inflicted on generations of Lakota children. Carol Mann and Andrew Corley, the current and former directors of the Sioux YMCA, discuss how the Y supports youth across the Cheyenne River Reservation with safe spaces and programming, after-school and summer programs, and a robust healthy food and meal program. 

Work and Economy

Lakota Vogel, the director of Four Bands Community Fund, offers a broad overview of the economic landscape of the reservation. Four Bands supports financial literacy, provides loans to the Native community, and recently built a business incubator that supports local entrepreneurs. Vogel describes an economy predominantly supported by government jobs and lacking opportunities in other sectors. 

The economic challenges on Cheyenne River run deeper than a lack of diversity in job opportunities. The complicated nature of tribal trust and fee patent land within the boundaries of the reservation impedes growth. Geographic isolation, lack of infrastructure and reliable internet, and poor economic planning for outlying communities also play a role. There has never been a thriving economy here because reservations were not created with tribes’ economic prosperity in mind.


The lagging economy and lack of access to healthcare on the reservations are deeply tied to infrastructure. Specifically, lack of access to sufficient water plays an enormous role in limiting growth across all sectors on both Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge. Lacy Maher from the local water company, Sharon Vogel from the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, and Tribal Councilperson Bob Walters discuss the recent water moratorium and its impact on the growth of housing and economic development. 

The flooding of the Cheyenne Agency along the Missouri River was central to the shaping of the current-day Cheyenne River reservation. Dana Dupris and Sharon Vogel both speak to the long-term effects of this mass displacement on the community and economy.


The state of health and safety on the reservation is dire. With less than one person per square mile and a lack of physical infrastructure, communities are widely dispersed. The healthcare system is inadequate and underfunded; in particular, emergency services struggle to cover the great distances. The result of these delays and absence of facilities is that life expectancy on Cheyenne River is well below the national average, while rates of suicide, diabetes, obesity, alcoholism, and cancer are well above the national average. 

Photographer Samantha Herrald shares a series of images focused on family and her ongoing fight to access care for her daughter Bre’ly, who was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood leukemia in 2018. The disruption of relocating across the country to access appropriate care has been an ongoing struggle, with lasting effects on her whole family. 

Marcella Gilbert, a Lakota nutritionist and activist, speaks about the history of Lakota medicine and food, and how it differs from western medicine and eating styles. She believes that the processed foods that were forced onto native populations are not compatible with their bodies and that this, coupled with the mass genocide of their medicine people, has exacerbated health issues like diabetes within the community.

The healthcare system is the end result of the United States government’s repression of the Lakota people, often treating the symptoms of historic trauma, rather than its roots.  To understand the staggering health statistics, one must understand the conditions that created them.


The harsh climate of the Great Plains is addressed in multiple interviews, as it is a force that affects everyone in the area. We spoke with Tatewin Means and Kimberly Pelkofsky at Thunder Valley CDC, a grassroots, community-based organization building a comprehensive development project rooted in Lakota spirituality and liberation. Thunder Valley has designed and built a sustainable planned community tailored to these extreme weather conditions, where tornadoes and hail storms can make roads impassable for weeks and above-ground power grids leave homes vulnerable to outages.

Thunder Valley’s approach to community input contrasts with the approach historically taken by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development across the reservations. Its holistic strategy encompasses eight initiatives: community engagement, youth leadership, Lakota language & education, workforce development, social enterprise, housing and homeownership, regenerative community, development, and food sovereignty.

Public Space

Tammy Eagle Bull, founder of Encompass Architects, speaks about Lakota culture and the postcolonial concept of land ownership. The concept of public space does not necessarily align with traditional Lakota beliefs about the earth, which was not thought of as something that could be “owned” privately but rather, as Eagle Bull asserted, needs to be “taken care of, respected and valued as a living entity.”

On both Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge, public spaces as seen in typical American communities are few and far between; things like libraries, town squares, and urban parks don’t exist. Sharon Vogel attributes this to a lack of funding for the creation and maintenance of such spaces. In most parts of the US, public space is maintained with tax dollars, but there is no comparable source of revenue on Tribal land.

The pow wow grounds are discussed as unique social, economic, spiritual, and recreational places in Native culture, with communities typically taking turns hosting throughout the summer season. Ben Elk Eagle recounts his memories of the pow wows of his childhood and speaks to how they have changed. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, as Tammy Eagle Bull and Lakota Vogel noted, they are starting to be used as more agnostic, flexible, accessible spaces for the community to gather in informal ways.

View a short slideshow of the community of Eagle Butte, SD


Annie Coombs

and Zoë Malliaros are New York City–based architects. They have been traveling to the Cheyenne River Reservation for over 20 years, first as volunteers with the Sioux YMCA, and later for personal, academic and professional visits. In 2010, they were recipients of a fellowship from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) which resulted in Post-Reservation, a project that visualized housing, infrastructure, and the economy on the Lakota Sioux reservations. They both currently serve on the board of trustees for the Sioux YMCA.

Separate from their collaborations, Annie Coombs runs Siris Coombs Architecture, a practice that includes residential, cultural, and social impact projects. From 2016 to 2019, she served on the board of directors for Simply Smiles, a non-profit organization that provides housing and youth programs on Cheyenne River. Coombs has a master’s of architecture from Columbia University’s GSAPP and a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Wesleyan University.

Zoë Malliaros has worked professionally in both residential architectural design and nonprofit consulting as an owner’s representative for New York City nonprofit youth-focused organizations. She is a longtime member of the advisory council of ArtBridge, an NYC-based non-profit that empowers emerging artists to transform urban spaces. Malliaros has a master’s of architecture from Columbia University’s GSAPP and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.