the unending frontier

On December 6, 1999,

the South Dakota Advisory Committee held a community forum at the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn in Rapid City.  Invited to speak were a collection of Federal enforcement officials, local law enforcement, and tribal law enforcement from the Oglala and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes.  The forum was a community-demanded response to the June 8 deaths of Wilson Black Elk, Jr., and Ronald Hard Heart, who were beaten to death on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation in the southwestern part of the State. 

Similarly, in Mobridge, a town near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, the body of 22-year-old Robert Many Horses was found on June 30, 1999.  

In the spring of 1999, a pickup truck struck and killed a 21-year-old Native American Sisseton resident, Justin Redday, on a dark, deserted stretch of road in Roberts County.  The truck’s driver, Mark Appel, then 17, said Redday had been lying in his lane of traffic and that he did not swerve to avoid running over him because “it is illegal to cross the white line, or if it is a solid yellow line, or even if it wasn’t, it is illegal to swerve.”  The case fueled racial tensions in the county because Appel, who is white and was legally drunk at the time of the accident, was indicted by a grand jury for vehicular homicide, but prosecutors later dismissed the indictment and instead charged him with driving while intoxicated.

The law enforcement officials assembled at the Holiday Inn attempted to put local violence into perspective.  More than 50 people, mostly Natives, spoke of their experiences with South Dakota’s criminal justice system and other state agencies.  But, the most poignant observation of the evening came from a local Sioux man who simply said,

“the frontier never ended, the Indian wars still go on here.”

The concept of invisible walls, restricting movement for people of color, is not new.  ‘Ghettoes’, ‘barrios’, ‘Chinatowns’, and Reservations are all such spaces. 

“The ghetto is hope, it is despair, it is churches and bars.  It is aspiration for change and it is apathy.  It is vibrancy, it is stagnation.  It is courage, and it is defeatism.  It is cooperation and concern, and it is suspicion, competitiveness, and rejection.  It is the surge towards assimilation, and it is alienation and withdrawal within the protective walls of the ghetto” (Clark 1989: 11). 

These enclaves of segregation are often accompanied by deteriorated housing, decreased health and high mortality, crime, drug addiction and alcoholism, and chronic unemployment; what Fanon called a geography “hungry for light” (Fanon 1968: 53).  Yet, exploitation and oppression are not all that is found in theses spaces.  They are also places of community, home, and comfort. 

On reservations this conflict is pronounced.  Reservations are the seat of tribal government; the source of sovereignty and self-determination and in some cases the sacred home of our ancestors.  Vine Deloria, Jr. a prominent Sioux thinker, wrote: 

“American Indians hold their lands – places – as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point in mind” (Deloria 1973: 61).  Indians, Deloria argued, think in terms of space.  “Some sites were sacred in themselves, others had been cherished by generations of people and were now part of their history and, as such, revered by them and part of their very being…  [space] is determinative of the way we experience things…It is this unbroken connection that we have with the spirit world that allow us to survive as a people” (Deloria 1973: xv-xvii). 

Reservations are also colonized spaces.  “Indian land” and settler land are distinct, and often opposed, forms of property. 

Borderlands, the settled lands that touch Indian Country, are not just boundaries at the edges of an empire.  They are sites of economic and resource exchange, information sharing, cultural intermixing, and power contestation.  Sociologists often think of such spaces of exchange and interaction as increasing understanding and cultural growth.  But reservations are places of the unfinished settler project, and so borderlands become places of territorialized political contestation. 

This is the argument put forth here:  With territory comes sovereignty and legal jurisdiction, and because the maintenance of territorial distinctions is critical to the ongoing structure of settler-colonialism, so are ongoing jurisdictional disputes that continually enforce a segregated order. 

In the summer of 2021, Following the seminal McGirt Supreme Court decision, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt typified this contestation when he argued that Oklahoma’s lack of jurisdictions over reservation Indians “put into question the sovereignty of the state as we’ve known it since 1907 and has created serious public safety concern for all Oklahomans.” 

In other words, the inability to control Indians is a threat to public safety.

What are borderlands?

The book begins by laying out a theory of modern borderlands and discussing the history of the reservation system as a colonized space.  Chapter 3 explores political and jurisdictional disputes in borderlands by tracing the trajectory of state and local court action against tribal governments.  These contestations are placed in a larger picture of tribal economic and resource growth to demonstrate that tribal development is seen as a threat by local municipalities.  The chapter also uses human movement data to demonstrate how segregation functions in borderlands, and how much actual interaction takes place between reservation residents and those living in nearby areas.

Chapter 4 then explores earnings and labor market inequality in light of political contestation and segregation.  I find that inequality and labor market segregation are higher in areas where conflict between jurisdictions is high.

But jurisdictional conflict does more than bleed into labor structures, local agencies make decisions about the prioritization of criminalization and enforcement.  Chapter 5 demonstrates that violent crimes against Natives are higher in borderlands than the rest of the nation.  Local political contestation also increased borderland violence.

Finally, in chapter 6, I demonstrate that racial bias in policing is also higher in borderlands.  Where once the U.S. military enforced Indian reservation confinement, today that function is being served by police, who uphold the imperial system of segregation through arrests.

Clark, Kenneth Bancroft. 1989. Dark Ghetto : Dilemmas of Social Power. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.

Deloria, Vine. 1973. God Is Red. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Fanon, Frantz. 1968. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove.