Elders Take Stand Against Dog Roundups

Dec 4, 2014

Dogs like this one - outside the Wounded Knee Elders Center - wander the community and are not considered a threat by tribal elders.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

As the Oglala Sioux Tribe announced plans to begin rounding up dogs on November 29, elders across the Pine Ridge Reservation began gathering to discuss how to counter what they felt was a knee-jerk reaction by tribal leadership to the recent death of 8-year old Jayla Rodriguez.

Although everyone seems to agree that there’s an overpopulation of dogs on Pine Ridge…arbitrarily choosing to shoot any dog that’s not confined isn’t the traditional Lakota way.

The day of the dog roundups…November 29…comes and goes, but the tribe takes no action. A reprieve of 30 days has been granted for tribal members to register their dogs and obtain all required vaccinations…on a 2 million acre reservation that has no veterinarian. But not everyone got the word. Over in Wanblee, on the farthest reaches of Pine Ridge, Phyllis Swift Hawk and her four granddaughters sat in her car in the middle of the road…protest signs in tow…patiently waiting for the horse trailer to arrive.

“And the 10-year old,” recalls Swift Hawk, “what she had on her sign was...‘Before you kill our dogs…kill me first.’ I asked her ‘Why did you write this?” ‘Grandma…I love…dogs. I don’t want to see them be shot.”

Phyllis Swift Hawk says one of her granddaughters was bitten by a dog last year, but the 7-year old adopted a puppy just 3 weeks ago...a sign of her trust in the safety of most dogs.

The recent death of the young Lakota girl allegedly as the result of a dog attack has sent ripples across the Pine Ridge Reservation…not just for her passing, but for the tribe’s almost immediate response of rounding up and killing a horse-trailer full of dogs that may have had nothing to do with the incident.

It’s not unusual to see dogs on the Pine Ridge Reservation…from a few running through an open field in Oglala, to a rumpled retriever at a service station in Pine Ridge village, to the little dachshund walking along Highway 18 attached by its leash to a teenaged girl.

The dog’s association with the Lakota dates back at least hundreds of years and predates the arrival of the horse to their culture. The dog…or “sunka”…played a vital role in its community…from assisting in hunting to guarding the women and children of the village. Even in modern times, many Lakota have memories of their family’s dogs watching over them as they were growing up.

I’m at the Wounded Knee Elders Center to visit with some tribal members who are very upset about how the “sunka” or dog – considered sacred by many, is being treated. Wilma Thin Elk is among them.

Wilma Thin Elk (left) and Valaria Apple
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

“An investigation was really not done thoroughly,” Tine Elk comments. “Public Safety and the Animal Control people…right away they started gathering up the dogs not knowing what really happened. It was all hearsay…to me it is.”

Thin Elk feels that veterinarians should have been brought on to the reservation to assist with the investigation and along with elders should have been consulted before the tribe began killing dogs. But most of all she feels the elders need to be involved.

Valaria Apple lives 8 miles north of Manderson since 1996. She says many dogs have found their way to her house from the nearby landfill over the years, but she’s never had a problem with any.

“I don’t know, I just don’t think it’s right,” Apple observes. “ And I don’t make no attachments to any dog because there’s so many of them that we go through. And there’s time that, you know, we barely have enough money but, you know, what we have…slop or whatever…we take it out there for them and give ‘me water. I said, ‘That’s all they want.”

Apple agrees with Wilma Thin Elk that the tribe needs to include elders from the communities in any decision in this mater…because that’s how it would be done traditionally and because the dog is so important to the Lakota culture.

Finishing his noon meal at the back of the elders’ center, Laverne Yankton says he feels terrible about how dogs on the reservation are being treated and viewed – especially by outsiders.

“The dog’s smarter than the average person,” explains Yankton. “He knows things way ahead of time. He can’t tell you…but some do. You got to…you got to grow up with a dog. A dog’s the best friend to a person. A dog will protect you…even to his life.”

Wounded Knee Elders Center in the village of Manderson.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

Exiting the elders’ center I find a medium-sized shepherd-mix waiting near my car. I call him to me and he moves just close enough to sniff my microphone, then skits back – as have several other dogs at my approach.

As I make my way back through Wounded Knee, past Big Bat’s convenience store and on toward Oglala and the return trip home, I recall Wilma Thin Elk’s last comment. Four days before the tribe will begin rounding up and killing more dogs, she’s already advised her daughter to retaliate in whatever way she needs to…to protect the sunka.

But the need to do so has been postponed for 30 days to December 29 – the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre.