The US claims to value honour, but has it ever?

Only when the US reckons with a legacy of slavery and genocide of the land’s Indigenous can it begin to act honourably.

Tatanka Itancan Lone Eagle, a Fort Laramie treaty rider, holds a sacred staff during a ceremony to welcome other riders to the group in their communal encampment in Harrison, Nebraska
Tatanka Itancan Lone Eagle and others mark the anniversary of the Fort Laramie treaty between the Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation and the US government [FILE: Stephanie Keith/Reuters]

For my people, the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), honour is a key component of who we are. It is so important to us that it is one of our core values.

One would think that this is an ideal we share with the settler government of the United States based on how they speak of it. Throughout its comparatively short history as a nation, American leaders have extolled honour often; honour to duty, honour to country, honour to God.

Yet time and again, the US has shown that its claim to honour, more often than not, is not supported by actions.

A common refrain in Indian country is “Honour the Treaties”. We say it because the US government has breached every treaty they have forged with sovereign Native nations, despite its own constitution proclaiming that “Treaties are the Supreme Law of the Land”.

Instead of honouring its agreements on a nation-to-nation basis, the US used them as a ruse to steal our lands and in furtherance of the genocide colonial invaders committed against North America’s original inhabitants.

The Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation know this well. In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the US promised us the Black Hills of South Dakota in exchange for peace, after we defeated them during Red Cloud’s War.

Khe Sapa, the Black Hills, are not just our ancestral homelands. They are full of sacred sites and landmarks that are thousands of years old. The birthplace of the Lakota, Wind Cave, is in the Black Hills. Our ancestors have held ceremonies there for millennia, and we continue to do so to this day. As our elders say, it is the heart of everything.

The US soon proved to us that its word was mud. In 1874, an expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (yes, him) trespassed into the Black Hills. They found gold. When the Lakota refused to sell the Black Hills, the US and its agents breached the Fort Laramie Treaty to steal the land, gold, and its additional mineral riches like silver and uranium.

By the end of 1965, 31,207,892 oz (884,729 kg) of gold had been taken from the Black Hills. In today’s market, that translates to about $50bn worth.

Meanwhile, Lakota reservations are among the poorest in the US. Fifty-four percent of Lakota who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation live below the poverty line. On the nearby Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, about 44 percent of residents are living in poverty. Imposed poverty has caused untold suffering among the Lakota people.

In US vs Sioux Nation of Indians, the US Supreme Court held that the Black Hills were wrongfully taken from the Oceti Sakowin.

But they are still drilling for gold.

In the Supreme Court ruling, they ordered that just compensation should be paid to the Oceti Sakowin. We do not accept those terms because our sacred Black Hills are not for sale. Instead, the US should honour the Fort Laramie treaty by returning the Black Hills to the Lakota, along with paying out a settlement for the minerals settler corporations have extracted without our consent. In pursuit of gold, uranium, and other Black Hills minerals, these corporations have caused long-term environmental damage.

Treaties aside, the US also revealed their true character to the Oceti Sakowin when they awarded medals of honour to soldiers who slaughtered more than 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee. I think most people would agree that chasing down unarmed women and children in the dead of winter to murder them, then posing with their naked, frozen corpses beside their mass grave, is hardly honourable.

Do not tell us that such disreputable actions were left in a history long past, either – not when the US awarded a medal to a navy captain responsible for killing nearly 300 Iranian civilians aboard a passenger jet in 1988, or when the US Empire refuses to stop occupying Iraq when the country’s parliament explicitly asked them to leave.

Speaking of which, is it honourable for the president of the US to commit an act of war by having a senior military leader of another sovereign country assassinated, unprovoked? Does an honourable man threaten to commit war crimes by destroying cultural sites that are a part of our collective human history? Perhaps a man with a record of lying as a matter of practice and who shirked military service to his country as a means of hiding from battle does not understand what honour means.

Honour has value beyond morality. Those with no honour, command no respect. When one lacks honour and integrity, it shows weakness and an inability to produce results.

When we act honourably in a consistent fashion, our word is law. It grants one inherent authority and every act of honour affirms it.

There are honourable men and women in the US, but when we do not hold our elected leaders accountable for their shameful actions in our name, it only contributes to the country’s colonial legacy of dishonour that began with the breaking of treaties, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of the land’s Indigenous.

I still hold out hope that the US can do better. Be honest with itself and its history. Fulfil its obligations. Attain true equality for all. Honour the treaties. Act in accordance with its own constitution and laws, as well as international law. For the people. We, the people.

Wowauoniha. Honour.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.