On A Knife Edge

Coming-of-age as a Native American leader in a climate of deprivation and growing tension

On A Knife Edge George Dull Knife, a teenager from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is the youngest in a long line of legendary Lakota leaders. Abandoned by his mother and raised by a proud activist father, George must learn to adapt the old ways to the realities of modern life. Over five years, against a backdrop of rising tensions, George finds himself clashing with the police and his tribal council as he finds his place in a climate of social injustice and family demands.

“Why is it that we’re bad for standing up for our people, huh? They look at your guys as heroes for standing up for your people.” George Dull Knife is in Whiteclay, peacefully protesting the white-owned liquor stores that exploit vulnerable members of the Lakota people. The police have arrived, and George believes that they are here to protect the interests of the owners, not the protestors. Despite repeated trouble, George feels protest is the only way to make the Lakota voice heard: “We need to open our eyes now” he says, “let the white man know they pushed it too far.”

George is a direct descendant of Chief Dull Knife. In 1878, the chief had led his followers on a six-hundred mile freedom flight after forced relocation by the American government. George’s father, Guy, has been careful to instil in his son the significance of his name and George inherits a profound sense of responsibility. George is, like them he says, “a Lakota warrior.”

George and Guy, along with George’s siblings, live on the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Their community is struggling: the high school dropout rate is 70%, the average wage is $2,600 per year. Poverty leads many Lakota to alcoholism and drug addiction. The majority white authorities and communities outside the reservation actively contribute to Lakota misery: “They are bloodsuckers”, says George, “the only thing they want from the Native Americans is their money and their sorrow.”

This Dull Knifes are no exception to this sorrow: George’s sister Mary took her own life in March 2015, only a month after the Ogala Sioux chief had declared a suicide state of emergency. For Guy Dull Knife, his people’s predicament reflects a loss of a sense of self, “to me, that's the most important thing is for George and all the kids to know who they are.”

Yet for George, the reality of who he is and who his people are today, can be too much to bear, “Sometimes I think I don't want to live this life. Every day, you wake up and you think, ‘Why does it gotta be us’, you know?” Yet, despite oscillating between optimism and pessimism about the future, the Dull Knifes remain consistent in their central belief: they must continue to lead and defend their people,“people say the Indian wars ended in 1890”, says George, “all us Lakota, we know it’s still going.”

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