Painting of a woman with grey skin and red braided hair. Her mouth is pixelated in censorship. Her red hair is suspended in the air behind her.


Land Imprisonment

Through her artwork, artivist (artist + activist) Danielle SeeWalker asks us to consider how Native American people are imprisoned within their own homelands.

Danielle SeeWalker (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) is a Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta Denver-based artivist (artist + activist). Through her artwork, she reminds us that today, more than fifty-six million acres of Indian lands are held in trust by the US government. Trust status signals that the federal government holds legal title. While SeeWalker inherited tribal lands from her family, the United States is the legal owner. She receives intermittent checks from the Office of the Special Trustee under the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration. The checks are for various leases that the US Department of the Interior manages regardless of her consent in the matter. According to Danielle, the payouts she receives are “very small” and “insulting,” so she doesn’t cash the checks. Instead she embeds them into her artwork. She poignantly reminds us that the US government still holds Native peoples and their lands hostage. 

Land | Hostage is the portrait of a man in a black-and-white-striped shirt, two white braids, and green hat. The portrait of a prisoner. Upon close inspection the man’s braids are embedded with checks—uncashed government reservation checks directly addressed to Danielle SeeWalker from the Office of the Special Trustee. Danielle’s dynamic colors and uncashed checks are intended to communicate an important message: Native American people are situated in the present, living colorful lives filled with complex histories and gleaming futures. And part of this complex history is land-based. In the painting’s background, the letters L-A-N-D repeat at semi-regular intervals. L-A-N-D is a consistent anxiety of many Native American peoples, especially Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, whose lives have been unequivocally altered by ceded and unceded territories states in United States treaties.

"Land | Hostage" by Danielle SeeWalker (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), 2023

Land | Hostage by Danielle SeeWalker (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), 2023. Acrylic, aerosol, oil stick, uncashed government checks on canvas.

Courtesy of Danielle Seewalker.

 SeeWalker portrays the historic and ongoing harms of the reservation system for Native North American peoples. Indigenous peoples living under the reservation system in the late nineteenth century were prohibited from leaving reservation boundaries unless given permission from the US-appointed Indian Agent assigned to that specific reservation. US President Grover Cleveland appointed Lebbeus Foster “L.F.” Spencer to serve as Indian Agent at the Rosebud Agency (the former name for reservation), located in the southeast corner of present-day South Dakota, home to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. History Colorado houses the Lebbeus Foster Spencer Collection in its archives, offering us a glimpse into this history. 

Two items in particular illuminate how Native peoples’ movements were policed. The first document is a small blank slip of paper. This slip of paper gave explicit permission to a Tribal citizen to travel outside of the reservation boundaries. This “permission slip” to leave the reservation also outlined the purpose of a Tribal ciitizen’s travel abroad. Importantly, the slip needed an official signature from the Indian Agent. The implied need for such a pass is expressed in a letter from James McLaughlin (Indian Agent at Standing Rock) to the US Indian Agent at Rosebud Agency (after Spencer’s retirement). McLaughlin writes: “Will you please do me the kindness to immediately order back to this place any of my Indians who may be visiting your Agency, without passes.” 

An issuance pass reading: "U.S. Indian Service. Permission is given [blank] to be absent from this Agency for a period of [blank] days, for purpose of visiting [blank.] On arrival, [blank] will report to the [blank]. Reported: [date], [name], U.S. Indian Agent."

Issuance pass to leave the reservation, 1880s.

History Colorado, MSS.596

Indigenous peoples’ freedom of movement was effectively stripped away by paternalistic laws meant to control Native North American peoples, represented by the appointment of Indian Agents within Native North American land. These laws and attitudes continue to affect Indigenous peoples in our modern society. SeeWalker reminds us that Native North American people have been and are prisoners on their own land. The insultingly small checks are meant to appease those whose lands are leased without their free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). 

Without FPIC, Native American peoples have no control over the use of their lands, and are now facing an increasingly distraught climate in which the freedom of movement is still restricted. Do Native Americans have the physical ability to leave their homelands behind when they are legally bound to one geographical location set by the United States government? In the event of a major oil spill, what are Native peoples’ options? Are they able to establish new homelands (or reservations), or is their only option to stay imprisoned in a land poisoned by another?