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Why the Sioux Are Refusing $1.3 Billion

BY Francine Uenuma and Mike Fritz  August 24, 2011 at 3:57 PM EDT

A young Lakota Sioux girl at the annual Pine Ridge powwow. Photo by Mike Fritz.

RAPID CITY, S.D. | Pine Ridge Reservation stretches across some of the poorest counties in the United States. Plagued by an unemployment rate above 80 percent, arid land, few prospects for industry, abysmal health statistics and life-expectancy rates rivaling those of Haiti, it’s no wonder outsiders ask: Why do the nine tribes constituting the Great Sioux Nation, including those on Pine Ridge, staunchly refuse to accept $1.3 billion from the federal government?

The refusal of the money pivots on a feud that dates back to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by Sioux tribes and Gen. William T. Sherman, that guaranteed the tribes “undisturbed use and occupation” of a swath of land that included the Black Hills, a resource-rich region of western South Dakota. But in 1877, one year after Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s infamous defeat at the hands of Crazy Horse at Little Bighorn and without the consent of “three-fourths of all adult male Indians” stipulated by the treaty, the government seized the Black Hills, along with their gold, and began profiting from the protected land.

Driving from nearby Rapid City to the reservation on Pine Ridge, it’s easy to see why the tribes want to reclaim some of that unused land — and why it was parceled as it was. Unlike the barren stretch of land that encompasses the reservation, the Black Hills are green, resource-rich, and thick with the smell of Ponderosa trees. Stretching across western South Dakota to neighboring Wyoming, they’ve been a draw for tourists and investors alike. In addition to gold, timber and minerals have been extracted, reaping profits for people other than the Sioux.

Fast forward to 1980. The Supreme Court agreed with the Sioux: The land, long since settled, had been taken from them wrongfully, and $102 million was set aside as compensation. The trust’s value continues to grow well beyond $1 billion, but the Sioux have never collected.

One key problem: The tribes say the payment is invalid because the land was never for sale and accepting the funds would be tantamount to a sales transaction. Ross Swimmer, former special trustee for American Indians, said the trust fund remains untouched for one reason: “They didn’t want the money. They wanted the Black Hills.”

“The Sioux tribes have always maintained that that confiscation was illegal and the tribes must have some of their ancestral lands returned to them, and they’ve maintained that position since 1877,” said Mario Gonzalez, general counsel for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who has devoted much of his career to the issue.

“It’s a tough, tough group up there. I’m amazed that they have been willing to sit on the money this long without taking the money,” Swimmer said.

But it’s not the resources alone that have fueled their determination all these years — a key reason for their lingering stand is that “the Black Hills has always been a spiritual place for tribal nations,” said Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University on the nearby Rosebud Reservation.

“The Sioux Indians are very attached to their lands and particularly the Black Hills because that’s the spiritual center of the Sioux nation,” said Gonzalez. To  this day, sacred sites and religious narratives often center around the Black Hills.

“It really saddens me that we’ve got some tribal members that want to accept the money and they don’t realize the harm they’re going to do; they don’t really understand why we say the Black Hills are sacred,” said former Oglala Sioux Tribe President Theresa Two Bulls.

Nonetheless, leaders say the effort to reclaim portions of the Black Hills is now both principled and pragmatic: they “understand that times have changed, that they cannot remove non-members of the tribe from these lands,” said Gonzalez, and are asking instead for some combination of federally owned, unused land and joint management or rental agreements. Excluded from the debate are landmarks like Mount Rushmore, Ellsworth Air Force Base and privately owned or residential land.

“We know that people are utilizing the Black Hills for their daily living, and it’s never been our intention to remove anybody,” Bordeaux said. “We have to coexist. But we would like to have some type of a co-management plan for certain parts of the Black Hills.”

Tribal leaders are quick to point out that not only does the $1.3 billion represent a fraction compared to the monetary value of gold, minerals and timber extracted from it, it is based on value at the time of the treaty, not the present. And further, if distributed on a per capita basis across nine tribes, the money would soon be gone with little permanent benefit to the recipients.

“If you took the money, it would be [a] pittance. Our numbers are too big in terms of population, and the dollars would be expended in a hurry…in a week, two weeks’ time, you’re broke, and you don’t have anything,” said Bordeaux.

Two Bulls agreed. “If we accept the money, then we have no more of the treaty obligations that the federal government has with us for taking our land, for taking our gold, all our resources out of the Black Hills … we’re poor now, we’ll be poorer then when that happens,” she said.

Leaders must continue to convince younger generations to adopt their long view. Tim Giago, who was born on Pine Ridge Reservation and has spent three decades as a journalist covering the issue, worries about that trend. “I think younger people aren’t as attuned to it. There are many that are, but then again we’re losing a lot of people.”

The issue has been revived in recent years by an offer by President Obama to meet with the tribes if they could come up with a unified proposal to settle the issue in Congress. The most prominent attempt to do so in recent decades was a failed bill introduced by former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, which would have returned some of the land. But in the years since, the issue has been largely dormant, and the money in Washington untouched. The administration’s offer has raised a glimmer of hope that the issue could finally be resolved, 130 years later.

Toward that end, tribal council leaders have been holding a series of meetings to try to come up with an agreement to take to Washington. The Hasapa (or Black Hills) Reparations Alliance was formed to bring the Sioux tribes together to formulate a plan that could be presented to the Obama administration. A series of meetings are underway this summer and fall in an attempt to reach a unified position.

Edward Charging Elk, a member of the Rosebud Tribe, has put together one such proposal for a bill that he says is “realistic and doable” that focuses on three elements: the return of 1.3 million acres of the Black Hills, relabeling the trust money as back rent and then agreeing on the terms of future rent for the resources from the land to the tune of roughly $7 million a year. He hopes that plan will provide a vehicle for a mutually acceptable solution.

“I think the work of disunity is over now. It’s a matter of rolling your sleeves up, following a very simple plan that everybody understands, and getting it into Congress,” Charging Elk said.

Two Bulls sees the clock ticking as tribes scattered across the Dakotas and Nebraska try to unify. “There’s jealousy, there’s misunderstanding — instead of compromising, instead of discussing it and coming up with a solution, they all want their own way and we’ve tried to explain to them that this is very important because we’re running out of time.”

Giago has seen the “ebb and flow” of the conflict but says it is now at a critical juncture with President Obama nearing the end of his first term. “We have a very, very small window of opportunity to try to at least get a bill introduced, and I think we’re still too far away from that. I’m hoping they can pull it together and get a bill in, but it’s going to be a tight race.”

And what if the latest round of negotiations doesn’t yield the long-awaited redress to the Black Hills land claim that the Sioux seek? Bordeaux takes the long view of the seemingly intractable fight over the Black Hills: “If it doesn’t happen, we’ve been here before, and we’ll just back up and regroup and go forward again.”

“We won the battle against Custer,” he said. “But the war continues.”

Tom LeGro contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mario Gonzalez’s name.