Why the Sioux Are Refusing $1.3 Billion
Members of the Great Sioux Nation could pocket a large sum set aside
by the government for taking the resource-rich Black Hills away from
the tribes in 1877. But leaders say the sacred land was never, and still
isn't, for sale.
A young Lakota Sioux girl at the annual Pine Ridge powwow. Photo by
A young Lakota Sioux girl at the annual Pine Ridge powwow. Photo by
BY FRANCINE UENUMA AND 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?
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
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
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 Gonzales, general counsel
for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who has devoted much of his career to the
“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 Gonzales. To this day,
sacred sites and religious narratives often center around the Black
"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 Gonzales, 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
“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
“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.”