The future of the land that now comprises the Southern Unit of Badlands National Park is once again uncertain. Today, the dispute over this land is somewhat more relaxed as the tension of war is no longer looming, but the stakes may be just as high as ever. In the fall of 2008, the National Park Service (NPS) began receiving public input on the creation of a new general management plan for the Badlands National Monument’s Southern Unit, (the Northern portion of the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota). The NPS is accepting public input on their proposed options until November 1st, whereupon the fate of this land will once more be determined by someone other than the Lakota.
The Southern Unit has a long history, riddled with controversy and violence. Originally, this land belonged to the Lakota. In 1890, after the Lakota along with their Cheyenne and Arapahoe allies, were massacred in their last stand against the 7th Cavalry in the battle of Wounded Knee, the survivors fled to what is now the Southern Unit. They took shelter in the natural fortress formed by a butte surrounded by cliffs. The area served as a refuge for those who escaped the cavalry. For this reason, and because Lakota Ghost Dancers were buried in this location, the land came to be considered sacred.
The land could not serve as a refuge forever. Throughout time, the reservation was created and the Oglala inhabited the Southern Unit. Unfortunately, however, right before World War II began, things changed drastically yet again for the inhabitants of the Southern Unit. On July 20, 1942 the War Department advised the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that they would be taking over an area of 40×15 miles across the northern portion of the reservation. While a small portion of this land lay within what was then Badlands National Monument (337 acres), the vast majority of the land was located within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation (nps.gov). The dispossession would impact some 125 Oglala families. And while the dispossessed families were to be supplied with some relocation compensation, assistance and supplies, actual accounts vary as to how much the families received if any at all.
The displacement was messy and created a major crisis on the reservation. While officially, the families would have had 40 days to leave if they were given notice on the same day as the Bureau of Indian affairs (which seems not to be the case most of the time), most believed that they needed to evacuate almost immediately. In fact, archival data reveals that Mr. McDowell, an employee of the land acquisition division of the War Department, had stated that the War Department was taking possession of the land and shooting was to start on August 1st (Roberts 7/7/42).This is even more shocking when you take into account that the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was only officially notified of the dispossession twelve days prior. Myrtle Gross, who was displaced during the event, reported that “the Farmer Office” sent a man to tell her to “[g]et out now because the Japs aren’t going to wait!” She said they were then given 30 days to leave, (Archives Search Report 1999, Interview 5). Similarly, Ida Bullman recalls finding out about the evacuation after reading a poster that was displayed at the local store. The store owner told her, “Pack up and leave. They’re going to start shooting at you.” Thus, by the time the information reached the population the impression was given that they were to have well under two weeks (approximately ten days) to evacuate their land.
Until 1958, the land was utilized for bombing and gunnery practice by what was then the Army Air Force. Even past this date, the South Dakota National Guard retained a small portion of the land for training purposes. When they left, the land's future was far from resolved. Moreover, they left behind them dangerous ordnance and never fully lived up to their responsibility of cleaning the land. To this day, unexploded ordnance can be found on the site.
Due to many families’ attachment to the land, Ellen Janis represented her neighbors’ interests and fought for reparations or the return of their land in a series of trips to D.C. to see public officials. During this time, Congressman Francis Case, who had lobbied for the bombing range, acknowledged that the evacuation had created an incredibly difficult situation for many of his constituents, admitting that “[t]he injustice that was done to the people of Pine Ridge is almost beyond comprehension” (Francis Case as represented in Nichols 1960). In 1968, Public Law 90-468 was finally passed, and lands declared excess by the Air Force were to be transferred to the Department of Interior. The law afforded those displaced (whether their land was held in trust or in fee) the possibility of repurchasing the land that had been taken from them if they filed an application with the Secretary of Interior to purchase the tract. This application needed to be filed within a one year window from the date a notice was published in the Federal Register that the tract had been transferred to the jurisdiction of the Secretary. Needless to say, the displaced were not properly notified of this option in many cases, in part due to their geographical dispersion. The law also stated that the original inhabitants that wished to repurchase their land were to pay the price the U.S. government had paid for the land, plus interest. Thus, those that decided to repurchase their land explained that they paid much higher prices for the land than they had originally been paid for it when the government confiscated it.
According to Jim Igoe's BRIDGE report, “By the end of the early 1960s it was clear that Department of the Interior bureaucrats intended that the area should be taken over by a Department of the Interior Agency, and not returned to the Tribe.” The Park Service promised the tribe that by creating the park, they would invigorate the reservation economy through tourism, while the a Senate committee simultaneously strong-armed the tribe threatening to “dispose of the land in question under surplus property agreements if the Tribe refused to lease land,” (Igoe 2004).
The topic was controversial on the reservation, as traditionalists refused to turn over the land. In 1976, the Tribal Council under Chairman Dick Wilson, whose questionable leadership during the AIM struggle on Pine Ridge has solidified his legacy as a harsh and corrupt leader, signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the National Park Service. The Stronghold District of the Badlands National Park, which includes 133,300 acres of land, from this point on has been held by the National Park Service in conjunction with the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Over the next 25 years, the relationship between the NPS and some tribal members remained strained. In 2002, relations between the NPS and some tribal members degenerated to the point where a grassroots movement of Lakota defending the burial place of Ghost Dancers, called the Keepers of the Stronghold Dream, felt it necessary to physically occupy the land, guarding it from the invasion of hikers, park visitors and fossil poachers in an attempt to reclaim it (Igoe 2002). Unfortunately, this confrontation settled nothing and the issue remains unresolved to this day.
Currently, the NPS and the tribe both have complaints about how the area is being managed. The NPS complains that they have not been given proper access to manage the site as needed. The tribe feels as though the NPS has not lived up to its promises in the 1976 MOA including filling NPS jobs at the site with tribal members and reintroducing buffalo into the area. Moreover, they are still concerned with fossil poaching and environmental destruction of the region by outsiders. For this reason, many would like to see the land pulled out of the park system entirely.
As is evident in this history, the land was never properly returned to its original owners. While none of the NPS options include returning land to those that were displaced prior to WWII nor giving the land back to the tribe with no obligations, the options do include giving the tribe more control over this portion of their land. Option 2, considered the “preferred option” by the NPS, would have the NPS and the tribe create a “National Tribal Park.” Option 7 would give even greater control (but may create financial issues or have other drawbacks) to the tribe. It would allow the tribe to create and operate an Oglala Sioux Tribal Park. The NPS claims that both Option 2 and Option 7 would require Congressional approval. The reasoning behind this, however, remains unclear. In the original 1976 MOA (which has since been modified), section 21 states that “Any part or parts of this Agreement, including any appendix, may be amended or modified by mutual written consent (between the NPS and tribe) at any time.”
The NPS is currently in the final phase of public meetings and accepting comments. The comment period for this topic will close on November 1, 2010. Please consider this history while attending meetings on this topic or giving your feedback. You can read more about the options at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=117&projectID=17543&documentID=35882 and comment at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?parkID=117&projectID=17543&documentID=35882
By Jamie Way (Way is currently employed by Village Earth and holds a M.A. in Political Science from Colorado State University.)