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Coming Home Takes on New Meaning at Veterans Cemetery in Pine Ridge

Close to 200 people gathered on the Pine Ridge Reservation on the morning of July 9 to attend the dedication ceremony for the new veterans cemetery.

Close to 200 people gathered on the Pine Ridge Reservation on the clear, cool morning of July 9 to attend the dedication ceremony for the new veterans cemetery. The new Akicita Owicahe Lakota Freedom Cemetery will enable Lakota families to practice cultural burial traditions close to home. In the past, most veterans were buried in Sturgis, near Bear Butte—a two-hour drive from Pine Ridge. Some families are considering reinterring their relatives back to the reservation, which could cost up to $1,500, said Jennifer Irving, assistant to the tribal president.

There are more than 4,000 veterans currently living in Pine Ridge, and until now, there has only been one other tribal veterans cemetery in South Dakota, located on the Rosebud Reservation, and reserved for those tribal members. The new facility in Pine Ridge is open to all veterans.

Eirik Heikes, landscape architect and project manager with FourFront Design Inc., said the cemetery took three years from design to completion. Heikes said he enjoyed the challenge of incorporating government requirements with Lakota cultural intentions. Some features include entrances that face east, and the medicine wheel and eagle feathers are integrated in the design. “It was very wonderful work,” he said.

Jennifer Irving

In keeping with Lakota traditions, many of the attendees arrived on horseback. The new cemetery design incorporates the idea that horses may accompany deceased veterans and includes an area to hitch horses.

“We also made the view part of the project, and we used indigenous materials, like the stone from Crazy Horse Memorial. For the design, Wilmer Mesteth, the spiritual leader of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, made the sketches and I made them into the design,” Heikes said.

Lack of water in the Badlands created construction challenges, but all agree the cemetery was worth it. “The cemetery sits in the middle of the reservation, and is very remote and peaceful. There are rolling plains and hills, and there is a place to hitch horses. It really is reflective of the culture,” Irving said.

Built with a $6.5 million grant, the new cemetery is located eight miles east of Kyle, South Dakota. It hosts a main building for brief services, and a grave locator, making it easy for families to find their loved ones. There are rooms for administration, technicians, a separate room for color guards and military honors for veterans; operation and maintenance equipment, and golf carts to transport the elderly.

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“It’s a really nice administrative facility, and the last building of that size to be built at a cemetery in Indian country. The state grants for cemeteries are going to be downsized. We are very lucky to get what we have,” Joe Morrisette, director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Veterans Homeless Shelter, said.

Morrisette was pleased with the turn out at the dedication. He credited Myron Poirier, Elizabeth “Jackie” Big Crow, Aaron Desersa and Joe Rosalis with seeing the project through, and said, “They came up with the idea, and applied for grants through the Veterans Administration [Department of Veterans Affairs], and that’s how it got started, about six years ago. That was three administrations ago, from Theresa Two Bulls to John Yellow Bird Steele and Bryan Brewer.”

Jennifer Irving

The sign for the Akicita Owicahe Lakota Freedom Cemetery recognizes three tribal presidents, the initial project staff, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for their efforts.

“Veterans will be closer to home, and we have a good reception area for families. It eventually will create some jobs,” Morrisette said. “When the project was first brought up there was a lot of hesitancy. My hat’s off to Myron and Jackie, they just kept at it,” Morrisette said.

The cemetery will be developed over a 110-year plan on 120 acres set aside by the tribe. The first phase is complete; 18 of the first 49 acres are ready for the first 10 years. “We have 360 crypts in the ground right now, and we have an area where we have 40 burial plots for cremation,” Morrisette said. “Every 10 years we will open up more burial ground.”

Morrisette said he was honored that Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer appointed him as coordinator of the dedication and grand opening. “We had a lot of good comments at the dedication,” Morrisette said. “It’s beautiful where it’s at, within our reservation boundaries. We need something like that there.”

Color guards and veteran’s posts from Cheyenne River, Little Eagle, Standing Rock Reservation, Rosebud and Wanblee on Pine Ridge came for the dedication. Chuck Conroy, Oglala Sioux Tribe chair of the veterans committee and Vietnam veteran, said the flag was raised by female veterans, “which was probably a first for this area.”