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Lakota Heritage Center: a 27-year-old unfulfilled promise

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INTERIOR, S.D. - When former President Bill Clinton set his sights on a historic visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation, he asked leaders in his administration to find him anything they had - old or new - to help the tribe.

When Air Force One touched down in nearby Rapid City in July 1999, the president brought $60 million in federal grants and initiatives. The opportunities, though specific, were not unique. For two years Clinton had traveled to areas of rural and urban poverty to promote his New Markets Initiative which could include designation as an empowerment zone, federal tax incentives, access to capital initiatives and sundry grant opportunities.

The capstone for the Oglala Sioux Tribe was to be fulfillment of a 25-year-old promise - construction of a $25 million facility to double as a Lakota Heritage Center and a National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Center.

On Jan. 2, 1976, the tribe and the Park Service signed a memorandum of agreement. It stipulated that the Park Service would approach Congress for funds to plan, design and construct an "Oglala Sioux Visitor Center" to be located on tribal land within or near the South Unit of the Badlands National Park.

The promise of a visitor center did not spring up out of the goodness of the federal government's heart. In 1975, after years of petitioning by the tribe, a cooperative agreement with the Park Service returned more than 100,000 acres of tribal land which had been taken by the federal government and used for decades by the Department of Defense as a military bombing and aerial gunnery range.

It was unusable and deadly. Nearly all of it contained countless rounds of unexploded ordnance, including bombs up to 500 pounds. The tribe operates an $8 million annual cleanup effort of the old gunnery range funded by Defense.

"Building the Lakota Heritage Center is a moral obligation for the federal government," said Bill Walker, the visitor center's project team captain for the Department of the Interior. With the former gunnery range land held in trust by the National Park Service in the South Unit, most tribal members believed the promised center was little more than an empty good faith gesture, an unofficial atonement for the brazen theft.

Staggering amounts of ordnance notwithstanding, for the Oglala Lakota the land contains vital areas of historic and spiritual significance with sacred areas such as Stronghold Table, Cedar Bluff and Sheep Mountain.

For a quarter century, the "empty promise" theory of the visitor center was a practical reality. Then, prodded by the president's visit and pledges, things moved quickly. As recently as March 21, 2000, a document prepared by David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, said, "The White House announcement of plans for a new visitor/cultural center on the South Unit has enabled this project to be built on a fast track with construction anticipated to begin in [fiscal year] 2002."

Clearly, for a time, the Oglalas had friends in high places.

Then came heady news of further White House support for a proposed National Scenic Byway designation. This meant a $12 million road upgrade that would connect heavy tourist traffic in western South Dakota with the proposed center. Also in the pipeline was renewed commitment - in words - of an old promise to stock South Unit pastures with excess buffalo from the North Unit.

It appeared the long wait was over. The tribe was ready. Taking the Park Service at its word when it promised a heritage center, the tribe responded in 1973 by chartering the Oglala Sioux Parks Board Inc. Eventually called the Oglala Sioux Parks & Recreation Authority, the board's mandate was spelled out in the original tribal ordinance:

"ARTICLE II: The purpose for which the Corporation is formed ... shall be ... to establish a plan for a coordinated network of public and private tourism-recreation facilities in connection with the establishment of an Oglala Sioux Cultural and Historical Park."

Through a succession of authority board members and directors, ideas for a Lakota Heritage and Education Center grew increasingly sophisticated. By Clinton's visit, a consensus had formed to "see the center as the tribe's ultimate resource to restore traditional cultural heritage to their own people."

Birgil Kills Straight, current authority executive director, wrote that the architecture of the center would be carefully planned. "State of the art and culturally appropriate technology will be used to demonstrate the tribe's culture, historical and contemporary status. Each major level of the envisioned spiraling tipi/pyramid structure which will become the center will help the tourist visitor, as well as local Lakota students, understand the Lakota's spiritual evolution."

A key element became education. "The center will become an Educational Cultural Laboratory. Pre-schoolers to the elders will have easy and regular access to the Center. ... Special cultural education programs designed by the elders will be instituted at all levels of education, as was traditionally the case," Kills Straight wrote.

A 1994 site study, funded jointly by the authority and the Park Service, identified six potential locations.

Stirk Table was considered the "preferred site." Despite potential drawbacks, including the difficulty of obtaining easements from existing land owners for two miles of road plus utilities, Stirk Table was acknowledged to have the most natural beauty, plus clear and dramatic views of all the culturally and spiritually significant landmarks in the area.

By June of 2000, thanks to fast track placement for the Lakota Heritage & Educational Center, pre-design and budgeting were completed for the Stirk Table site. Already, "$21 million to $25 million had been included in the Office of Management & Budget's Fiscal Year 2002/2003 National Park Service Budgets."

All systems were go.

That was then, this is now. What a difference a year made.

Next: Cracks, fissures and private agendas become apparent in Part II.