Momentum lost and opportunity squandered

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INTERIOR, S.D. - After more than two and a half decades, the Lakota Heritage Center remains in jeopardy, a victim of politics.

During a January meeting with Jana Prewitt, and assistant to then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Steele, just two months into his term, sought some answers.

"I told President Steele that if there were any major changes in the planning for the Heritage Center at this late date, it could kill funding for the entire project," Prewitt said. The Interior official played a pivotal role in promoting and shepherding the project through the National Park Service's budgeting process for fiscal year 2002.

With an incoming Bush administration, the enthusiasm and excitement generated by President Clinton's visit to the Pine Ridge reservation was missing. Following that visit, 15 months of political turmoil in tribal government, beginning with the takeover of the tribe's Red Cloud Building, strained relations between the tribe and the Clinton White House.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one White House source said Clinton had expended a "lot of political capital on the tribe" and felt the tribe had embarrassed him for his troubles.

Earlier, Oglala Sioux Parks & Recreation Authority board chairman Wesley "Chuck" Jacobs wrote this about the delicate position of the tribe: "This past year OSPRA had to shoulder immense responsibility in coordinating the development process for the Lakota Heritage and Education Center in the midst of political chaos on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Our proposed Visitor Center is on the brink of reality. This is not only a tribute to OSPRA and the federal team ... (but) the Oglala people themselves are to be commended for not politicizing the initiative in the midst of political upheaval."

A few months later a newly installed tribal council voted a 60 day freeze on all planning activities between the National Park Service and the tribe's legally ordained representative in negotiations, the parks authority.

In addition, President Steele told Park Service project team captain Bill Walker and Badlands National Park Superintendent Bill Supernaugh to direct all future contacts with the tribe through the council's Fifth Member and tribal elder Johnson Holy Rock and his office.

Though designated by tribal ordinance and its charter as the tribe's representative in all planning and negotiations with federal agencies involved with the Heritage Center, after 26 years the authority board - and Executive Director Birgil Kills Straight - were cut out of the loop.

In a mid-March call to Holy Rock's office, the well-respected former tribal chairman indicated he knew little about Steele's directive. "They did tell me they planned to do this, but I haven't heard anything since. If you find out more about this, please, give me a call."

In a December meeting with the newly installed tribal council, Supernaugh said he was informed that all prior arrangements and understandings between the tribe and the Park Service - to include the designation of Stirk Table as the preferred site for the proposed facility - were subject to review. The action by the new tribal government ground hard-won momentum on the project to a halt. The $25 million in the Park Service budget, earmarked for planning and construction of the Heritage Center, went into budgetary limbo.

Supernaugh and Walker said they did as they were told. Citing the new shift and uncertainty in the tribe's direction and the need for timely consideration, Supernaugh said he unilaterally pushed back the beginning construction date - and a request for funding - from 2002 to 2003.

"The tribe needed to officially select a site before we could formally request funding. Development of a new site plan requires coordination and studies by several federal agencies that take at least eight months," Supernaugh said. "We can't even begin to prepare a construction budget without it."

Further complicating the issue, Tribal Land Committee chairman and Wakpamni District Councilman Tom Conroy Jr. began leading an effort to promote a new site for the Heritage Center. He proposed that the facility be placed 25 miles west of the Stirk Table site, on a scenic overlook near the Red Shirt Table Village. The move, if approved, would effectively render worthless $200,000 worth of expenditures by the Park Service in planning for the Stirk site. Also nullified by Conroy's proposal would be a $100,000 Economic Impact Study predicated on placement in or around Stirk Table and paid for by the tribal authority.

In an early March meeting with Supernaugh, the authority and the BIA, Conroy and his Land Committee were informed of even more difficulties.

Moving the site to Red Shirt Table would necessitate between $500,000 and $1 million in new construction costs just to provide three-phase electricity to the site. A management team from the Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply System informed the Land Committee that providing water for the site was not included in its spring and summer construction budget and could not be done without considerable time, difficulty and cost.

Meanwhile, Supernaugh said any planning for a new site would have to be completed by November - just seven months from now - to be included in the Park Service's 2004 budget application. He added that under the best of conditions such an analysis takes a minimum of eight months.

The most optimistic assessment would push groundbreaking for the center back at least two years - with no guarantees, say those most directly involved.

NEXT: Dual loyalties, divided efforts, and a National Scenic Byway.