Operation Indian Country Bombs over the Badlands

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Part four

Editors’ note: During the World War II era, the federal government condemned and leased hundreds of thousands of Indian acres for military use, much of it never returned to Indian hands. In this series, Indian Country Today spoke with Native people affected by the takings, many of whom served their country in wartime, lost their land to the government, and still harbor strong feelings on the matter.

PINE RIDGE, S.D. – Johnson Holy Rock remembers when the undersecretary of War came to Pine Ridge in 1942 waving a fistful of cash. There were smiles all around and easy money for the Oglala.

It’s what the other hand did that many people haven’t forgotten 60 years later.

On a mission to lease tribal land for a gunnery range, the undersecretary was happy to get the Oglala’s blessings. “Everybody was amiable about it,” said Holy Rock. “Everybody was concerned about the war. Nobody asked questions.”

Pine Ridge was a good place to practice dumping the steel-cased eggs of a B-17. The land was already under federal control, was sparsely populated, and showed little in the way of economic development.

But the deal was slippery from the start. Individual allotments were negotiated through leases, then later condemned outright. Tribal lands were leased at 3 cents an acre, far below the going rate. And the military promised the Oglala that tribal lands would be returned at war’s end.

Twenty-five years later, the Oglala Sioux Tribe was still waiting.

Rex Herman was living with his family north of Potato Creek in 1942 when the Army officer paid them a visit. They were one of about 100 families given 10 – 30 days to pack up and leave the range. The Hermans had horses, cattle and 20 acres of corn on a quarter-section allotment. Uncle Sam paid about $800 for the farm.

On moving day, they left the corn in the field. “My dad, mother, and my sister rode on the hayrack, and us three boys rode what few horses and cows we had,” Herman recalled. His father, Jake, an amateur historian and well-known rodeo clown, gave him the prize mount for the journey. “I rode my dad’s trick mule out of there.”

Since the government didn’t give them a tent, the family pitched their own. They moved on to No Flesh Creek, where they “lived in that tent, bathed in that creek, got our water from the creek from August until October” until his father could build a new house from the logs of the old one.

The removal didn’t dampen local patriotism. “A lot of them got kicked out of their land but still joined the military and fought for the country,” Herman said of his fellow Oglala. “Everybody was patriotic – that’s why they call it the best generation.”

Herman lost a brother in Europe during World War II. He later served in the 1st Marine Division in Korea, made corporal, and took pieces of shrapnel in his leg and stomach.

Years later, the family bought the allotment back at the original price plus interest. “By then, there was nothing left but the land,” Herman explained. “Ranchers had come in and leased it for practically nothing.” Most people who moved off the range “never did recover from it.”

The Army and National Guard used the land through the ’50s. When they realized the range was too small for a crop of fast, new bombers, the Air Force declared it surplus in 1963. Holy Rock, who served two terms as tribal president during the era, remembers what happened when the Oglala began lobbying to raise the lease rate from 3 cents to more than 10.

The Air Force sent a colonel to negotiate with the tribal council, Holy Rock recalled. “Nobody let out a peep. Those medals and ribbons ... they were blinded. Everybody was afraid to speak to a colonel with those two eagles sittin’ on his shoulders.” The officer said he wasn’t authorized to negotiate and dismissed the Oglala offer out of hand.

In 1968, the range was returned to the tribe by federal legislation. Instead of giving it back wholesale to the Oglala, however, Washington gave the National Park Service management control of nearly half of it – today known as the south unit of Badlands National Park.

The original gunnery range was 43 miles long by 12.5 miles wide, or about 340,000 acres. For 25 years, Washington leased 90,000 acres of that land, tribally owned, and turned a profit on the gunnery range – subleasing to ranchers for more money than the entire compensation paid out to landowners and leaseholders alike.

For the last 10 years, the tribe has worked to make the range safe for habitation by people and livestock. Ordnance cleanup has proceeded under grants from the Department of Defense, employing dozens of tribal employees – until this year. A dispute between the Army Corps of Engineers and the OST over tribal employment fees has brought the project to a halt.

Paul Herman, Rex’s older brother, said his parents “really felt deep injustice” about the gunnery range. The government “took the prime land, the cattle land. People used to say, ‘Why didn’t they cross the river and get those badlands out there, nobody lived out there but prairie dogs.’” But there was water on the Hermans’ ground, he said. “That’s the kind of land they took. They took the best.”

But the dry land further on wasn’t part of the reservation, he noted. “Maybe it was easier to deal with Indian people than white people.”

It took 25 years before legislation returned part of the range. Another 40 have passed, and more than 100,000 acres remain outside tribal control.

In Washington, at least, no matter how quickly the right hand borrows something, it can be a long time before the left one gives it back.

(Continued in part five)

Philip Burnham is the recipient of a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.