Skip to main content

Reclaiming the Sacred Black Hills

  • Author:
  • Updated:

To say that the Black Hills (K?e Sapa) hold special significance for the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation) is an understatement. They’re not only our traditional homelands, where our ancestors once lived, they’re sacred. The Black Hills are the birthplace of our Nation, where we rose from Mother Earth’s womb. Our legends took place there. The Black Hills itself is a terrestrial mirror of the heavens above and thus forms the basis of our ancient star maps and Lakota astronomy. The entirety of K?e Sapa is a sacred site. Our rituals observe the natural cycles of the planet and our Universe. There are ceremonies that we must conduct at specific locations within the Black Hills. These ancient ceremonies benefit the whole of humanity. No, we aren’t talking about dirt protected by ‘No Trespassing’ signs. K?e Sapa is holy ground. It is where we are meant to pray.

As colonial invaders began to encroach upon our territory, Oceti Sakowin warriors like Crazy Horse fought to protect the Black Hills. The U.S. military could not defeat us, so they pursued other means. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie ended Red Cloud’s War when it set aside the Black Hills of western South Dakota and other lands and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana for the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation). Once gold was discovered however, prospectors began crossing into Black Hills territory, in violation of the treaty. The Oceti Sakowin rightfully defended their legally protected lands. The U.S. government responded by passing a law that took the Black Hills land away from the Oceti Sakowin in 1877.

In United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been illegally taken, and that the Oceti Sakowin were owed the sum of $105 million for the Black Hills plus an additional $44 million for the lands outside of the Black Hills.

The Oceti Sakowin had no intention of selling the Black Hills. We refused the settlement, instead demanding that our treaty lands be returned. So there the money sat. After decades of interest, the U.S. Department of Interior now holds over a billion Black Hills settlement dollars in trust.

Enter 2008, when a young Senator named Barack Obama decided to run for the Presidency and the following policy statement was released by his campaign:

“Barack Obama is a strong believer in tribal sovereignty. He does not believe courts or the federal government should force Sioux tribes to take settlement money for the Black Hills. He believes the tribes are best suited to decide how to handle the monetary award themselves. Obama would not be opposed to bringing together all the different parties through government-to-government negotiations to explore innovative solutions to this long-standing issue.”

This announcement opened the door to restart negotiations once Obama was elected President.

The Oceti Sakowin are now uniting to develop a plan of action to reclaim the Black Hills. The Great Sioux Nation owns shares in The Black Hills, by percentage. The Oglala Lakota are the biggest shareholders. I spoke with Loretta Afraid of Bear and Milo Yellow Hair, who are actively working on getting unceded federal lands in the Black Hills back into the hands of its rightful owners, the Oceti Sakowin. Together, along with others, Loretta and Milo have been visiting Oceti Sakowin communities throughout the Dakotas to educate Tribal members on the issue and garner support from Tribal councils.

“We come from the Hills. They are a part of us,” Loretta says. “We still own it [The Black Hills] and we have to act like we own it.”

Ms. Afraid of Bear, Oglala Lakota, believes reclaiming the Black Hills is crucial to Oceti Sakowin identity. “The land and language are one. If you lose them, you lose who you are.”

Working with both Tribal and Treaty councils, the group is hopeful that they can develop a realistic plan to present to President Obama, and perhaps, the U.S. Congress. New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley introduced a bill in 1985 that would have transferred 1.3 million acres of forest in the Black Hills back to the Great Sioux Nation. Unfortunately the bill was unsuccessful. Even if Congress is unwilling to pass legislation to return the Black Hills to the Oceti Sakowin, it is within the President’s power to perform the task by Executive Order.

Milo Yellow Hair, Oglala Lakota, speaks of the moral obligation that the United States bears under treaty law. “Under treaty, the U.S. pledged its honor. It is a moral issue proclaimed into law. Who is the moral keeper? Who holds them to their word? Individual Americans should start an effort to restore the honor of treaties they made with Indigenous peoples. They owe a lot in the name of manifest destiny.”

Milo thinks that dysfunction within American society is partially due to the breaking of treaties and the way the U.S. has mistreated Native people in this country.

“When you give your word it means something. Living dishonestly wears on the fabric of society. Dysfunction comes from disrespect and disenfranchisement,” he says. In this way, he thinks fulfillment of treaty obligations will help heal the country and relations between Natives and non-Natives.

The Oceti Sakowin are laying the groundwork to care for the Black Hills. “We need to be a responsible group of people taking care of a beautiful place,” Milo maintains.

Plans include training young people to care for Black Hills forest lands, and the establishment of a university, with a law school and medical school. The group is also concerned with stopping uranium mining in K?e Sapa, and protecting the water.

A Unity Concert to support the effort to reclaim the Black Hills is being planned. It will be held in Hill City, SD in September 2014.

The Oceti Sakowin are set to meet with President Obama to discuss the Black Hills in 2015.

As Oceti Sakowin, K?e Sapa is our birthright. We will see it returned to our dominion. It belongs to us and our children, for posterity.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.