Restoring the Badlands

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In 2004, Cecelia Fire Thunder, was elected president of the Oglala Sioux
Tribe. One of many issues facing her new administration is the "south unit"
of Badlands National Park, long a piece of contested ground.

During World War II, Washington selected 350,000 acres of the Pine Ridge
Reservation for use as an aerial gunnery range. In 1968, Congress mandated
the return of gunnery range lands to the Oglala on condition that a large
part be managed by the National Park Service (NPS) as the south unit of
adjoining Badlands Park. The tribe signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA)
with the Park Service that was formalized in 1976.

Indian Country Today spoke about the Badlands with Fire Thunder during one
of her recent visits to Washington, D.C.

Indian Country Today: What's the current position of the tribe regarding
Badlands National Park?

Cecelia Fire Thunder: The tribe has a resolution establishing a work group
to bring the discussion of the south unit to the table, beginning dialogue
to reclaim the south unit. We want to do this in a couple of phases. We
just can't go in and reclaim that unit. We have to train our tribal members
to be park rangers and develop a management plan. The Park Service has been
doing this for a long time, and one of the things we want to do is
understand how they do it. Along the way we also have to include
legislation, putting into the Park Service budget a line item that will
always be there. That'll be our money to manage that unit as a park.

ICT: The tribe wants the south unit to remain a national park, but a park
that's managed and administered by the Oglala people.

Fire Thunder: Yes, the Oglala SiouxTribe. We are moving toward continuing
dialogue to get back 133,000 acres, and we want to manage it, administer
it, take care of it, and leave it like it was long ago. It will be one
place in our homeland that'll be free of cows!

ICT: The south unit is trust land but the NPS has management control over
it.

Fire Thunder: Right now. And part of the plan is to regain management of
those 133,000 acres.

ICT: The unit is also part of the old Pine Ridge Aerial Gunnery Range,
which the Oglala gave up during World War II for a national emergency. Many
people were affected.

Fire Thunder: There's a long, sad story to that. It was about a power
greater than ourselves. People had to give up their homes. They only had so
much time to get out of there. They were mandated by law. So now we have an
opportunity to reclaim it. That land is treaty land.

ICT: Does the tribe believe it was compensated for the land when it was
taken?

Fire Thunder: No. And those are some of the sticking points. As we move
along, we have to do things one step at a time.

ICT: Does the tribe currently have any people working at the park?

Fire Thunder: Our own Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority isn't
working for the NPS, but they're working in partnership. What we want to do
as part of this long-range plan is train our own people to take care of
that land.

ICT: What other concerns does the tribe have?

Fire Thunder: That what's under the surface is ours as well. There were
some real strong rules about excavation, and the NPS unfortunately didn't
follow their own rules. In fact, our attorney is saying that by allowing
the Denver Museum [of Nature and Science] to come and excavate, they
violated that MOA.

Also, there still needs to be extensive cleanup of that unit because of the
long history of using it as a bombing range. The Air Force practiced
dropping bombs. There was a lot of irresponsibility on their part as to how
they disposed of unexploded ordnance. They consider it still dangerous,
certain parts of the Badlands, because of the ordnance.

ICT: Within the south unit?

Fire Thunder: No, on the other side. But the south unit still has ordnance
that needs to be cleaned up. There are many, many stories around the border
of the bombing range where sometimes the Air Force planes overshot, and
people would be petrified because it would end up out of the range and into
the communities. The thing is, we don't know how many unexploded bombs are
out there. Even though they've done a good job of cleanup, the Department
of Defense still needs to put more money into doing a much better one.

ICT: Is the cleanup still going on?

Fire Thunder: Yes, but not as much as a couple years ago. We have to make
sure we find more resources to finish up what was started.

ICT: Will the Memorandum of Agreement have to be changed?

Fire Thunder: Some language in it.

ICT: There are still some hard feelings among people who were forced off
the land during World War II.

Fire Thunder: I don't blame them. We'll never get the land back to what it
was. However, by getting back the management, that will make us feel much
better. We're at a time and place right now to use our knowledge and our
ability to do the work for the collective good. The dream and the vision of
the south unit cultural heritage center is not only to teach and educate
about the prehistoric life that was there at one time, but to share our
culture and our language. When people come to our country, we want them to
leave with a strong sense of a living, thriving culture.