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South Dakota Politicians Make a Covert Play for Black Hills Land

Last month, in response to a request by South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard (R), U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) introduced legislation intended to facilitate a federal-state land exchange of around 2,000 acres of federally owned land in the Black Hills. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

Thune cited tourism as the reason for the creation of the bill, stating that the land in question provides “unparalleled outdoor experiences to attract people from across the state and nation.”

Rounds agreed, saying, “Tourists come from all over the world to catch a glimpse of our unique landscape and natural resources.”

This land transfer is comprised of 1,468 acres of federally owned acreage in Spearfish Canyon, and an additional 524 acres of federal land around Bismarck Lake. Camp Bob Marshall, which hosts a number of youth camps, is included.

There’s just one problem here. The Black Hills of South Dakota, Khe Sapa, belongs to the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation). It is sacred land and we oppose this federal-to-state land exchange.

The parcels requested are treaty lands.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, ratified by the U.S. Senate, recognized title in the “Sioux Nation” to approximately 60 million acres of land within present day Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 went onto establish the “Great Sioux Reservation” which was made up of 26 million acres of land, including the Black Hills. This land was set aside for our “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation.” It also set forth that in order to be valid, any future cession of these lands would require the signatures of 3/4ths of the adult male population from the aforementioned “Sioux” bands.

The Black Hills were stolen from the Oceti Sakowin. It all started when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer (yes, that yellow-haired S.O.B.) led a military expedition into the Black Hills in 1874, and reported that gold had been discovered. Soon after, the Black Hills was barraged by an influx of miners and settlers. The Federal government then unilaterally broke treaties it made with us and opened the Black Hills for settlement.

We were deemed ‘hostiles’ in our own treaty lands, by invaders who had no legal right to be there. Congress wasn’t done with its dirty tricks, though. In legislation that would come to be known as the “Starve or Sell” Act, Congress provided that no further treaty promised appropriations would be made for “Sioux” bands unless we relinquished our rights to hunting grounds, and ceded the Black Hills to the United States. Despite this desperate act of coercion, only 10% of adult males from “Sioux” bands signed on, falling far short of the 3/4ths requirement.

In The Great Sioux Nation vs. the United States (1980), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the seizure of the Black Hills by the U.S. was an unlawful taking, and that Congress owed the Oceti Sakowin just compensation for the stolen land.

We will not accept money for the Black Hills, because they are not for sale. The Black Hills are spiritual property. We want the land back and the Oceti Sakowin are in the process of asking that all federal Black Hills lands be returned to us. This surreptitious ploy by South Dakota politicians to obtain Oceti Sakowin lands through the federal government represents an additional unlawful taking.

The Governor of South Dakota, along with its Senators are Congresswoman, are aware of this; yet they continue to work in direct opposition to the interests of their Native constituents.

Pe’Sla, an ancient sacred site known as “The Heart of Everything,” was purchased by Oceti Sakowin to save it from the auction block. When federal officials granted a request to place Pe’Sla into trust status this year, Governor Daugaard not only opposed this federal decision, he used it as an opportunity to insult Lakota by falsely accusing us of failing to care for elders. “You have many tribal members who have needs here on the reservation. And if Grandma needs housing. Or if Grandma needs food. Or if Grandma needs transportation…Grandma doesn’t need you to spend tribal resources on a park land setting 200 miles away for religious use or for buffalo agricultural use,” Daugaard retorted. In his arrogance, Daugaard apparently fails to understand that the first and foremost reason that Lakota struggle with poverty is because of the theft of our lands and resources.

While Sen. Rounds and Rep. Noem are busy dismantling the Indian Health Service, the sole healthcare provider for many South Dakota Natives, Sen. Thune took a special time out to condemn the U.S. Board on Geographic Name’s decision to rename Harney Peak, Black Elk Peak.

Perhaps Thune should spend less time tanning and more time advocating for people he was elected to represent.

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