RAPID CITY, S.D. - The Great Sioux Nation has never accepted the fact that the Black Hills of South Dakota is not theirs.
It houses numerous sacred sites and many people travel to the interior of the mountains to pray and perform vision quests.
But management of the Black Hills is in the hands of the National Forest Service and decisions about logging, public and private use and mining are made without input from the tribes, tribal leaders claim. That all may change.
The Black Hills Inter-Tribal Advisory Committee will be an advisory board to the National Forest Service to protect historic, cultural and sacred sites while at the same time protecting the Black Hills from misuse.
A Memorandum of Agreement has been written and all it needs is the signatures of all participating tribes. Each signatory tribe will have one representative that will act as a board member.
"We have to stand together when we have to consult, when we deal with the federal government and the state," said Bryce In The Woods, councilman for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is the first signatory to the MOA.
"We have to deal with the sacred sites. Some may be similar to Wounded Knee and are a crime scene. The Black Hills advisory committee would look at all issues and work together as tribes," he said.
In order to work as an advisory committee a clear definition of what is sacred would be appropriate. Information that was held sacred and private must be used to qualify a site and to provide evidence that a site is sacred, according to many tribal officials.
At stake presently are petroglyph panels in the southern Black Hills. The forest service has brought in the advisory committee to help come up with ways of protecting the area while allowing access for education without bringing about any destruction.
The MOA also created a Youth Conservation Camp that meets in the summer. This is the camp's third summer and Dave McKee, historic preservation officer for the forest service said the participants were taken to Craven Canyon, site of the petroglyphs and asked to think about what they had seen and how it relates to their culture and tribe.
The youth have the opportunity to see first hand what is involved in managing a forest and the hope is that someday a few of them will pursue careers in the forest service and manage the Black Hills, McKee said.
The committee will meet with forest service managers when to bring the tribal perspective into any management decision. It will be similar to consultation, but be the first line of tribal input.
A recent negotiation to clear timber for fire prevention, sell timber in some areas and protect private land owners from fire with a fire break and roads in a roadless area were accomplished with negotiations between the forest service, some environmental groups timber organizations and the South Dakota Congressional delegation.
The tribes were not included in the process.
Some environmental laws and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act will not be involved in the legislation that allowed the work in the forests.
Bob Thompson, ranger for one of the districts, said the forest service would not avoid the laws if any sacred area was uncovered during the process.
"We are not in the loop," said Tim Mintz, tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
"How do we get in the loop? We have concerns," he said.
Thompson assured a gathering of tribal officials that the forest service was working on better consultation procedures and the BHIAC would be a step in that process.
Tribal leaders expressed their concern and frustration that roads and clear cutting for fire protection in wilderness and road less areas could take place without their input or knowledge and they said the process was in conflict with the treaties.
The consultation process frustrates many tribal officials when they meet with various federal government agencies and departments.
McKee said he shared their frustration and when he goes to meetings he wants to see positive results.
Fourteen sacred sites in the Black Hills, according to McKee, became the objects of discussions with tribal historic officers. He said the tribal historic officers went to the sites to participate in a discussion about what to do with the sites and they will continue to work on protection of the sites.
"It's hard to mitigate someone's spirituality. For my part I have concerns about that. We need to talk about mitigation of sacred sites," Mintz said.
"We need the help of the tribes, we need a partnership. Some agencies come in with ideas but there is not change. The Advisory Board would be a clearing house for (sacred site and legal) concerns," McKee said.
The advisory committee could bring the right perspectives to the right issues when necessary to come to a consensus on accidental discoveries and to set an agenda so the right people can come to the table from both sides, McKee said.
In The Woods said the advisory committee was important because public comments on many issues may make policy and if the tribes are not in on the process in the beginning the policy may not be in their best interest.
"I want to see the Great Sioux Nation Forest Service manage the Black Hills," In The Woods said.