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Wapka Sica: A Wounded Eagle of Tribal Unity Looking to Soar

The fledgling legislative effort for Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place began in earnest in early 1999.

A shell of nearly abandoned steel and concrete rises – like an eagle – above the Missouri River just outside Ft. Pierre, South Dakota. Owing its very existence to a long treasured dream of unity among the Tetonwan Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), for the past several years it has been left to private contributions to keep it warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing.

The lights are barely on.

Envisioned as the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place, the lofty aim of early adherents was for a place where all tribes of the Northern Plains could come together in a good way to celebrate their various cultures, and promote justice among their peoples and all others.

Richard Rangel, owner of RM Rangel Inc. of Rapid City, South Dakota, was lead project manager for the construction phase of the project. Rangel is thoroughly grounded in the dream, history and legislative language that began to be realized in the current structure of Wakpa Sica. At present, only the cultural half, the 39,000 square foot right wing of the structure’s shell, containing various offices and conference rooms, is partially completed.

It’s likely to remain that way.

Modeled on a graceful stylization of an eagle, construction on the left wing, meant to house a proposed 47,000 square foot peace and justice center, was never begun. Seen for miles from every direction, it stands forlorn and wounded over the landscape; a broken-winged eagle, still and helpless. What began as a project slated to cost $18.2 million dwindled precipitously when only $6 million scraped-together earmarks were all that was allotted.

Today, Wakpa Sica cannot get calls returned from anyone’s congressional delegation. Cost estimates for completing construction currently run as high as $30 million. Not long ago it was different, not long ago, the proposed center had the undivided support of one of the nation’s most powerful legislators: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD).

The fledgling legislative effort for Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place began in earnest in early 1999. This led to eventual passage of PL 106-568 in both houses of Congress in December, 2000. Soon after, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in January 2000, construction began in March 2003. “In a snapshot,” said Rangel, “that public law authorized construction ‘on behalf of the Great Sioux Nation’ – and it names 11 tribes.”

As a house bill, it was initially submitted by then South Dakota Rep. John Thune (R); the legislation was then taken up in the Senate by South Dakota’s two Senators, Majority Leader Daschle (D) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D). PL 106-568 passed both houses of Congress in December 2000. As sponsors of the initiative, South Dakota’s delegation vigorously promoted it until it was signed into law. Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place was a legislative reality.

Apparently, in Washington, D.C. that’s considered enough.

A passionate aim of long time Lower Brule Tribal Chairman Mike Jandreau, it seemed his dream would be realized. With Jandreau now deceased, and no other tribal chairman that shares the depth of his commitment on the horizon, Wakpa Sica has been thrown on the heap of visions become victim to the sad fact that tribal governments fight a daily battle to find resources for more immediate needs involving, education, housing and law enforcement.

Still, proposed as a cultural and justice center for all the regions tribes, despite its descent into its present nominal existence, that remains the goal for those who would keep hope alive. Hope that still includes justice center plans for a mediation center, a tribal supreme court, and an economic development component where tribes can pool resources to create things like uniform commercial codes and inter-tribal calendars for seasonal cultural events. Another dream of the center was the repatriation of historical and cultural artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution and various other museums around the world.

Plans for these items and many others are stated in the language of PL 106-568, which, ultimately, was begun to reunite the traditional seven council fires of Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples. So what went wrong? Why was funding, generally pro forma in the case of congressionally authorized public laws, never allocated?

According to Rangel, it should have been baked into the cake of baseline budgeting in several departments. “What is astounding to me is that the public law is really clear that this is a congressionally authorized project, and yet it never received appropriations in the traditional sense that a public law should get appropriations,” said Rangel. “In other words, it should be a line item under the Secretary of the Interior, and a line item under Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and a line item in the Department of Justice (DOJ) in their annual budgets.

“But it never made it into the budget process. Not in the President’s budget, nor in the final budget adopted by Congress – which is very rare. It never got there because Daschle went another way. Back then, earmarks were still a way of getting funding for hometown projects. In this instance, Daschle introduced earmarks by way of HUD in the form of grants to be issued to Wakpa Sica Historical Society.

Earmarks became anathema for politically sensitive politicians running for re-election and a hot potato in Congress. But since the ribbon and groundbreaking ceremonies, along with the speechifying for Wakpa Sica had already been recorded and photographed, little, if any, political juice remained to be claimed from Wakpa Sica. Politicians, as politicians often do, moved on to fresher clamors. Today, Wakpa Sica is stuck in a financial cul-de-sac.

Since 2011, Rangel has worked patiently with the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association (GPTCA) to resurrect the multi-million dollar project. A year ago, the contractor sent out copies of the Public Law with a detailed description of everything that has been done since the law was enacted, broken down by fiscal year since the beginning of the earmarks up to the present: what got accomplished, how much was spent, everything. “It’s an interesting read,” said Rangel.

A meeting with GPTCA took place on April 17, 2015. Because it had been so long since Wakpa Sica had received any tribal consideration, Rangel supplied a power point introduction to the project. “How many tribal administrations have come and gone since 2003?” he reasoned. “I was facing people, some of which did not know Wakpa even existed.”

Unfortunately, he was right to be concerned. The realities of tribal politics and the nature of the two year cycle between tribal elections dictated the agenda. Rangel was only allotted 10 minutes to make the case for Wakpa Sica. This, after several phone calls and trips to various tribal offices. Yet he took a philosophic view. He had crossed a bridge; most of the stakeholders had been in a room to hear his admittedly truncated pitch. He would continue to reestablish relationships and build interest in the project.

“The approach was, basically, reintroducing Wakpa, showing the status of it, and the promise of it that still remains,” Rangel said. Next, in consultation with the tribes, the businessman drafted a resolution of support for Wakpa Sica to be signed by every tribal chairmen and presented to South Dakota’s congressional delegation. Last June, the resolution was approved and sent to South Dakota’s two Senators and one Congresswoman. Of the three, only now Senator John Thune’s office replied, and that was to express surprise that anyone was still interested in Wakpa Sica.

There have been small victories. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier has expressed real support for reinvigorating the project. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal government has also committed to paying for the ongoing utilities, expenses and maintenance of the buildings. Finally, a tribal gathering to discuss the problems of methamphetamine and other drug use among Native children was held in the Cultural Center in December.