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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Race relations in this reservation border community have not always been smooth and, indeed, Rapid City has sometimes labored under the derogation, “Racist City.” But the town’s City Council on Monday opened the doors of conciliation by committing to pursue resolution of decades-old land claims championed by generations of Lakota elders.

“It’s a small step,” said Bill Means, Sicangu Lakota and an original member of the American Indian Movement. “But it’s a giant leap in terms of fulfilling the prophecy and history of our people in terms of what belongs to us and in terms of reconciliation with the non-Indian community. … The return of land is something the people can feel, use and see.”

By a 9-1 vote, the council passed the resolution designed to resolve deed irregularities on three parcels of land that were originally part of the long-closed Rapid City Indian Boarding School. 

The resolution sets a June 30 deadline for negotiators to agree on a plan to exchange land for the properties at issue and calls for progress toward establishing an urban Indian center and capitalizing a Native community development corporation to support the center.

“This is an amazing day,” said Kibbe McGaa, Oglala Lakota, who began work more than five years ago on the project that would lead to Monday’s resolution. “Now the hard work really begins.”

The boarding school opened in 1898, set on some 1,200 federal acres. It was one of hundreds of boarding schools designed to carry out the government’s goal of “civilizing” Native children, and its students came mainly from the nearest reservations — Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River.

Students line up outside the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in this undated photo. The school operated from 1898 until 1933. After the school shut down the federal government distributed some 1,200 acres of school land to the city, the local school district, the national guard and churches — but none to Native people. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota State Historical Society)

In 1933, the school closed, and after World War II, the federal government authorized certain entities to receive the bulk of the original boarding school land. They were the city, the school district, the National Guard, area churches and “needy Indians.” 

None of the land has ever been allocated to Native Americans. Generations of Lakota leaders have raised the issue of that imbalance and demanded that the city move to correct it.

“You don’t know how many times these same questions have been raised,” Ava Nichols told the Rapid City Journal in 1981. “It’s such a confused mess.” The response from the city at the time? There’s no problem here.

But five years ago, the argument changed. 

A group of researchers led by Harvard-trained lawyer Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River Lakota, focused on a clause in the 1948 law that states that the city and school properties revert back to federal ownership if the city or schools cease using the land for municipal or educational purposes.

That “reversion clause” forms the backbone of the legal claims that led to Monday’s resolution. 

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Thompson's team raised questions about three land parcels that were originally given to the city and school district but are now occupied by different entities. A 2017 letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs urged the city and local stakeholders to craft a “creative solution” and that letter led — after years of discussions — to Monday’s resolution.

Heather Dawn Thompson stands on a Rapid City, S.D., hillside overlooking the site of the long shuttered Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Researchers determined that some children who died at the school were buried on the hill. While digging into records to find what happened to the children researchers unearthed a paper trail that may bring land to the Rapid City Native American community. “This started as simply a project to identify the children in the graves but it has opened a Pandora's Box of a variety of historical, legal and equitable issues in the community,” Thompson said. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

The plan hinges on the exchange of land for the three parcels for land that could be the site of the Indian center. If that were to occur, it would be the first time that any government entity has returned any piece of the Indian Territory established by treaty in 1851 that used to encompass vast swaths of the American West and is now diminished to a scattering of Indian reservations in a handful of states, according to Indian land experts.

“This is kind of the history of Indian Land 101. It’s taking and then another taking and then yet another taking, and then eventually you get to the point where Indian use is gone from the land.

"There are other areas of the country where we have seen both city governments and county governments and state governments return land but not in that treaty area,” said Cris Stainbrook, Oglala Lakota, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. “The Indian people who have pushed this for so long deserve great credit for keeping it front and center. Will it ever be whole? Not until the Black Hills are back in Indian ownership.”

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender told the City Council that he expected to begin work on Tuesday setting up a working group to begin the process of filling in the details of the plan outlined in Monday’s resolution. Any plan would have to eventually get the approval of the U.S. Interior Department.

Rapid City, S.D., Mayor Steve Allender stands in front of City Hall. Allender has been in talks with Native community members about settling some long running land ownership questions on the west side of town. “We have come to a conceptual recommendation involving a 20- or 30-year plan to benefit the Native community as well as the community at large,” Allender said. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

The move by the city was hailed by people who work closely with the legacy of the Indian boarding school era.

“I think this is a good example of boarding school justice that brings about healing for the survivors and the descendants of those who went to boarding school and were subjected to the assimilative colonial policies at the hands of the U.S. government,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe Ojibwe, the CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

And after 170 years of nearly unabated diminution of land holdings, the notion of a success — however limited — was cause for a smile. 

“Any time we can get our land returned, whether it’s 1 acre or 8 million acres, it’s something that the people dream of,” said Means. “That said, it remains our position that all of the Black Hills belong to our people.”

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Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the past five years covering western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.

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