Special to Indian Country Today
RAPID CITY, S.D. — Digging into the fate of Native children who died in the early 20th century at an Indian boarding school in this Black Hills city, Lakota researchers struck legal gold.
Through title records, they traced a string of questionable transactions that shows how municipal power brokers kept out of Indian hands all of the 1,200 prime, in-town acres left behind when the federal government quit the property — despite a 1948 federal law spelling out how Natives could share the wealth.
Today, the tightly argued legal claim for small parcels of the vast acreage has brought the city to the negotiating table to discuss terms of a land and asset transfer that, if executed, would mark the first time the city has reversed itself to address decades of demands that local Natives derive some benefit from the school property.
“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,” said Heather Dawn Thompson, a Harvard University-trained lawyer and Cheyenne River Lakota who began searching for records of the lost children seven years ago.
The dispute “has proven to be an ongoing, nagging issue that has proven it’s not going away,” said Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, who supports finding a negotiated settlement to the property with questionable deeds.
The boarding school opened in 1898, set on some 1,200 federal acres. It was one of a hundred or so 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.
In 1933, the school closed and the site became a home for Lakota tuberculosis patients called the Sioux Sanitarium, or Sioux San, which eventually became a general hospital serving the area’s Native population.
After World War II, the federal government doled out the bulk of the original boarding school land to the city, the school district, the National Guard and area churches. A clause in the 1948 law 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.
It is that “reversion clause” that forms the backbone of the current legal claims.
Thompson's team has raised questions about three land parcels that were originally given to the city and school district but are now occupied by different entities. The sites today are home to a senior center, a behavioral health hospital and an assisted-living business.
"Today we have the documentation and history behind us that we feel we need to come to some kind of culmination with these efforts ... and come to some kind of a solution," said William Bear Shield, a Rosebud citizen who played an early role in the yearslong discussions with city leaders.
The U.S. Interior Department, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, agreed there are issues with the title transfers.
"It appears as if the analysis is correct: Three parcels that were deeded originally to the Rapid City School District and the City of Rapid City would now be subject to reversion," the BIA said in a 2017 memo sent to Allender and others.
The memo further offered support for a locally negotiated resolution urging leaders “to find a creative solution that helps rectify these deed violations and this historical imbalance.”
Today, that search for a “creative solution” is inching toward a potentially historic resolution after years of careful groundwork. Native and municipal negotiators could present a plan to the City Council — and the public — as soon as next month.
"I think we finally got down to some concrete issues that we can work on rather than ideological or theoretical issues," Allender said. "Both parties in this discussion absolutely want to avoid tipping off a series of ongoing lawsuits. … As soon as everyone lawyers up, everybody’s screwed.”
The 1948 statute allows for only two solutions to deed violations, reversion or return of the parcels to the BIA, or a land exchange for other parcels in Rapid City, with the limitation that they be used for “needy Indians,” or the Rapid City Native American community. Any potential land transfers would be limited to the value of properties identified as being in violation of the reversion clause — not any other portions of the original boarding school property.
“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.
And none too soon, say area elders. Every decade or so since the 1950s, members of the Lakota community questioned the 1948 distribution of the boarding school land.
Bev Warne, Oglala Lakota, spent part of her childhood in the 1940s and '50s in the Native encampment known as Osk Kosh Camp, along Rapid Creek in Rapid City. She and her relatives often wondered why none of the prime boarding school land was used for Native housing.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see something like this," she said of a potential settlement.
The researchers have been aware that politics and public perceptions are paramount to achieving lasting success. Since 2017, they have held frequent meetings and public forums to present their findings. They have found support in the non-Native community.
"It's time that we as a community take the time to fully understand our shared history," said Karen Mortimer, who founded a conciliation organization called the Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi, or Rapid City Circle of Friends. "Only then can we make the best path forward together."
The researchers canvassed members of the Rapid City Native community to find out their priorities for any potential negotiation with the city. The overwhelming choice? An urban Indian community center. So that became the goal in the later stages of negotiations that both Native leaders and city officials say may be coming to fruition.
“It’s a shame that our people were kept from benefiting from all the wealth generated by the boarding school lands,” said LaFawn Janis, Oglala Lakota, of Rapid City. “It’s also a shame that this town has so many Lakota citizens and no Indian center. Maybe we can take a positive step on two fronts here.”
But even as the work on the disputed land ownership proceeded, Thompson and her team never forgot their original mission: to locate the children who perished at the boarding school. They were able to identify a hillside near the main campus that contains possibly scores of unmarked graves. The land is now in federal trust for the three area tribes, and a groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial at the site is scheduled for Native American Day next month.
“When this first started, we made a promise to those children that we wouldn't forget them and that we would find out where they are buried and help reunite them with their families,” said Kibbe McGaa Conti, Oglala Lakota, who helped identify some 50 students who died and were buried in anonymity at the boarding school or area cemeteries.
One of those children was Mabel Holy, a Cheyenne River girl who died at the school in 1901. Thompson and Conti found her grave two years ago in a city cemetery with a small placeholder marker with her name misspelled.
As a little girl in 1890, Mabel survived the Wounded Knee Massacre when Chief Big Foot's band was all but wiped out by U.S. troops.
In 1898, she was plucked from her family and put in the first class of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. She died there in 1901 before word could get to her family. They had been searching for her for more than a century before the researchers alerted them to Mabel's humble grave.
Mabel's great-niece, Violet Catches, Cheyenne River, teared up when she first visited the gravesite in 2017.
"A lot of the members of the Big Foot Tribe always say that we're forgotten people," she said. "So I imagine that (Mabel) may have thought that she was forgotten."
Catches said she told Mabel at her gravesite: "You're not forgotten. They found you. We found you. We're here. We're going to do all we can to remember you from now on."
And they’ll perhaps remember, too, that the search for her grave possibly led to the birth of an urban Indian center in Rapid City.
"I think whatever happened, happened in the past,” said Bear Shield, who took part in early talks with city officials. “I don't know that there's any changing that. All I know is that at some point, you can right a wrong."
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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