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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, S.D. — The City Council in this Black Hills town on Wednesday took a step toward a plan to resolve title disputes on three Rapid City properties that are a small — but symbolic — part of a larger land-use claim championed by generations of Lakota community members.

The council’s Legal and Finance Committee voted 4-1 to send to the full panel on Monday a resolution authorizing the city to “draft a plan in the next six months which entails land exchanges” for the three disputed properties and financial investments totaling $20 million. 

“The cause is just, and the time is right,” committee chair Darla Drew said in supporting the resolution. Other committee members expressed reservations, however, and the motion to send the matter to the full panel passed “without recommendation.”

The roots of the issue date to a 1948 act of Congress that authorized the distribution of 1,200 acres in west Rapid City that were originally set aside for the Rapid City Indian Boarding School, which operated between 1898 and 1933. 

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)

Congress stipulated that the land could be given to the city, the school board or the National Guard, be sold to churches or used for the benefit of “needy Indians.” No land has ever been granted to Native Americans despite 70 years of pleas from the Lakota community.

Ten years ago, researchers looking through records for information on children who died at the school discovered some discrepancies on the titles of certain properties. 

Much of the land distributed under the 1948 law carries “reversion” clauses that stipulate the land be returned to the federal government if it is no longer used for the purposes for which it was originally gifted.

Those discoveries led to tightly argued legal claims for three properties that seemed to be subject to reversion. In 2017, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed.

Previous stories:
— 'They are not forgotten'
— Historic settlement inches closer in South Dakota land dispute

"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 the city and the Rapid City School District.

The memo further urged leaders “to find a creative solution that helps rectify these deed violations and this historical imbalance.”

The researchers jumped at that opening and have spent years building consensus for a “creative solution” that is now spelled out in the resolution before the City Council. 

Envisioned is a land swap because the current occupants of the disputed land — a senior activity center, a behavioral health hospital and an assisted-living business — have no interest in moving. 

The new parcel would be home to a Native community center, something that extensive surveys of the community identified as its top priority. Also envisioned is the creation of a Native-run Community Development Corporation and city funds to capitalize it.

Students line up to enter a building on the campus of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in this undated photo. The school operated from 1898 until 1933. Disputes over the school’s land after it closed have “proven to be an ongoing, nagging issue that … is not going away,” said Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota State Historical Society)

If it passes, the resolution would work out the issues of the questionable titles, but it would also serve to send a message to the community as a whole. 

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“We think it would go a long way to building some trust,” said Karen Mortimer, who founded a community bridge-building organization. 

She said the fact that Indians have been calling for 70 years for some of the 1,200 acres of boarding school lands is one example of reasons some question if Rapid City can improve race relations.

“If the city agrees to this land swap, it will be a concrete step in the right direction,” she said. “And it will be a positive symbolic gesture as well.”

But there remains opposition.

City Council members in Wednesday’s committee meeting questioned the researchers — who have now adopted the name Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands Projective — about their standing in the procedures. 

The 1948 law spells out that the Interior Department is the only entity that could bring suit to enforce the reversion clauses. 

“Are we negotiating with the correct entity?” asked council member Jason Salamun. “Are we talking to the right entity to resolve this issue?”

Rapid City, S.D., City Council member Jason Salamun speaks during a council committee meeting Wednesday during discussion on a land ownership dispute. He questioned the Lakota leaders who brought the issue to the committee. “Are we negotiating with the correct entity?” he asked. “Are we talking to the right entity to resolve this issue?”

Council member Strommen was more direct. “I don’t see this 2017 letter (from the Bureau of Indian Affairs) as assigning any power to your group,” he said, addressing Heather Dawn Thompson, the Lakota lawyer spearheading the discussions with the city.

Joel Landeen, the attorney for the city, framed the issue differently. No one wants the discussion to break down and have the issue end up in litigation — or in the hands of a federal agency, he said. 

“It’s more than just a legal dispute,” Landeen said. “It involves bigger issues.”

After the meeting, Thompson said she was happy that the resolution made it out of committee and will be taken up by the entire City Council. 

“The grandmothers have been trying to raise these issues for 70 years, and we’ve been talking to the city for four years,” she said. “The community is ready and excited for a vote Monday night.”

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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.

This version has been updated to correct the vote to 4-1.

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