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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — Call it one step forward and two steps sideways in a dispute over former boarding school land.

The city council in this South Dakota reservation border community voted Monday to allocate $9 million toward the construction of an urban Native community center in a move that was seen as groundbreaking.

“This is the first time that a substantial investment has been made (by the city) to an Indigenous effort in our community,” said Tatewin Means, Oglala Lakota and a volunteer with the group behind the effort to build the center.

But the enthusiasm was tempered by strings attached to the funding and questions whether the deal would resolve a thorny land dispute.

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The council voted 7-3 in favor of the $9 million allocation but stipulated that the money was contingent on the Department of the Interior signing off on a locally negotiated plan to clear up some deed irregularities on land parcels that were once part of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School.

Any potential negotiated solution by law must include land, however, meaning the $9 million allocation alone would not qualify for approval. More work needs to be done, said City Council President Lance Lehmann.

“We will have to find some land (to add to the deal) to make this a valid offer to the Department of the Interior,” he said. He said the total value of the deal will have to rise during future talks. Last year, a city council resolution determined that $20 million was an equitable figure for an overall pact.

Tatewin Means, Oglala Lakota, is a volunteer with a group behind the effort to build a Native center in Rapid City, South Dakota as part of a resolution of a dispute over land at the former site of the Rapid City Indian School. The Rapid City council voted Monday, Jan. 10, 2021, to  allocate $9 million toward the construction but is still working to resolve the land dispute. (Photo by Stewart Huffington for Indian Country Today)

“Hitting that $20 million mark with either cash or land or some combination thereof is what is going to satisfy the Department of the Interior’s sign-off of these (property) titles,” he said.

The Rapid City Indian Boarding School opened in 1898 and was one of hundreds of boarding schools designed to carry out the government’s goal of “civilizing” Indian children. Its students came mainly from the nearest reservations — Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River.

The school closed down in 1933, and 1,200 acres of its land in Rapid City was divided up by Congress in 1948. The lawmakers specified what entities could have parts of the property, including the city for municipal purposes, the school district for educational use, area churches and “needy Indians.”

No Indigenous person ever came into ownership of any parcel.

A volunteer with the Rapid City Indian Boarding School Land Project stands outside the Rapid City City Council Chambers on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. Her shirt refers to language in a 1948 Act of Congress that stipulated some boarding school land could be allocated to serve "Needy Indians." (Photo by Stewart Huntington for Indian Country Today)

Led mostly by grandmothers, Native community members for decades have sought to win some benefit from the boarding school land only to be sidelined or ignored by city leaders. 

But about six years ago researchers discovered discrepancies in the deeds of some properties originally granted to the city and the school district. The 1948 law stipulates that ownership of any parcel not being used for its intended purpose be “reverted” back to the Department of the Interior and then potentially allocated for the benefit of Native community members. The deed discrepancies have prompted city leaders to take a different tack from their predecessors.

The land dispute “has proven to be an ongoing, nagging issue that has proven it’s not going away,” Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender said recently.

A 2017 Interior Department letter directs the city and the Native community to craft a local solution to the deed issues that would enable Interior to grant clean title to the present owners of the parcels in 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 Bureau of Indian Affairs 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.” Native volunteers vowed to press on.

“We’re carrying the legacy of our grandmothers and our ancestors before them,” said Means, who is executive director of the Thunder Valley Development Corporation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the largest non-tribal Indigenous community development corporation in the nation.

“We’re resilient and persevering,” Means said. “So we’ll take this (city council vote) as a win and we’ll move forward even though there are pending questions.”

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