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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, S.D. — The grandmothers will have to wait at least another two weeks.

The Rapid City, S.D., City Council on Monday night put off a vote on a plan for a land swap that would address questionable deeds on three Rapid City properties — and grant to the city’s Lakota community some benefit from 1,200 acres of Rapid City Indian Boarding School land that leaders and grandmothers have been demanding for decades.

“This is not a land issue,” business leader Hani Shafai told the council before its vote. “This is an investment in our community, a chance to heal the wounds of our past. It’s time.”

Before the council’s 6-3 vote to send the plan to a “working session” on Nov. 10 for more study, five of the lawmakers expressed support. 

That gave Lakota elder Beverly Warne a sliver of hope after the meeting. “I’m allowing myself a little optimism,” she said.

The three properties in question were originally part of the extensive holdings of the long-shuttered Rapid City Indian Boarding School. The parcels were legally transferred to the city or the school district under the terms of 1948 federal legislation that identified five entities that could receive parts of 1,200 acres of boarding school land. 

The school closed in 1933. Among the five groups were the city, the school district and “needy Indians.” No land has ever been granted to the Native community.

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)
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)

Five years ago researchers discovered that three parcels of the boarding school land are no longer being used for municipal or educational purposes and should therefore revert back to federal ownership — and possibly put to use for the benefit of local Natives — under the language of the 1948 congressional act.

In 2017, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed.

"It appears … (t)hree 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 wrote to the city and the Rapid City School District. The BIA further encouraged the local stakeholders to craft a “creative solution” that would potentially not disrupt the businesses operating on the properties in question — a senior center, a behavioural health hospital and an assisted living operation.

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The researchers — now coalesced into an all-volunteer group called the Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands Project — set out to find a creative solution with a two pronged approach: diplomatically get the city to agree to some concessions and build consensus in the urban native community for which concessions would be acceptable.

In this Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, photo, children sit with placards with the names of children who died at the old Rapid City Indian Boarding School sit in front of a hillside that researchers determined hold unmarked graves of some of the deceased children. A memorial is planned to honor the children at the site. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

Years of meetings and discussions resulted in a resolution that was introduced to the City Council last month with the full support of the mayor. 

The resolution calls on the city to follow the BIA’s direction to find a creative solution. It also sets a valuation of the properties at $20 million and presents the idea of creating an urban Indian Center and a for profit Community Development Corporation. 

The resolution also would clean up the deeds to the three properties in question and avoid litigation, a benefit highlighted by Mayor Steve Allender when he spoke in favor of the resolution.

Boarding school lands project team members said they were saddened that the resolution did not pass Monday even if they were encouraged by the expressions of support.

“We feel like we have given the council everything they need in terms of history and documentation,” said Bryan Brewer, a team member and former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “We hope that they review the information and then come back in two weeks at their next council meeting and approve the resolution.”

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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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