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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — For 73 years, Indigenous people in Rapid City have called for ownership of land that used to be part of a local Indian boarding school.

And for 73 years the calls bore no fruit. But researchers breathed new life into the decades-old campaign a few years ago when they discovered deed discrepancies on certain parcels of the 1,200-acre former school property that were originally given to the city.

The revelations brought the city to the negotiating table — and sparked optimism in the Native community.

But the clock is winding down on those talks with the results still up in the air. A proposal for the city to allocate $15 million for a community center and to capitalize a development corporation was abruptly tabled by the city council Monday.

The move dented the optimism — but not the resolve — of the Native community.

“We’re not giving up,” said Lafawn Janis, Oglala Lakota. “This work is the work of our ancestors and our grandmothers, centuries and decades in the making, so we will not ever give up.”

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The determination in the Indigenous community has been strengthened by the discovery of unmarked graves of children who died at the school. The graves lie on a hillside near the original school buildings on land permanently held in federal trust for three area tribes. A memorial to the deceased children is planned for the site, the first of its kind in the country.

“That’s why it means so much to us,” said Amy Sazue, Sicangu and Oglala Lakota. “That’s why this is more than just about a community center. It’s more than just about land. It’s more than just this legal issue. It’s a reclamation of our voice. It’s the reclamation of our children.

“It’s taking it back for our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers what was forcefully taken from them.”

A sign on a Rapid City, South Dakota, hillside announces the boundary of federally protected land that holds unmarked graves of children who died at the long-closed Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Indigenous community members are negotiating with city officials to obtain some of the land that used to be part of the school grounds. (Photo by Stewart Huntington for Indian Country Today)

Building for the future

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender told Indian Country Today that he is ready to complete the deal.

“I have been negotiating around these issues for five-plus years,” he said. “We’re at the 26th mile of this marathon and we have a short way to go. We are so close to this finish line the only thing left to know is whether we finish first or last.”

Mayor Steve Allender of Rapid City, South Dakota, has been negotiating with Indigenous volunteers to find a resolution to deed irregularities on land that once was owned by the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. If no solution can be reached, “I think would be a setback, a major setback, for race relations in Rapid City,” he says, “and perhaps the whole western portion of this state.” (Photo by Stewart Huntington for Indian Country Today)

After years of discussions with Indigenous volunteers from the Rapid City Boarding School Lands Project, the mayor brought the issue of the deed discrepancies to the city council late last year. The council passed a resolution tasking the mayor to work with Native community members to draft a plan that “entails land exchanges and financial investments which, when combined, equal the value of the land and buildings” for the properties with deed discrepancies.

The city council put that value at $20 million. The council further resolved that the end goal of the process would be “building a Rapid City Native American Community Center and capitalizing a Rapid City Native American Development Corporation which will generate revenue” to support the center.

On Monday, Dec. 13, a blue ribbon citizen’s panel presented the first piece of that plan to the city council, recommending it allocate $15 million for the community center and to capitalize the development corporation. The council tabled the proposal until Jan. 10.

Stand-off continues

The Rapid City Indian Boarding School opened in 1898 to further the government’s efforts to “civilize” Indian children, pulling students mainly from the nearby Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations. In 1933, the school shut down, and in 1948 Congress passed an act spelling out that the possession of most of the original boarding school land would be taken over by the city of Rapid City, the local school district, the National Guard and area churches.

The law also said land could be used for the benefit of “needy Indians.” A clause in that 1948 law dictates that the city and school properties would revert back to the federal government if the property ceased to be used for municipal or educational purposes.

Students line up outside the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota State Historical Society)

It is apparent violations of that so-called “reversion clause” that underpin the present-day claims of deed irregularities. The lands project researchers discovered at least three land transfers that appear to fall outside the original statutory boundaries. The U.S. Department of the Interior, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has agreed.

"It appears as if the analysis is correct,” the BIA wrote in a 2017 memo sent to Allender and others, noting that certain parcels “would now be subject to reversion."

The memo went on to support a locally-negotiated resolution and urged leaders “to find a creative solution that helps rectify these deed violations and this historical imbalance.”

Amy Sazue, Sicangu and Oglala Lakota, stands in front of a hillside that contains unmarked graves of children who died at the Rapid City (South Dakota) Indian Boarding School. The fight to gain ownership of some old boarding school land is bigger than just a legal battle, she says. “It’s a reclamation of our voice. It’s the reclamation of our children," she said. (Photo by Stewart Huntington for Indian Country Today)

That “creative solution” is what the mayor and the lands project volunteers are trying to achieve. But the volunteers know they are not negotiating without leverage. If no solution can be found through the talks, they can turn to the Department of the Interior and ask it to commence a reversion inquiry.

That is not an end game relished by the mayor.

“I think going through a reversion process and having a court or a federal agency determine who is right and who is wrong and who gets what property, I think would be a setback, a major setback, for race relations in Rapid City and perhaps the whole western portion of this state,” he said. “Because we would have had the opportunity to resolve this based on what’s right and we would have then effectively chosen to take the … most public and painful route.”

For now, the stand-off continues.

“That resilience and that fight is just embedded in us,” Sazue said. “That’s what our ancestors gave us.”

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