Published: October 3, 2012
The Black Hills, the rolling range of mountains that rise out of the badlands of western South Dakota, are considered sacred to the Sioux, who for 150 years have fought on battlefields and in courtrooms for the return of the land.
And so the Great Sioux Nation exulted this summer when a long-sought parcel in the mountains called Pe’ Sla by the Lakota was put up for sale and a bid from the Sioux was accepted by the family that had controlled the land since 1876, the year that Gen. George Armstrong Custer died not far to the west at Little Bighorn.
But now, anxiety has replaced optimism as more than a half-dozen Sioux tribes, which include some of the nation’s poorest people, race to come up with the $9 million purchase price before the deadline next month.
Not only poverty stands in the way, but also the charged history: many Sioux ask why they should have to pay for land that already belongs to them, given numerous treaties broken by the United States and a landmark federal court decision in 1979 that called the government’s seizure of the Black Hills one of the most dishonorable acts in American history.
“It’s like someone stealing my car and I have to pay to get it back,” said Tom Poor Bear, the vice president of the Oglala Lakota Tribe in South Dakota.
On Friday, tribal chairmen from across the Great Plains are scheduled to meet to devise a strategy.
But if the Sioux tribes — which for generations have been troubled by grinding poverty, unemployment rates as high as 80 percent, and disproportionate levels of violence, alcoholism and preventable death — are unable to come up with the money, long-held dreams, as well as a $900,000 initial payment, will be lost.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to get some land back that is very, very dear to us,” said Louis Wayne Boyd, the treasurer of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, which has taken the lead in the purchase. “Most of the tribes want to do something, but it’s very difficult for them to raise any money, especially of this magnitude.”
The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 guaranteed the Sioux ownership of the Black Hills, but after the discovery of gold, the federal government took back the mountains.
Pe’ Sla (pronounced pay-shlah), 1,942 acres of prairie in the heart of the range, was first homesteaded by the ancestors of the current owners, the Reynolds family, in 1876.
More than 100 years later, in 1979, the United States Court of Claims, discussing the federal government’s misdeeds against the Sioux, including its tactic of starving them, before it appropriated the land, wrote that “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”
The next year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sioux had not received adequate compensation for the Black Hills and ordered the government to pay them. The Sioux, however, have refused to accept any money, saying that doing so would have the effect of selling their mountains. Instead, they insist on the return of the Black Hills to tribal authority.
The government fund, accumulating interest in a federal bank account, has grown to more than $800 million, although the Sioux say that using the money to buy Pe’ Sla is not an option.
The Sioux believe that the site was the scene of an epic battle between good and evil, and each spring they hold a religious ceremony there, where life is welcomed back with peace after a long winter.
Pe’ Sla is deemed sacred, but the plan to spend millions in scarce revenue on its purchase may not represent a consensus of the Sioux.
“There are mixed feelings,” said Vernon Schmidt, executive director of the Rosebud Sioux’s land enterprise department. “Some tribal members are wholeheartedly in support, and other tribal members are not. It’s hard to say, ‘Tighten your belt,’ but we’re going to have to do it anyway. There’s no dollar amount you can put on a sacred site.”
The Reynolds family, which declined to comment, has used the land it calls Reynolds Prairie Ranch — pristine grassland bisected by an asphalt road — for cattle grazing, but has always allowed access for prayer ceremonies.
The Sioux say their culture would be irreparably harmed if their bid to buy Pe’ Sla failed and the land was bought by an owner who prevented them from visiting.
“Our ceremonial patterns would collapse,” said Victor Douville, who teaches Lakota history and culture at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, S.D. Mr. Douville said that there had been annual pilgrimages at Pe’ Sla for 3,000 years, and that if they were halted, “we might come to an end as a people.”
So far, though, the Rosebud Sioux say they have received no firm financial commitments from other tribes, despite promises. The deadline to come up with the remaining $8.1 million — an amount roughly equal to the tribe’s annual budget — is Nov. 30.
“Not by any means are we a rich tribe,” said Mr. Boyd, treasurer of the Rosebud, whose unemployment rate is 83 percent. “It was always our intention to work with other tribes. We are a little nervous because this is a lot of money, and it would really hurt us if we had to do it ourselves.”
The Oglala Lakota — one of the few tribes with fewer resources than the Rosebud Sioux — say they intend to help, but have not yet decided how much to give.
“Our tribe, even though we’re a poor tribe, we’ll come up with some money,” said Mr. Poor Bear, the tribe’s vice president.
One hope had been that the richest of the Sioux tribes, the Shakopee Mdewakanton, which operates a highly profitable casino and entertainment complex outside Minneapolis and donates millions each year to other tribes, would contribute as well.
But Tessa Lehto, a spokeswoman for the Shakopee, said in an e-mail that she had “no information” about a forthcoming grant or loan for Pe’ Sla.
The Rosebud Sioux have been left to negotiate with commercial banks, which often decline to make large loans to tribes because banks are generally prohibited from seizing assets on reservations if a tribe is unable to repay.
Still, Charmaine White Face, the coordinator of the volunteer group Defenders of the Black Hills, echoed the sentiments of Sioux across the Great Plains. “It can’t not go through,” she said of the purchase.