The West: Battle for the Black Hills


The Supreme Court described the U.S. government's actions in strong terms: "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history." Rendering this decision in 1980, the Court awarded the Sioux Indians, as compensation for being deprived of territory reserved for them in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, $105 million. The Sioux refused to take the money.

Gerald Clifford, a Lakota Sioux, is organizing an effort to get what the Supreme Court said it did not have the power to give. The Sioux want their land. At the behest of the Black Hills Steering Committee (coordinated by Clifford), Sen. Bill Bradley (D–N.J.) has sponsored the Sioux Nation Black Hills Act, which would return to them 1.6 million acres of federal land in western South Dakota.

Most of the land—about 1.1 million acres—is currently part of the Black Hills National Forest. The remainder is federal grasslands, Wind Cave National Park, and some isolated federal forest tracts in northwestern South Dakota. No private lands would be affected, and the Black Hills' best-known attraction, Mount Rushmore, would remain under federal control.

Considering the huge expanse of land originally reserved for the Sioux in the treaty, getting them to settle their claim for only 1.1 million acres appears to be the best deal anybody has made with Indians since Manhattan was bought for $24. The treaty gave them an area stretching from Nebraska to North Dakota, including everything in South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and over to Montana and Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains. The Court's $105-million award is based on the value of the area when the treaty was abrogated ($17.1 million) plus five percent interest per year since the taking. Today, of course, the area is worth many times more than that.

At the time of the treaty, this territory included valuable hunting grounds for the Sioux. But perhaps the most valuable area of land was the Black Hills, at least for the Indians. There they buried their dead, sought inspirational visions, and celebrated changing seasons. The Sioux did not live in these rugged mountains, they worshipped there. They called the Black Hills "the heart of everything that is."

According to the treaty, no unauthorized person "shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in this territory." But six years after the treaty, the U.S. government sent George Custer and his troops into those hills to confirm rumors of gold. White prospectors followed by the thousands, while the government averted its eyes. Angry Sioux warriors swiftly retaliated, and among the casualties was the blundering Custer.

But the outnumbered Sioux were soon defeated. Their war with the U.S. army was extremely costly. White settlers had nearly exterminated the once abundant herds of buffalo that provided food and shelter for the Sioux, and eventually bands of Sioux began surrendering to military agencies in exchange for desperately needed supplies.

When the Sioux were clearly in dire straits, Congress sent a commission to negotiate with them. The deal was simple: If they would give up the Black Hills, they would receive supplies. The treaty required 75 percent of Sioux adult males to approve such a change. Despite the extreme hunger and privation suffered by the Sioux, the commission could only get 10 percent approval. Some of the Indian signers were chiefs, and by employing a convenient fiction—that the signature of a chief could be deemed to be approval from all those in his band—Congress claimed the Sioux had consented to the trade. Congress immediately approved the deal, and then the Sioux were shunted off to barren reservations.

In 1923 the Sioux commenced another battle to regain their land. They hired a lawyer. The case decided by the Supreme Court in 1980 was essentially the same case begun in 1923 (making it one of the longest cases in the nation's history). At the end of their long journey through America's judicial labyrinth, the Sioux were told by the Court that in this case only Congress had the power to give them their land. They would have to settle for the money or go to Congress.

Shortly after this decision, Clifford's group drafted the Black Hills Act. Senator Bradley says he agreed to sponsor it (now known as the Bradley Bill) because of sympathy he gained for the Sioux while conducting athletic clinics on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. If the former professional basketball star made friends with some of the Sioux on the reservation, they may now be the only friends he has in South Dakota.

The proposed legislation is, to say the least, not popular in that state, where whites make up 90 percent of the population. Many people focus on the bill's impact on the Black Hills, a favorite vacation area whose spectacular scenery attracts many tourists, juicing the state's economy. The Black Hills also contain lucrative mineral deposits (the Hills already have yielded 36 million ounces of gold) and valuable stands of timber.

Sioux leaders say that if the bill passes, Black Hills resources will be managed for the economic benefit of Indians. Mining and logging would continue. Tourism would be encouraged, although certain religious sites would be off-limits to non-Indians. But all of South Dakota's political leaders oppose the bill, which languishes in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The rejected settlement money sits in a bank, earning interest, until resolution of the issue. Currently the amount is over $190 million. Meantime, on South Dakota's reservations the Sioux Indians face 70 percent unemployment, widespread poverty, substandard housing, malnutrition, violence, alcoholism, dependence on government aid, and stagnation. "Take the money," urge the mining and logging companies, tourist businesses, and virtually everyone else in South Dakota. But the Sioux must think it ironic that not much has changed in over 100 years. The government still thinks it can persuade the Sioux to give up their land, for a fraction of what it is worth, because they are in such dire circumstances.

"To accept the money award is to bless the taking of the Black Hills from the Sioux people," says Clifford. "The Black Hills are not for sale. You cannot sell what is sacred."

Even in the face of harsh racism, religious sanctions against them, and social and economic turmoil, many Indians continue to practice their own spiritual ceremonies and uphold ancient teachings. An unwillingness to relinquish cherished traditions is a positive aspect of Sioux life on dismal reservations otherwise dominated by crisis. Sioux leaders want to regain at least some of their stolen land so they can create economic opportunities for their people without weakening the Sioux's commitment to their heritage. They object that white men, shortly after coming to this land, not only attacked them in a brutal war, intentionally destroyed the buffalo herds, and illegally took their land, but now are advising them that money is more important than their sacred land.

Among South Dakota's Indians, however, disagreement has surfaced. A small, renegade contingent, including one of eight tribal councils, wants the bill amended to include a payment of $3 billion and the land. The amendment is the idea of wealthy Californian Phil Stevens, a latecomer to the issue who is part Sioux. Stevens's flamboyance and wealth have captured the attention of the media and have also made him a convenient target for detractors of the bill.

Clifford says Stevens's amendment is unrealistic and disruptive to the legitimate Black Hills campaign. But Stevens appears determined to set his own agenda.

Despite such difficulties, Clifford and the Black Hills Steering Committee remain undaunted. "We are prepared to spend the rest of our lives pursuing justice," says Clifford.

Peter Carrels is a writer and photographer based in Aberdeen, South Dakota.