Sioux leaders chose a 59-year-old Newport Beach man Thursday to be their first war chief in more than a century and lead the battle to recover their ancestral land in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Phillip J. Stevens was named to this post, a Sioux spokesman said, so the Sioux tribes could show a united front in their campaign to persuade the federal government to pay $3.1 billion in reparations and return 1.3 million acres in South Dakota.
"I consider it a privilege to be asked to pick up the battle lance of justice on behalf of the Sioux people," said Stevens, who is part Sioux and the founder and president of Ultrasystems, an Irvine engineering and construction firm with $160 million in annual sales.
"I will lead our people in the century-long crusade to recover all unoccupied government-held lands in the Black Hills and to help us obtain the fair and just compensation we deserve," he said.
Stevens will leave Ultrasystems so he can devote full time to lobbying. In March the firm, which Stevens started in 1969, is scheduled to be merged into Hadson Corp., an Oklahoma City natural gas producer, in a deal valued at $89 million, a company spokeswoman said.
Stevens, who said he is three-sixteenths Sioux, will continue to live in Newport Beach while making frequent trips to South Dakota and Washington to lobby for compensation from Congress to improve conditions on Sioux reservations and create jobs.
Stevens, a longtime Indian-rights activist, proposed the $3.1-billion reparations package late last year. The Sioux tribes contend that the U.S. government owes reparations for violation of an 1868 treaty under which the government granted them the Black Hills.
The long-dormant post of war chief was revived after 110 years so it would be clear to opponents of the reparations plan that Stevens has a "mandate of leadership" throughout the tribes for the estimated 68,000 Sioux in this country, Oliver Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Sioux, said in making the announcement on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
"Not since the Battle of the Little Bighorn have the Sioux tribes united in the selection of war chief," Red Cloud said, referring to the 1876 engagement in which Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry troopers were lured into a trap, surrounded and killed by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors under chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall.
The Sioux's 120-year-old grievance centers on the Black Hills region, which they believe is sacred ground and which was given to them outright in the 1868 treaty.
Six years later, gold was discovered in the hills, and by 1877 the tribe had been forced by government troops to surrender the territory.
In 1980, a tortuous 60-year lawsuit finally produced a ruling favorable to the Sioux. But the Sioux have refused to accept the proposed $191-million cash settlement awarded by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stevens calculated that the $191-million settlement, if invested, would yield no more than 60 cents a day to each living Sioux.
"That doesn't buy you a McDonald's hamburger," he said.
That's why he said he plans to work full time to get Congress to approve his reparations package of $3.1 billion in cash and 1.3 million acres of land.
He added: "I sincerely believe that the people of the United States want to eliminate the terrible blight on the conscience of America that is associated with the prolonged and continuing abuse of the Sioux Indians."
The ceremony to install Stevens as war chief will be held on Feb. 23 in St. Francis, S.D.
Reuters contributed to this story.