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Black Hills Are Beyond Price to Sioux

Culture: Despite economic hardship, tribe resists U.S. efforts to dissolve an 1868 treaty for $570 million.


BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST, S.D. — The quiet is broken by the territorial squeaks of prairie dogs. Buffalo lounge in prairies around the bend from pine-covered cliffs. This is land the Lakota Sioux call Paha Sapa, the Black Hills. To them, it is sacred and not for sale.

That's why the Sioux, among the poorest people in America, refuse the half-billion dollars offered by the U.S. government, which has claimed ownership of this land since 1877.

The Indians have a longer memory. In 1868, the United States signed a treaty setting aside the Black Hills "for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupancy of the Sioux." Then gold was discovered there, and Congress grabbed the land after negotiations to purchase it broke down.

A century later, in 1980, the Supreme Court awarded eight Sioux tribes $106 million in compensation--the 1877 value of $17.5 million, plus interest. This was payment for what the court called "a taking of tribal property."

The tribes refused to take the millions, insisting on the return of the land. Two political efforts to return federally held land failed in the 1980s.

The money sits in a government account, interest having swollen it now to $570 million. Still, the Sioux won't touch it. They say that would be a sellout of the Lakota nation, religion and culture.

Nowhere is the opposition more entrenched than the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, by some estimates the poorest place in the country. Home to the Oglala band of the Lakota Sioux, Pine Ridge has an unemployment rate of 85%.

The Oglala Sioux's share of the award is now worth $170 million. If they invested that, they could expect around $17 million a year in income without touching the principal. The annual budget for the reservation, by comparison, is $15 million.

It's money that could be used for housing, business development, job training and education, or even political pressure to get the Black Hills back.

Today, many people on the reservation live in trailers or shacks, drive rusted-out cars and have no place to work. Mangy dogs roam and forage.

The center of Pine Ridge village has a couple of gas stations, a Pizza Hut and a Taco John's, and little else. The reservation, covering 5,000 square miles, has nine villages but no banks, no car washes, no barber shops, no hotels.

Regardless of the obvious need, opposition to taking the money consistently runs over 90% in newspaper surveys, according to Tim Giago, publisher of the Lakota Journal.

Talk of the cash reminds the Sioux of the gold-seeking explorers who swarmed into the area seven years after President Andrew Johnson signed the Black Hills treaty.

The resulting military battles culminated in Custer's defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876.

"Ho-ka hey!" Crazy Horse yelled at that battle. "It is a good day to fight! It is a good day to die! Strong hearts, brave hearts, to the front! Weak hearts and cowards to the rear."

Congress responded by telling the Sioux: Give up the Black Hills, or lose federal food, medicine and blankets, rations pledged earlier to compensate for disrupting their hunting lands with westward expansion. Only 10% of the adult male Sioux population signed the treaty giving up the land, but Congress enacted it into law in 1877.

A federal judge, later echoed by the Supreme Court, castigated the government's deal, saying: "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history."

The wind can whip across Pine Ridge at 50 mph, throwing stinging bits of dirt in your mouth and the corners of your eyes, hurling tumbleweeds, swirling the plastic bags, candy wrappers and six-pack cartons that litter many of the open fields.

But the landscape is also striking. Wide-open skies offer 360-degree views of prairies, rolling pine-covered hills and the Badlands, carved by wind and water over millions of years.

Try to figure the value of the Black Hills--called, in the Lakota language, the heart of everything that is: Wamaka Og'naka I'cante.

Tribal members have their own complex calculations of that value, but they don't involve dollars.

"A lot of white people perceive this as foolish pride," says tribal council member Craig Dillon. "But pride's all we have."

The SuAnne Big Crow Health and Recreation Center was named after a 17-year-old star athlete killed in a 1992 car crash. With only $32 in the bank, her mother, Chick Big Crow, started a foundation that built the center.

A converted plastics factory, the center includes a room with photos, trophies and jerseys of SuAnne, who exhorted her peers to avoid drugs and alcohol and once scored 67 points in a basketball game.

Chick Big Crow remembers the struggle to get funding early on. It's the kind of project that would have benefited from seed money from the Black Hills bounty. But she wouldn't have wanted it.

"How do you put a price tag on spirituality?" she asks.

A 16-year-old hanging out at the center's cafe, James Red Cloud, puts it another way.

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