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Memorial to Sitting Bull stirs a backlash over Sioux legacy

July 01, 2007|Erin McClam | Associated Press

STANDING ROCK INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — You have to travel back in time to get from the nearest town to the chipped and wind-whipped little stone face that peers over the Missouri River and the plains beyond.

The drive from Mobridge, S.D., takes you from the Central Time Zone into the Mountain.

Beneath a modest monument lie the remains of Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief said to have foretold the defeat of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

The resting place of one of the best-known American Indians in history has been in a state of extreme disrepair. It has been shot, spat at, and worse. On the surrounding grounds, people set bonfires and shattered beer bottles. Someone tied a rope around the feather rising from the head of the bust, rigged it to a truck and broke it off.

The site is within the boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe but privately owned. Two years ago two men -- one white, the other a tribesman -- paid $55,000 for it and began cleaning it up. They have plans for a $12-million monument complex they hope will honor Sitting Bull's memory with the dignity missing for so long, and let new generations learn about him.

But these plans, like Sitting Bull himself, are not so simple. And they have torn open a wound over who will control the great Sioux chief's legacy.

Chief's vision

By 1868 there was relative peace between the Sioux and the U.S. government. The Second Treaty of Ft. Laramie had secured for the tribe a patch of land in southwest South Dakota.

Then gold was found in the Black Hills. Whites rushed in, and the Sioux were ordered back to their reservations. Sitting Bull, having retreated into Montana, was said to have had a vision of a slaughter of soldiers.

It was not long afterward that Custer and his cavalry were slain at Little Bighorn.

Little Bighorn also is known as Custer's Last Stand and, to some American Indians, as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

The United States prevailed in the Indian Wars, but Sitting Bull became, and remains, a hero to his people. Later in his life, he may have taken up -- the point is disputed -- the "ghost dance" movement, which foretold that dead Indians would return to life and that white domination would end.

This spooked U.S. authorities. They went after Sitting Bull, who had settled back at Standing Rock. He was killed in a battle with Indian police and U.S. soldiers on June 15, 1890.

There are pictures of Sitting Bull in the home of Ernie LaPointe, in the Black Hills town of Lead, S.D. A great-grandson of the chief, he is furious.

His mother always told him never to stand on Sitting Bull's back. Never boast of your heritage, she said. LaPointe, 58, thinks the plans for a memorial atop his great-grandfather's grave are doing worse.

Speaking for himself and his three sisters, he says: "They want to use our grandfather as a tourist attraction."

In February, he wrote to an assortment of Sioux tribes, including Standing Rock, which claims Sitting Bull.

"North Dakota, South Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have not honored their promise for proper care and maintenance of our grandfather's burial sites," he wrote.

He called for a "final reburial" -- in Montana, at the site of Little Bighorn -- "so that he may spend eternity at the sacred place where his vision had predicted the greatest victory for our people, the victory at the Battle of the Greasy Grass."

Pair's proposal

The pair who want to turn Sitting Bull's resting place into a memorial complex are Rhett Albers, an environmental consultant who is white, and Bryan Defender, who owns the sanitation system for the Standing Rock tribe and is enrolled there.

They say people who come to the banks of the Missouri to see the site are confused -- wondering: Well, where is the rest of it?

Their plan would stream visitors through an "interpretive center" focused on the four Sioux ideals they say Sitting Bull represented: fortitude, generosity, bravery and wisdom.

Other features under consideration are a snack bar, offices and meeting rooms, a gift shop and a restaurant.

Confronted with LaPointe's suggestion that this would cash in on Sitting Bull's legacy, they look perplexed.

"We are not wealthy people," Albers says. "We've donated our time and expense and money to do this, pursue it, do it in a positive way."

Defender, 35, says he and Albers have met with groups on the Standing Rock reservation and received an overwhelmingly positive reaction. (The tribe's chairman did not respond to requests to be interviewed.)

Albers says they hope someday to recoup their $55,000, but have no plans to draw salaries from the tourist center.

"It's not about the money," says Albers, 45. "It's about the man. And the tribute."

Remains moved

This is not the first struggle over Sitting Bull's remains.

The Standing Rock Sioux reservation, where the great chief lived his last years, straddles the Dakotas, and for the first half of the 20th century, his remains lay at Ft. Yates, N.D.

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