May 17, 2016

South Dakota Attempts to Block Land Trust of Pe’ Sla

Kelsey Hill

Little more than a month after the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) approved federal trust status for the sacred site of Pe’ Sla in the Black Hills, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard filed a 14-page appeal in opposition to the measure.

The land was rightfully purchased in whole by the tribes that hold it sacred, and yet they face confrontation from the governmental bodies that historically aided in the oppression and marginalization of their people.

Instead of allowing Pe’ Sla to become federally recognized as a land trust, the state government continues to refuse to respect the sovereignty of these peoples and the connection they have to their ancestral territories.

Pe’ Sla is a high mountain prairie centrally located in the Black Hills National Forest. For local tribes in the region, the site bears invaluable significance for its use in ceremony, star mapping and creation legends. Over the last several years, Oceti Sakowin — a tribal coalition comprised of Crow Creek, Standing Rock, Mdewakonton Shakopee and Rosebud Sioux tribes — successfully reclaimed the territory after privately purchasing it from an auction.

The Black Hills was wrongfully seized, in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, by the United States Congress in 1877 after gold was discovered.

Now, the state of South Dakota is trying to block it from becoming a federal trust land, disregarding the immense cultural significance of the land to the surrounding tribes. Under a federal trust status, the land will be managed by the tribal government while the United States government holds the legal title.

In August 2012, the Oceti Sakowin tribes, assisted by the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and the media organization Last Real Indians, raised $9 million to purchase 1,900 acres of land, a majority of the sacred site. The remaining 437 acres were put up for auction by its former owners in December 2014 and reacquired by the tribes for $2 million. A portion of the purchase, between $600,000-$700,000, was financed in the form of a loan.

“We paid a high price for it because we wanted to protect our burial sites, our cultural sites, our ceremonial sites,” said Russell Eagle Bear, historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, to Associated Press (AP).

In a just world, the Oceti Sakowin tribes wouldn’t have had to raise the money to buy this land back, especially since the land was taken in violation of the treaties that the U.S. created. The land should have been handed back free of charge with an apology attached and a restitution for the suffering endured.

“We may not be attacked by U.S. Cavalry anymore, but now people are using the law to attack us."

– Wizipan Little Elk, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member

However, living in the shadow of Native American genocide and cultural destruction, there is a grave disconnect between government and the communities who has been wronged by it.

It cannot be overstated how important the ownership of Pe’ Sla and the Black Hills are for these communities. The tribes’ reclamation of the land includes plans to bring back the harmony of the space that has been lost over time and conquest. The buffalo, an important animal for the tribes and the biodiversity of the land itself, were reintroduced to the Black Hills last year for the first time in 120 years.

Eventually, the communities plan to lobby for federal recognition of Pe’ Sla as a sacred site.

The state, however, is resisting these changes — with obvious monetary motives. The acreage, under its previous owners, had an annual property tax valuation of $80,000. Trust status would take such a monetary benefit out of the hands of the state government.

South Dakota asserted that Pe’ Sla can already be used by tribes as a sacred space, but should remain under jurisdiction of state law. Meaning that the state will remain in control and turn a profit on consecrated ground.

To imply that it is sufficient that the tribes can already “use” the land is disrespectful and exposes South Dakota’s utter disregard for amending the injustices of the not-so-distant past.

Gov. Daugaard attended a Rosebud Sioux Tribal Meeting last month to voice his opposition to the trust, stating that the money should have been used on inter-tribal needs to take care of “grandma,” not “on a parkland setting 200 miles away for religious or buffalo agricultural use.”

It’s utterly disgraceful for the governor of the state housing the lowest-income Native American communities to condescend these individuals on how to feel about the issues and traditions they hold dear. It’s even more inappropriate for a white man to insinuate that the Rosebud Sioux are not caring for their elders, or that somehow Pe’ Sla is not a worthwhile pursuit for their community.

Beyond the fact that the Oceti Sakowin tribes bought the land legally and without aid from the government, the site of Pe’ Sla holds significant meaning in grieving ceremonies and symbolizes healing for these people. Opposition to it as trust status just further conveys the enduring legacy of manifest destiny over the sovereignty of Native peoples.

The state’s appeal will challenge the language used in the BIA request to create a trust for more than one federally-recognized tribe, since the money was raised by a coalition of communities. Horrifyingly enough, there’s precedent for such an injunction.

“We may not be attacked by U.S. Cavalry anymore,” Wizipan Little Elk, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member told AP, “but now people are using the law to attack us.”

A state appeal to the process of trust status is just another form of America’s colonial legacy. It is due time to honor the treaties and ensure the safety and protection of sacred lands.