Tim Giago: The theft of the sacred Black Hills

Anyone who watched HBO’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” had to be pretty quick to catch the scroll at the end of the movie about the illegal taking of the Black Hills from the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. Justice Harry Blackmun in his legal opinion wrote, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history.”

The U. S. Supreme Court decreed that the Hills did belong to the Sioux and on July 23, 1980 awarded them $105,994,430.52 for the Black Hills (Docket 74B) and $40,245,807.02 for lands taken east of the Black Hills (Docket 74A).

The scroll at the end of the movie indicated that the award now stood at $600 million and the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota refused to accept it. Well, that figure was wrong and should have been updated. As of today the amount of the awards are $757,465,288.74 for the Black Hills and $105,821,479.16 for the land taken east of the Black Hills. That brings the total owed to the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation to $863,286,767.90. A nice chunk of cash.

And yet, the poorest of people in all of America refuse to accept one single penny of the award.

In 1921 when the Sioux tribes first filed the lawsuit that took 60 years to reach the Supreme Court, my father was 27 years old. My mother was 19. They have since passed away. When the award was first announced in 1981, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe was Stanley Looking Elk and the president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe was Norman Wilson. Both presidents went with the wishes of their people and refused to accept the money.

When I owned Indian Country Today weekly newspaper I took a survey in 1996 that came back with the powerful figures that 96 percent of the people still refused to take the money. How, in a world where everything revolves around money, can the poorest people in America refuse to accept millions of dollars? Because they consider the land that was stolen from them to be sacred and as they say, “One does not sell their Mother.”

In the early 1980s then Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and made many friends. At the behest of tribal member Gerald Clifford (now deceased) and tribal attorney Mario Gonzales, he introduced the Bradley Bill, which was intended to return 1.3 million acres of the original 7.5 million acres that make up the Black Hills to the Sioux people. The 1.3 million acres would be U. S. National Forest land only and would not contain any municipalities, state owned land, privately owned land, or any land containing national federal monuments. This Bill had the support of many tribal members.

However, a California millionaire claiming to be Lakota, Phil Stevens, attempted to introduce legislation of his own, with the backing of some tribal leaders, and he muddied the waters enough so that Bradley withdrew his sponsorship and the Bradley Bill died a quiet death. As has been a problem of historic proportions, it only took one sweet talker with another idea to cause enough confusion to kill a good idea. South Dakota’s Congressional delegation also would not support the Bill.

So for the next 26 years the money held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs has gathered interest and continued to grow. Several years ago when Greg Bourland was elected Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe he brought up the Black Hills Claims Settlement to some of the other tribal chairmen and he said, “It was as if the other chairmen were afraid to look at the subject. It was like that deranged aunt or uncle you hide in the basement.”

It is a subject so touchy that even the Congressional delegates from South Dakota shy away from it like a skunk in the living room. But it is a subject that everyone in South Dakota, Indian and non-Indian, will have to face eventually and they had better start finding a position on it now.

Most Lakota just want a portion of the Black Hills returned, but each time this is brought up, as in the Bradley Bill, the white people of the state immediately start the propaganda machine up and start spreading the lie that, “the Indians are trying to take the Black Hills away from us.”

There are those who say that if the Indians continue to refuse to accept the money that it will be forced upon them. There are also those who say that the Indians should take the money and then buy back a portion of the Black Hills. This idea is also unacceptable to the Indian people because to accept one penny of the settlement in any fashion would validate the theft of the land.

In my mind, the only solution is to have someone with an abundance of courage step forward and introduce new legislation following the guidelines of the Bradley Bill and hope that he or she can find a consensus amongst the different tribes of the Great Sioux Nation to make it work.

The settlement is fast approaching one billion dollars and the tribal leaders better take the issue out of the basement and start some serious conversations about it before the decision is taken out of their hands by the United States government. Before a new bill can be introduced the leaders of every tribe involved must come to an agreement and help to define the contents of the bill. Thousands of Lakota have died while waiting for their leaders to find closure to the Black Hills issue and at the present rate; thousands more will die while their leaders sit on their hands.

Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. His latest book “Children Left Behind, the Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: order@clearlightbooks.com. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com.

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