Charles Trimble: Black Hills return just a dream
I’m not one to say “I told you so,” but that is what I would tell a certain person who totally ignored my advice 23 years ago.

That person is Phillip J. Stevens, then-president of a large electronics firm in California, who devised an overly ambitious strategy to enhance the settlement of the Black Hills claim for the Sioux. Stevens felt that the Black Hills settlement in a bill (S.1453), sponsored by Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ), was much too limited in its scope, so he proposed a plan that not only would be impossible to get through Congress, but would take the more-realistic Bradley Bill off the table as well. Now we are seeing pressure growing among some groups of Sioux to just take the money appropriated by Congress offered in the Indian Claims Commission decision, which would likely jeopardize any chance for restoration of sacred lands in the future.

I first met Stevens when he came out to the Pine Ridge Reservation in September 1986. I was in Pine Ridge on business at the time and had to drive to Rapid City for something or other, and was asked to pick up Stevens at the Rapid City airport and bring him to Pine Ridge, which I did. On the way back to the reservation he talked about his Lakota background and about wanting to help the Lakota people. My first suggestion was that as a successful entrepreneur he could provide assistance in the area of business development to the tribe and to people who would like to start businesses. He didn’t seem to take an interest in this suggestion. He seemed to have something much bigger in mind.

In Pine Ridge, he met with several members of tribal land committees and separately with Gerald Clifford, Reggie Cedar Face, and Oliver Red Cloud. It was in these discussions, apparently, that he got his idea to usurp leadership of the age-old struggle to get Black Hills lands restored and the Sioux people fairly compensated.

Not long after Stevens had returned to his California office, he wrote to John Steele, then-President of the OST, and several others with his suggested changes to the Bradley Bill. In the letters he said: “All of us of Sioux heritage want the best that can be obtained for the Sioux people as part of this settlement, but I do not feel that Senate Bill S.1453, as it presently stands, offers the best compensation. I urge that (the bill) be amended with one key provision, which, I believe, would be embraced by all elements of the Sioux Nations – such as the following:
“The U.S. Government, on an annual basis, will provide the Sioux Nations with a negotiated percentage of the revenues derived from Federal income taxes paid by both individuals and corporations residing in the territories which were confiscated by the U.S. Government in violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.”

His letter detailed his plan, including explanation that the negotiated percentage would be paid by the U.S. in perpetuity, and that the territory in which these payments would be collected would be those within the boundaries of the Sioux Reservation as defined by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Stevens felt that this proposed amendment to the Bradley Bill would be the least disruptive approach, and that the States “would not fight it because they would not be losing anything; and the Sioux people would receive income from South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming.” He sent me copies of his letters and asked my opinion. In my response I suggested that the chances of even getting his proposed amendment introduced were overly optimistic, and that his assessment of the states’ opposition were grossly unrealistic, given their long history of resentment over tribal rights and benefits. Most importantly the inclusion of his proposed amendment would nullify the already-slim chances of S.1453 going anywhere in the Senate. The following are excerpts from my response letter of October 15, 1986: “When I was growing up on the Pine Ridge reservation, there was a saying we used when we owed money and had no intention of paying the debt: ‘I’ll pay you when my Black Hills money comes in.’ That pretty much reflected our skepticism that the Black Hills claim would ever be settled. Now things are different. “Although the Sioux had been waiting a long time for a settlement, there was no great celebration when the award of more than $117 million had been made several years ago. Nor was there any rush to claim the money, which is still waiting in the U.S. Treasury and collecting interest. Things had changed in the 1970s, and to the Sioux people a cash-only settlement was no longer satisfactory, if it ever was. Return of sacred lands is something our people have always wanted, but hadn’t dared to wish for. However, during the Nixon years in the White House, Indian tribes, for the first time in history, had lands returned to them instead of just cash settlements. The Taos Pueblo got back 44,000 acres surrounding their sacred Blue Lake; and the Yakama Nation got back some 12,000 acres encompassing Mount Adams in Washington State. In one of the most publicized settlements, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine had considerable lands returned to them in the Carter administration. These historical events gave hope to the Sioux that some of the Black Hills might be restored to them. So, instead of scrambling for the money when the cash settlement was made, the Sioux are still seeking to get some of their Sacred lands in the Black Hills restored. The only seemingly realistic vehicle for such restoration is in S.1453, the so-called Bradley bill. “Thus far, there hasn’t been any leader willing to push for accepting the cash settlement that might preclude land restoration in the future. But that could change, particularly in light of growing desperation of tribal governments brought on by federal budget cuts and increasing social pathology on the reservations. If the prospect of Black Hills land return is made more remote by your amendment …there may be a movement to give up on the land return and accept the funds outright, which would put any prospect of eventual land return in jeopardy.” The content and strategy for S.1453 was the work of Lakota scholar Gerald Clifford mainly. It called for land return that would not threaten private ownership or national monuments. Clifford was politically astute, and had worked to unite the Tribes and to work with them to develop what constituted the Bradley legislation. He operated deftly in a virtual minefield of tribal and personality politics to keep the goals in focus and the consensus alive, and he knew that it would take infinite patience with the politicians on the national, state and tribal levels. He was a dreamer and a visionary, but a realist and a pragmatic operator.

But the tougher bargaining stance proposed by Stevens, and almost-unlimited rewards that would accrue from it proved to be more appealing to some traditional leaders whose wisdom was not in the political realm; they could not appreciate the difficult struggle that lay ahead for any legislation for restoration of lands. Indian loyalties were soon split by Stevens’ proposal and leadership, and the tenuous consensus that Clifford so deftly held together slowly crumbled.

Now the legislature is gone with nothing on the horizon. Senator Bradley is gone. Most importantly, Gerald Clifford has passed into history. With no realistic prospects in sight for the return of sacred land, the fight over the money has begun, and the dreams of restoration of sacred lands fade, and will remain just dreams.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at or at

Related Stories:
Charles Trimble: After Custer, still fighting battles (6/3)
Charles Trimble: More on traditional names (5/18)
Charles Trimble: Taking pride in traditional names (4/24)
Charles Trimble: Recalling the Burro of Indian Affairs (4/20)
Charles Trimble: Reconciliation and Wounded Knee (4/13)
Charles Trimble: Support Lumbee recognition (3/27)
Charles Trimble: From the voices of victors (3/23)
Charles Trimble: Rebirth of 'Luke Warm Water' (3/20)
Charles Trimble: Never ending Wounded Knee story (3/16)
Charles Trimble: Facts and truth of Wounded Knee (3/9)
Charles Trimble: Answering Obama's call to hope (3/6)
Charles Trimble: Discussing the fate of the Indian press (2/13)
Charles Trimble: The 51st state for Indian Country (1/23)
Charles Trimble: A challenge for the next generation (1/6)
Charles Trimble: Thanksgiving and colonization (11/21)
Charles Trimble: NCAI service the highpoint in life (11/17)
Charles Trimble: Indian warriors serve nations (11/12)
Charles Trimble: Pawnee Nation reburies ancestors (10/31)
Charles Trimble: Twisting history for victimhood (10/20)
Charles Trimble: Sen. Obama a man for our time (10/13)
Charles Trimble: Tribes are players in marketplace (9/23)
Charles Trimble: Overdue obituary of Shirley Plume (09/08)
Charles Trimble: Indian Country must take control (9/5)
Charles Trimble: On the last Indian war with Giago (9/1)
Tim Giago: Moving from victimhood to victors (9/1)
Q&A with Charles Trimble: On Indian victimhood (8/25)
Charles Trimble: Shed the chains of victimhood (8/15)