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Native Sun News: Tribes battle to protect sacred Bear Butte land

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Mato Paha, or Bear Butte, in South Dakota. Photo by Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD / Wikipedia

Bear Butte: Battle to put the lands in trust
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– Bear Butte is a mountain considered sacred by the Northern Cheyenne and the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. Should it be protected by placing it into federal trust status?

Or is it a significant county taxable land base under the jurisdiction of local county government and ideally located for Sturgis motorcycle rally activities? Those differing points of view are the heart of controversy surrounding Bear Butte properties now owned by the Northern Cheyenne, Rosebud and Lower Brule Sioux Tribes.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe owns and operates the Bear Butte Lodge and about 120 surrounding acres acquired in several different transactions over the past decade. Corey Hairy Shirt, Lodge operator and property caretaker for four years explained that the Rosebud property is used primarily to support tribal member spiritual activities. Lodging is provided at a minimal cost to tribal members and only drug and alcohol free biker-related tourism is allowed.

Northern Cheyenne also own Bear Butte properties. The first, a home-site was acquired under the Eugene Little Coyote administration in 2005. Tribal member Eugene Limpy is custodian, assisting tribal members who go there for spiritual reasons. The Tribe acquired the “Free Spirit” campground in 2013, a forty acre parcel.

Both parcels were acquired under the leadership of L.Jace Killsback, then tribal Land Authority Chairman who explained “We have long been opposed to biker bars or casino development at this site. Instead, we need to make sure it is not desecrated, even advocating that it become a National Historic site, enjoying those protections. This land needs to be available to our people and future generations for spiritual purposes. This was high priority when I was Chairman of the Land Authority. Then some tribal members thought we should prioritize reservation land purchases, but in my view protecting access to Bear Butte for the Cheyenne is the highest priority.”

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Resolution, 238(05) adopted under the Eugene Little Coyote administration set the framework for Bear Butte acquisitions: “The Northern Cheyenne Tribe will commit appropriate time, funding and resources as the needs arise to support the (Bear Butte) cultural preservation initiative of the highest magnitude.”

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe attempted to have its Bear Butte holdings placed into trust through The Cheyenne Lands Act recently signed into law. However, only the Rosebud Sioux officially supported that Northern Cheyenne initiative while the other Sioux Tribes were silent. Therefore that provision was dropped from the legislation so as not to invite controversy.

Northern Cheyenne President Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher speculates that the Cheyenne request probably got overlooked by the other tribes in the press of daily business. In retrospect, some Northern Cheyenne suggest that more “active” diplomacy with fellow Tribes could have gained inter-tribal support.

“We probably should have met with them (fellow tribal leaders) in person,” Fisher acknowledged.

Former President Little Coyote recalls meeting with Oglala Sioux leader John Steele in 2006 to promote an alliance of Northern Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho Tribes for the protection and preservation of Bear Butte. Little Coyote was even invited to discuss the issue on KILI radio.

“Steele was very supportive,” Little Coyote recalls “and I think it is time to resurrect such an alliance to protect Bear Butte for our respective tribal peoples.”

Northern Cheyenne now finds itself in the same boat as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe – relying upon the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) fee-to-trust regulatory process for its Bear Butte properties. Northern Cheyenne is poised to begin that process while Rosebud Sioux has worked on it for years. Under that burdensome process, the BIA takes into consideration the views of county officials, State government and even nearby private land owners, the Meade County Commission having a key say-so.

One requirement under the process is working out local jurisdictional concerns, such as law enforcement, emergency services and road maintenance. For several years, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe has encountered strong opposition from Meade County about getting its Bear Butte properties put into trust status. And, the State of South Dakota also has a record of opposing tribal fee to trust applications.

Meade County Commissioner Robert Heidgerkein, reached by telephone, spoke about these issues. He acknowledged that the Meade County Commission declined a request from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to discuss a Cooperative Agreement addressing issues such as fire protection, law enforcement, ambulance services etc. On May 4, 2011, by unanimous vote, that body determined that such services are already provided by the County and that a cooperative agreement with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe was not, in their opinion, necessary or desirable.

“That would create a pocket of no law-enforcement,” Heidgerkein noted. “And the County provides roads and road maintenance to that property. Money for that has to come from somewhere, especially county taxes.”

Hairy Shirt, disputes the county road maintenance on secondary roads leading to Bear Butte.

“They (County) don’t provide services,” he said “Even local white ranchers have requested services, but have been denied on numerous occasions.”

On the other hand, also by telephone interview, Meade County Commission Chairman, Alan Aker indicated that county attitudes may have softened after the recent election.

“The position you are talking about was adopted by the previous Commission,” he noted. “The current Commission has not taken a position on the application from Rosebud Sioux for trust status and we have not heard from Northern Cheyenne. Things are not like they were before in Meade County,” he added. “For example, we are not approving any more liquor licenses near Bear Butte.”

Until tribal Bear Butte properties are put into federal trust, both Tribes must continue to pay taxes. Heidgerkein said that the Tribes have been timely on tax payments but an increase in those taxes is expected, due to changes in the State agricultural land valuations. Aker said that he told the Rosebud Sioux tribal officials they are paying “way too much” in taxes and should seek relief through a different type of valuation.

“I don’t know if they have done that,” he said.

Ann Wilson, Rosebud tribal member has been Director of the Rosebud Tribal Land Enterprises for the past two years, gaining trust status for Rosebud Bear Butte lands one of her top priorities. Yet, she said, the Tribe feels at a standstill.

“We have jumped through the hoops at the local, state and even federal levels,” she said. “It has been very frustrating. I would like to see an inter-tribal alliance or effort to protect tribal interests at Bear Butte. The Tribes should get something like that going.”

Wilson also hopes that the BIA can be convinced that the Tribe has made a good faith effort to work with local county officials and move the tribal application for trust status forward to the next level of consideration.

“We’re not going to give up,” she indicated.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal leaders concurred.

“We’ve had previous experience with the fee-to-trust process” said William Walksalong, Northern Cheyenne tribal administrator. “And will do whatever it might take to get the tribal Bear Butte properties placed into trust so that this sacred area will be protected for generations to come.”

(Clara Caufield can be reached @ acheyennevoice@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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