Black Hills Are Beyond Price to Sioux


The quiet is broken by the territorial squeaks of prairie dogs. Buffalo lounge in prairies around the bend from pine-covered cliffs. This is land the Lakota Sioux call Paha Sapa, the Black Hills. To them, it is sacred and not for sale.

That’s why the Sioux, among the poorest people in America, refuse the half-billion dollars offered by the U.S. government, which has claimed ownership of this land since 1877.

The Indians have a longer memory. In 1868, the United States signed a treaty setting aside the Black Hills “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupancy of the Sioux.” Then gold was discovered there, and Congress grabbed the land after negotiations to purchase it broke down.


A century later, in 1980, the Supreme Court awarded eight Sioux tribes $106 million in compensation--the 1877 value of $17.5 million, plus interest. This was payment for what the court called “a taking of tribal property.”

The tribes refused to take the millions, insisting on the return of the land. Two political efforts to return federally held land failed in the 1980s.

The money sits in a government account, interest having swollen it now to $570 million. Still, the Sioux won’t touch it. They say that would be a sellout of the Lakota nation, religion and culture.

Nowhere is the opposition more entrenched than the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, by some estimates the poorest place in the country. Home to the Oglala band of the Lakota Sioux, Pine Ridge has an unemployment rate of 85%.

The Oglala Sioux’s share of the award is now worth $170 million. If they invested that, they could expect around $17 million a year in income without touching the principal. The annual budget for the reservation, by comparison, is $15 million.

It’s money that could be used for housing, business development, job training and education, or even political pressure to get the Black Hills back.


Today, many people on the reservation live in trailers or shacks, drive rusted-out cars and have no place to work. Mangy dogs roam and forage.

The center of Pine Ridge village has a couple of gas stations, a Pizza Hut and a Taco John’s, and little else. The reservation, covering 5,000 square miles, has nine villages but no banks, no car washes, no barber shops, no hotels.

Regardless of the obvious need, opposition to taking the money consistently runs over 90% in newspaper surveys, according to Tim Giago, publisher of the Lakota Journal.

Talk of the cash reminds the Sioux of the gold-seeking explorers who swarmed into the area seven years after President Andrew Johnson signed the Black Hills treaty.

The resulting military battles culminated in Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876.

“Ho-ka hey!” Crazy Horse yelled at that battle. “It is a good day to fight! It is a good day to die! Strong hearts, brave hearts, to the front! Weak hearts and cowards to the rear.”

Congress responded by telling the Sioux: Give up the Black Hills, or lose federal food, medicine and blankets, rations pledged earlier to compensate for disrupting their hunting lands with westward expansion. Only 10% of the adult male Sioux population signed the treaty giving up the land, but Congress enacted it into law in 1877.


A federal judge, later echoed by the Supreme Court, castigated the government’s deal, saying: “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”

The wind can whip across Pine Ridge at 50 mph, throwing stinging bits of dirt in your mouth and the corners of your eyes, hurling tumbleweeds, swirling the plastic bags, candy wrappers and six-pack cartons that litter many of the open fields.

But the landscape is also striking. Wide-open skies offer 360-degree views of prairies, rolling pine-covered hills and the Badlands, carved by wind and water over millions of years.

Try to figure the value of the Black Hills--called, in the Lakota language, the heart of everything that is: Wamaka Og’naka I’cante.

Tribal members have their own complex calculations of that value, but they don’t involve dollars.

“A lot of white people perceive this as foolish pride,” says tribal council member Craig Dillon. “But pride’s all we have.”


The SuAnne Big Crow Health and Recreation Center was named after a 17-year-old star athlete killed in a 1992 car crash. With only $32 in the bank, her mother, Chick Big Crow, started a foundation that built the center.

A converted plastics factory, the center includes a room with photos, trophies and jerseys of SuAnne, who exhorted her peers to avoid drugs and alcohol and once scored 67 points in a basketball game.

Chick Big Crow remembers the struggle to get funding early on. It’s the kind of project that would have benefited from seed money from the Black Hills bounty. But she wouldn’t have wanted it.

“How do you put a price tag on spirituality?” she asks.

A 16-year-old hanging out at the center’s cafe, James Red Cloud, puts it another way.

“If we take that, we ain’t got nothing left. No land, and nothing to fight over,” he says.

A copy of the U.S. Constitution rests on the couch in Johnson Holy Rock’s trailer. He also has copies of treaties and the Supreme Court’s Black Hills decision.

Holy Rock, 82, wearing a belt buckle depicting an Indian warrior, has been involved in tribal government off and on for decades. On his wall is a framed photograph of him with President John F. Kennedy, at the announcement of the first public housing grant to the Oglala Sioux tribe.

“Housing was my priority,” says Holy Rock, tribal president in the early 1960s. “Up to that point, people lived in car bodies and tin shacks.”


Holy Rock raises livestock, and his front porch offers a view of rolling grasslands, cattle grazing by a reservoir and prairie dogs digging and chirping.

“I live in a natural atmosphere, so I have visitors, sometimes even coyotes,” says Holy Rock, who was widowed six years ago. A limping German shepherd dog recently started coming around.

Holy Rock says the Sioux refusal to take the Black Hills money has been misunderstood.

“The money laying there, ready to be issued out--all we have to do is say, ‘OK.’ And yet, we’ve chosen to live in poverty . . . just poor, ignorant, heathen savages,” he says.

“We have a different set of values,” he continues. “We don’t think of the air and water in terms of dollars and cents.”

Holy Rock grew up in a log house with no foundation; when the house burned down, the family moved into a tent. He was 6 years old when he first started looking after his father’s livestock.

Water was so scarce back then that when he and his horse would find some, they would drink out of the same hole. To this day, he considers water such a valuable commodity that he’ll have only half a glass at a restaurant.


Things are not as bleak for Holy Rock anymore.

“I’m comfortable,” he says. “I don’t aspire to riches.”

At Bear Butte, a sacred site in the northeastern Black Hills about 150 miles from Pine Ridge, prayer cloths of many colors are tied to the trees, placed there by Indians as a sign of their commitment to the creator. They blow in 40 mph winds like a psychedelic parade of low-flying kites. Offering pouches, filled with sage and tobacco, also hang from the branches.

A road at Bear Butte State Park marked “Authorized Vehicles Only” stops outside a field where several Sioux are building a fire to heat rocks for a sweat lodge. Once inside the tarp-covered lodge, they will pray, sing and use the stifling heat to cleanse their minds and bodies.

“The sweat lodge will teach you everything about life, about yourself,” says one of the Lakotas, Izzy Zephier, 52. “It’s like looking at a mirror, at reality, at truth. Your shield comes down.”

Accepting money for this land is unthinkable, he says. “We would be telling God, ‘This isn’t yours. We’re wheeling and dealing.’ ”

Charlotte Black Elk is a descendant of Crazy Horse’s friend, Little Big Man, who in 1875 threatened to kill any man who advocated selling the Black Hills. Black Elk herself is so hard-core that she uproots nonnative plants from her property.

Had the Supreme Court made its ruling 25 years earlier, she says, the tribes probably would have accepted the money.


“Each generation has become much more radicalized,” says Black Elk, a thin woman who looks younger than her 49 years. “When it came to my generation, we were, ‘No, we’ll never take the money.’ ”

That shift has been accompanied by a return to traditional religious practices.

“My parents’ generation lived in a world where they were socialized Christians, and attempted to maintain as much of the tribal culture as possible,” Black Elk says. “Whereas myself, I’m an orthodox Indian. . . . I have the religion that came with my culture and my blood and the land that I’m attached to.”

Both her daughter and son have killed buffalo, which helps connect them with past generations that made hunting the center of society. “My daughter’s generation is Lakota in a way that our people haven’t been for 150 years,” she says.

Black Elk lives in the reservation village of Manderson, a few miles north of Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre of nearly 300 unarmed Sioux. Her house is surrounded by limestone buttes. Elk antlers and an elk head hang on her wall.

She is confident that the Sioux will one day own the Black Hills again.

Her 28-year-old nephew, D.J. One Feather, is not.

“Part of me says we should just take the money,” says One Feather, a former reservation police officer.

Then why not do it?

“I guess it’s pride, man,” he says. “You’re giving in to the white man. I hate using terms like that--us and them--but sometimes it’s hard to get your point across without them. Hundreds of years of oppression--you’re just giving in to it.”


Bill Swift Hawk, a 62-year-old artist, has made it a vocation to take over places in the name of Indian power.

Thirty years ago, he joined in the American Indian Movement occupation of Alcatraz, the former prison island in San Francisco Bay. In 1981, he and others occupied Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills. Now, Swift Hawk is part of a group occupying the reservation’s tribal government building.

Swift Hawk left Pine Ridge and spent his 20s and 30s in California, pretty much “drinking, partying and bouncing around.” Sometimes he made money by shortchanging cashiers, rationalizing that he was getting his Black Hills share.

Alcoholism affects almost every reservation family, health officials say, yet there is no detoxification center, something the Black Hills money could pay for.

Swift Hawk quit booze 20 years ago, and moved back to Pine Ridge.

The activists occupying the government building began protesting alleged corruption in tribal government, which is millions of dollars in debt, and now call for a return to a traditional government, run by elders.

Inside, a shrine displays a copy of the 1868 treaty, promising the land “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupancy of the Sioux.”


Exchanging that for money is just not an option, Swift Hawk says.

“That’s the center of our world.”