Henry Red Cloud is another charter member of the cooperative. With his two long braids, a thin mustache and high cheekbones, Red Cloud is a fifth-generation direct descendant of the venerable Chief Red Cloud, often described as the only Indian who ever won a major war against the United States.
Chief Red Cloud negotiated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which created the 60-million-acre Great Sioux Reservation. Originally, the reservation spanned western South Dakota and was surrounded by protected buffalo hunting grounds. But the boundaries didn't stick: Gold miners soon trespassed into the Black Hills. After the Lakota and their allies wiped out the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn in 1876, the government forced Red Cloud and other chiefs to sign a new pact that fragmented the tribe's lands. Later on, Congress divided the Lakota, putting them on five smaller reservations, including Pine Ridge.
It was Chief Red Cloud who said of the U.S. government, "They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it."
Under the Dawes Act of 1887, the federal government doled out 160 acres of land to the head of each Indian family at Pine Ridge and other reservations. Congress could sell off any un-allotted lands, while the Bureau of Indian Affairs would maintain a tribal trust fund of revenues from mineral, oil, timber and grazing leases. (That trust fund is the subject of the ongoing lawsuit brought by Blackfeet tribal member Elouise Cobell in 1996.)
Then, in 1906, Congress passed the Burke Act, which allowed the BIA to measure Native Americans' "competence" to handle their homestead lands, based on ancestry, cultural assimilation -- even the length of a person's hair. The assessments at Pine Ridge underscored official prejudice: By 1915, government agents had classified 56 percent of the Oglala Lakota living on the reservation as "incompetent," and 700,000 additional acres were sold off before the practice ceased in 1934. Other parcels allotted to "incompetent" Indians were shifted into the leasing system, which has served mostly non-Native ranchers. But "competent" Indians didn't make out much better, since they were forced to pay taxes on their allotments. Ninety-five percent of these lands were eventually sold to non-Natives for a fraction of their real value.
And the allotment system had lasting cultural impact: By chopping up the land base, it effectively ended communal hunting practices. As the original allottees died and their children inherited the land, parcels were fractionated among dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of heirs.
A decade ago, Henry Red Cloud's father told his 11 sons and daughters that he wanted to reclaim the family's lands from the leasing system and restore the buffalo. Because he was a lone heir, a rare circumstance, he had sole rights to 320 acres of land in the government leasing system.
Henry and his father applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to withdraw the lands from the leasing program, and eventually received approval. The family decided to manage the land as a tiyospaye, a traditional communal band or extended kin network.
Within three years of removing cattle, the grasslands rebounded from overgrazing, Red Cloud says. His father died in 2003, but Henry remained faithful to his vision and introduced buffalo one year later. It seemed to be going well: Whereas lease interest from the land would bring in about $1,200 a year, Red Cloud says, "You sell two buffalo and you cover that."
But the family began arguing over land-management decisions in the wake of Red Cloud's mother's death. Ultimately, the siblings sold off all the buffalo they were raising.
Still, Henry Red Cloud hasn't given up. He plans to lease more land and begin a new herd, hoping that his kin will once again commit to their father's vision.