"In my opinion, every land exchange counts because it decreases fractionation," says Denise Mesteth, the Oglala Sioux Tribe's land director. With each completed consolidation or exchange, she adds, "I think we have a better chance to be self-sufficient."

But the system is so tangled with administrative, political and personal threads that even the officials in charge of it describe it as a bureaucratic rat's nest, nearly impossible to navigate.

"We're spending so much on these records that it's distracting us from managing the resources," says Harold Compton, the BIA deputy superintendent of trust services at Pine Ridge. "That's why the Bureau has a black eye."

Compton, an enrolled member of the neighboring Rosebud Sioux tribe, notes that land recovery isn't practical for everyone.

"I'm all for this, but sometimes with the reality of what's happened (with fractionation), the best advice I can give is, 'Sell it,' " Compton says. The reformed land-consolidation policies and probate rules are designed to enable the sale of highly fractionated parcels to the tribes, not to facilitate family efforts to sort through the divisions. "But, on the other hand, we're not in a conspiracy to keep (allotted lands) in the hands of ranchers."

Maybe not, but an analysis of BIA data by the Colorado-based nonprofit organization Village Earth reveals that just 20 people control 46 percent of the Pine Ridge land base through the federal grazing program. And tribal grazing leases pay less than those on the open market.

That disparity led David Bartecchi, Village Earth's executive director, to create a map book that now helps tribe members with the labyrinthine and time-consuming administrative process for land exchanges and recovery. Village Earth has also been instrumental in launching the Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative.

"It's all about rebuilding those things we've had," says Henry Red Cloud. "The sun, the wind, the buffalo -- we've got songs written about that."

After the buffalo kill, the medicine man Rick Two Dogs talks about the 1890 Ghost Dance movement on the reservations. He explains that his prayer "talked about how during the Ghost Dance, our grandparents cried because they had lost this way of life, following the buffalo and having them for sustenance." Two Dogs looks out the cracked windshield of a pickup as his family carefully butchers the bull. "We should be so thankful."

Listen to an audio interview with writer Josh Zaffos, Where the buffalo roam.

Click for information on Village Earth or The Bureau of Indian Affairs.