Near the northern tip of South Dakota's Stronghold Table, where wind-whipped buffalo grass gives way to the Badlands' chasms and pinnacles, stands a hogan hammered from plywood and chipboard. Ten summers ago, Keith Janis, a rowdy, long-haired Oglala Lakota Sioux, roared out here in his truck, hooting and gesturing at the gray-shirted park rangers. This is Lakota land, he thought. The National Park Service has no business here. He pounded two cedar posts into the high prairie and defiantly strung a hammock beneath the stars. A Colorado couple helped him finish the hogan before winter.
Janis, now in his 50s, sought to reclaim 133,000 acres of tribal land that the National Park Service had controlled since 1968. Earlier, the U.S. Air Force had used it for bombing exercises. But to the Lakota, the Stronghold, at the southern end of Badlands National Park and the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has long been a place of both protest and prayer. In 1890, Ghost Dancers gathered here to escape U.S. Army troops, which had recently arrived on the reservation after being alerted about "wild and crazy" dancing Indians. It's believed that the last Ghost Dance of the 1800s was performed here, just weeks before the Army slaughtered more than 200 men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek, 30 miles south, in one of the darkest chapters in American history.
Soon, Janis' encampment held around 30 people, who quickly became as involved in tribal conflicts as in righting a historic wrong. Janis wanted his family's plot of land back. His blood cousin, George Tall, who declared himself the occupation's spokesman, wanted the land to be conserved and managed by the tribe. The Two Bulls family wanted to ensure that nobody, Park Service or not, confiscated the fossils they collected and sold on the black market.
A decade later, none had achieved their goals. Nevertheless, the protest had an unintended consequence: It catalyzed the creation of what could become the country's first Tribal National Park. Last June, John Yellow Bird Steele, then Oglala Lakota president, and the National Park Service agreed on a management plan that would return control of this region, known as the South Unit, to the tribe. Essentially, it will remain in the park system and comply with all the federal laws that apply to national parks, yet be managed entirely by the tribe. The Park Service and the tribe are already laying the groundwork for the management transfer, though an act of Congress will be required to formalize it, a process that could take several years. At least one Lakota has suggested renaming it "Wankankil Makoce Ki: The Awesome Land."
For all the symbolic heft of the pact, tribal members remain torn about the details and confused about what effect it will actually have on their daily lives. So last summer, I spent a week at the South Unit, trying to find out if the new park had a chance of succeeding amid the infighting, corruption, crime and desperation that have long plagued Pine Ridge. Park boosters expect it to bring in tourism dollars, and say it represents one of the best economic development opportunities the tribe has seen in years. Plus, it would create a nationally known landmark that the entire tribe could rally around. "I don't mean to be melodramatic, but it could change lives," says Steve Thede, deputy superintendent of Badlands National Park, adding, "I don't think for a minute it's going to be easy."
If you look at the official map, you'll see that Badlands is really two parks linked by an umbilical cord of land. About a million visitors a year visit the North Unit, which has paved roads, a year-round visitor's center, hiking trails, a café and two campgrounds. Bison, bighorn sheep and antelope are abundant, along with prairie dog metropolises and endangered black-footed ferrets.
Although fewer than 2 percent of tourists make it to the South Unit, it survives on a small infusion of cash from the north. The largest hunk of land is the Stronghold Unit. Another part, Palmer Creek, is completely separate -- an island surrounded by private ranches and three strands of barbed wire. Although the geology of the South Unit rivals anything in the north, much of it is remote and accessible only by four-wheel-drive. It serves mostly as a place for locals to poach fossils and graze cattle. There are no bison or marked trails, and the land harbors unexploded ordnance left over from its Air Force days. Visitors are warned not to pick up suspicious objects; they might explode.
Driving through the Pine Ridge Reservation (population 28,787), I was struck by its beauty: the low, chalky buttes and fissures in the rolling prairie packed with gnarled trees. The landscape was easy to romanticize. But then the next charmless town would appear, with its potholed roads, lopsided mobile homes, and gas stations with bars over their windows. One of the first things many locals told me was whether or not they had diabetes. They usually did.
The best jobs on the reservation are with the tribe or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, followed by Prairie Winds Casino, Taco John's and Subway. The poor soil means that ranchers need vast grazing allotments, such as those inside the South Unit. Only a fraction of the reservation is suitable for farming, and the tribe's flagship agricultural experiment -- industrial hemp cultivation -- was quashed by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the early 2000s. Some members earn an income from the South Unit and other tourist sites, leading hunts or horseback trips, running guest houses, or selling dreamcatchers by the side of the road. But the county's average per capita income is only $7,772, and the tribe's unemployment rate usually hovers around 80 percent, making this one of the country's poorest regions.
Although alcohol is banned, just south of the reservation is Whiteclay, Neb., a town of 10 that sells 4.9 million cans of beer each year. Fetal alcohol syndrome and drunk driving accidents are rampant on the reservation. In 2011, tribal police reported 2,011 cases of child abuse or domestic violence, 2,561 fights or assaults, and one homicide. Just 49 police officers patrol Pine Ridge's 3,159 square miles. Rapid City, by comparison, has twice the officers and gets fewer calls.
The Oglala Lakota trace their decline to the breaking of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which gave them and other Sioux tribes land stretching east from the Black Hills through most of South Dakota and into neighboring states. Peace lasted six years. Then, Lt. Col. George Custer came to the Black Hills to establish a fort, and civilians struck gold. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull took up arms and killed Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn. One year later, Crazy Horse was stabbed in the back after he surrendered in Nebraska. The Great Sioux Reservation was splintered into five smaller reservations, and further whittled away through shady land deals. The Sioux tribes won a 1980 Supreme Court case over the broken treaty, but have refused settlement money. They're holding out for the return of the Black Hills.