Will the Badlands become the first tribal national park?

  • Louie Brings Plenty carries sweet grass for burning while singing prayers on the sharp pinnacle overlooking the Stronghold in Badlands National Park. Louie is the whip carrier for a Lakota Tokala society, a traditional Warrior Society, and a member of NYM, the Native Youth Movement.

    Aaron Huey
  • Keith Janis' hogan on Stronghold Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park.

    Brendan Borrell
  • The Palmer Creek area of Badlands National Park, part of what could become the first tribal national park.

    Steven Donley, NPS
  • A storm moves into the town of Manderson, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

    Aaron Huey
  • Badlands National Park paleontologist Rachel Benton has worked to protect the park's Titanothere fossils from looters.

    Brendan Borrell
  • John Rondeau, showing the scars of life on the reservation, says the new park won't help people like him.

    Brendan Borrell
  • Gerard Baker is optimistic that a new tribal national park could be a model for management of other parks on tribal lands.

    Brendan Borrell
  • The former military bombing range as seen from Sheep Mountain Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park.

    Rikk Flohr
  • Former national rodeo star Merle Temple runs cattle on land leased from the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the South Unit of the park. He fears his family would be kicked off their land for a second time, if the park plan goes through.

    Brendan Borrell

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The modern saga of the South Unit began during World War II, when the military took control of 341,726 acres in the northern part of Pine Ridge. The government bought or leased the land from the tribe and individual owners, forcing 125 families to relocate. After the War, the South Dakota National Guard ran exercises here until 1968.

Around that time, Keith Janis' family lobbied for the return of their land. But tribal leaders were busy negotiating with the Park Service over the southward expansion of Badlands, which would justify its upgrade from national monument status. In 1976, Tribal President Dick Wilson signed a memorandum of agreement, turning one-third of the former bombing range into the South Unit and giving the Park Service management authority.

"He gave that land away," says Andrea Two Bulls, an artist and fossil collector. Though uprooted families received compensation, resentment lingers, in part because many had voted to impeach Wilson three years earlier. The reservation was locked in a violent conflict. On one side were the full-blooded traditionalists of the American Indian Movement (AIM), bent on righting historic wrongs and giving Native nations full sovereignty. The other, mixed-race assimilationists including Wilson and the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs), saw advantages to allying with the federal government and reaching a financial settlement over the Black Hills.

In exchange for taking over administration of the land, the Park Service promised the Oglala Lakota infrastructure, roads, trails and cash, most of which were never delivered. They survive only in the 1982 master plan, which includes a drawing of the White River Visitor Center that the agency was supposed to ask Congress for money to build. It was an ambitious project, complete with an open-air bazaar, curio shop, Indian heritage center, 100-seat restaurant, 100-pillow motel, a campground and employee housing. Badlands National Park now spends $166,000 of its $4.6 million budget on operations in the South, employing just three staff members, two of them seasonal. Meanwhile, the North Unit has 45 full-time employees.

The tribe, in turn, failed to fulfill its own promises, by not submitting, for instance, a yearly audit indicating how its $650,000 annual share of the North Unit's gate receipts was being spent for recreational facility development.

Some tribal members prospered, however. In June 1999, a park ranger drove out to a remote area north of the Stronghold Table, which is loaded with the remains of Titanotheres, elephant-sized mammals with bony horns. The ranger was shocked to see bones jutting out of the dirt and weathering away in the wind and rain. He counted 19 "poach pits," where collectors had illegally extracted prized fossils, and likely sold them.

Park paleontologist Rachel Benton won a grant to survey and protect the Titanotheres with the help of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. In April 2002, then-Badlands Superintendent William Supernaugh sent the tribe a letter informing it of the planned excavation. Tribal President Steele replied sternly: "NPS does not have unilateral authority to authorize museums and other entities to go on Tribal lands."

Supernaugh replied by warning Steele that the federal government was not bound by tribal ordinances. "This comment, made by a United States government official, does not demonstrate respect to the Oglala Sioux Tribe," Steele wrote, declaring a moratorium on excavation until the two sides could reach an agreement. By then, rumors had spread that the "graveyard" contained human bones, and a tribal elder claimed on KILI radio that a ranger had accosted her while she prayed on the Stronghold. Keith Janis packed his truck.

Resolution was achieved not through consensus and compromise, but by the passing of time and weakening of resolve. Janis was the last holdout. At one point, he tied a 6-foot climbing rope around his ankle and staked himself to the earth, telling a tribal police officer that he was willing to die for his cause. George Tall even came out to urge Janis to compromise. Then, Janis' mother got cancer, and he left the Stronghold for good in 2004. In 2011, Janis says, Tall was run down in his driveway by his own drunken grandson. Janis cleaned him, dressed him, and gave him a traditional funeral service.