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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Ultimately, the pathway to peace began with two brothers. In 2005, Paige Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa from North Dakota, became Badlands National Park's superintendent. On his watch, the rodent-infested trailer that served as the White River Visitor Center was replaced with a hand-me-down building from the North Unit. Baker brought tribal biologists from the south to train with park employees on tasks such as tracking and monitoring swift fox populations.

And Baker worked closely with the Lakota to sketch out the South Unit's future. From the beginning, opinions varied. At a meeting in the town of Allen in April 2008, locals demanded everything from oil exploration to a new casino to the return of the land to its original owners. "Can we stop the spread of prairie dogs?" someone asked. "They are wrecking the land." Some still wanted to expel the Park Service; others trusted the tribal government even less.

Less than two years after Baker retired from the Park Service in 2010, his younger brother, Gerard, became involved on the tribal side, filling in as director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority (OSPRA). He faced a huge task: to finalize the management plan and environmental impact statement for the future South Unit. Even Janis eventually joined the planning team. The South Unit options included maintaining the status quo, returning the land to the tribe and de-authorizing the park, sharing park management, or turning management over to the tribe while keeping the land in the park system. OSPRA and the Park Service officially agreed last summer that the last option was the best: establishing a tribal national park.

OSPRA is guiding the South Unit through this first-of-its-kind transition. It's already taken over day-to-day duties there, although it still operates under the auspices of the northern headquarters. In summer, OSPRA staffs the White River Visitor's Center, but the bulk of its operations take place about 25 miles east in a trailer complex in Kyle. As a charter organization that handles fishing and hunting licenses along with managing the 600-head tribal bison herd, OSPRA is semi-autonomous and has a separate budget from the tribe. Its funding comes from a cut of national park entrance fees and from the sale of bison, which are used for funerals and celebrations. If the South Unit broke off from the North Unit as a tribal national park, OSPRA would get some cash directly from the federal government. But it might also lose its cut of the North Unit's gate fees, and have to compete with it to convince tourists to pay a second fee. Those decisions will be up to Congress, but members of South Dakota's congressional delegation did not respond to requests for comment on their views concerning the park's future.

One person who is not averse to talking about the future of the park is Gerard Baker, an imposing figure who sports two long white braids. He has diabetes, but still looks strong enough to track a wounded buffalo on foot. In fact, he has given up hunting, but still skins and stretches the hides of road-killed animals. Baker served as superintendent of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where he ticked off Custer aficionados by hiring Indian interpreters. He says his last field posting at Mount Rushmore irked Park Service staff who didn't think an Indian belonged at a monument to four white men.

"I spent 35 years with the National Park Service," Baker told me. "My first job was cleaning toilets, and I worked my way down to management from there."

Inside a restaurant in Kyle, Baker sketched out the romantic vision laid out in the new management plan.  Restoring bison seemed like a natural project, and the plan includes options for removing cattle from the South Unit to make room for them. Park supporters also want to seek federal money to install a museum of Lakota culture to educate tourists and tribal children, create a bazaar for handicrafts, and hire Lakota park interpreters to recount the history of the Badlands, as suggested in the 1982 plan. The tribe would receive an annual budget from Congress, two-dozen jobs for tribal members and eligibility to apply for special National Park Service funds for the new infrastructure. And the park could be a boon to Pine Ridge's modest tourist industry and roadside vendors. Between bites of his gravy-soaked sandwich, Gerard added that tourists could also learn about the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee and the 1973 standoff at the same site between the American Indian Movement and Wilson and his followers.

If the Badlands become the first tribal national park, Baker sees it as a model for other Indians to follow. Though many parks sit on land once occupied by tribes, the South Unit is one of only two national parks on land that's still tribally owned. The other is Arizona's Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which lies inside the Navajo Nation but is managed by the Park Service. "If you look at a National Park Service map and a tribal map, there's all kinds of potential," he said. Maybe the Miwoks will never roam Yosemite again, nor the Crow and the Cheyenne regain Yellowstone, but perhaps they can manage or co-manage the parks. "I'm not sure if parks like the Statue of Liberty will be changing, but there were Indians there, too!"

About 30 miles southwest of Kyle is the town of Manderson, known locally as "Murderville." When I met John Rondeau outside Pinky's General Store, he had a white, triangular bandage stretching from his cheek down to his jaw to conceal his scars. "I just got drunk one night, and got in a real bad car wreck," he told me. As he spoke, he had to periodically suck in the saliva that came dripping out of his mangled lower lip. His right arm was a cobweb of toughened connective tissue, seared from the truck's exhaust. Not long after the accident, his younger brother, Leonard, went to prison for murder. "It's tough living here," Rondeau told me. "It really is."

When I asked him if he thought a tribal national park could help turn his fortunes around, he shook his head slowly. "If this goes through, there's going to be a lot of rich folks on this reservation," he said. "But I guarantee you it's not going to be any full-blooded Indian."

Despite Gerard Baker's optimism, this sort of deep ambivalence is common on Pine Ridge, raising questions about the park's potential to provide real economic benefits and become a beacon of cultural pride. Before I visited, I saw a video posted online by some tribal members, with a survey concluding that a majority supported the park. But during my week on the ground, it was difficult to find anyone who whole-heartedly endorsed it.

Residents were welcome to submit comments on the management plan as it was developed, but they had little power over the outcome of the process, and many remained cynical about their own elected leaders and bureaucrats. Ultimately, the decision to move forward, working with the federal government to form a tribal national park, was made by the 19 tribal council members. Some locals, including Andrea Two Bulls, believe that such a contentious and important issue should have been decided by tribal referendum. "There's a lot of us who love these Badlands," she told me, adding that the National Park Service should not have a hand in managing them. "Let's just do a tribal park."