Trouble over the Badlands

Oglala Lakota Sioux fight for control of part of Badlands National Park

  • Lakota flags fly over Stronghold Table, an area sacred to the tribe, in Badlands National Park

    CHARLES RAY
  • Badlands National Park map

    DIANE SYLVAIN
 

BADLANDS, SOUTH DAKOTA — Ernie Two Bulls, a jovial Lakota man with a few wrinkles around his eyes, drops a ragged pair of football cleats on the hood of his black pickup. “These are the only shoes I hike in around here,” he says. “The spikes keep you on the ground.”

The pickup is parked under the flag of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, which flaps in the wind atop a skinned wooden pole. The flags are banners of defiance: They stand at the center of a protest camp, a few tepees, scattered tents and an old trailer perched on a vast grassy plateau.

Behind Two Bulls, the edge of the mesa crumbles off into a crimson valley. Hundreds of feet below, the land stretches out across sharp pink and lavender ridges until the prairie grasses touch the sky. This is called the Badlands for a good reason: The rugged valleys and steep clay channels make most areas virtually inaccessible, even to Two Bulls in his spiked shoes.

This land is supposed to be open to everyone. Badlands National Monument, established in 1939, became a national park in 1978. The size of the original monument was nearly doubled in 1976, when the South Unit was added to it, largely from reservation land once used as an Air Force bombing range.

Almost half of the 350-square-mile park now lies within the Pine Ridge Reservation, and since 1976, the Park Service has shared management of it with the Oglala Sioux. In return for allowing the public on tribal lands, the tribe receives half the entrance fees, about $800,000 in 2001. The money goes to the Oglala Sioux Park Association and to tribal bison and range-management programs; it also funds reservation infrastructure and government.

That partnership held strong for more than 25 years, but in the last few years, the agreement has started to break apart. In its place is the growing resentment that fuels Two Bulls’ encampment.

Conflict erupts

In the 1970s, the Pine Ridge Reservation, which sits in the poorest county in the nation and has an unemployment rate of 80 percent, was a hotbed of activism. Clashes between the tribe and the federal government resulted in the Indian occupation of the historic massacre site at Wounded Knee and a deadly shoot-out between the FBI and tribal members.

In the spring of 2002, the dispute between the Park Service and the tribe led to a new occupation. Ernie Two Bulls and about 30 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe set up camp in the southern part of the park, enraged by the agency’s decision to allow off-road vehicles into an area called Stronghold Table, where they reportedly rolled over gravesites and ripped up historic tepee rings. The area is sacred to the tribe because it sheltered survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre in the winter of 1890, when U.S. soldiers slaughtered more than 150 American Indians, many of them women and children.

Shortly after protesters occupied the camp, Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steel stepped into the fray, ordering that roads leading into the portion of the park within the reservation be chained shut. But Park Service employees took bolt cutters to the chains, saying the tribe had no authority to block access to the park.

Adding fuel to the fire, the National Park Service then announced plans for a fossil dig on tribal land within the park. The tribal administration is angry it wasn’t involved in the planning process, and some fear the excavation could disturb sacred sites.

“This is our graveyard here, this is where our people are buried, and we need to protect this,” says Tony Two Bulls, Ernie’s brother.

Protesters maintain that the entire South Unit of the Badlands is sacred land, and they want sole control of the area. Says C.J. Bradford, “What we have here is a concern of the heart, and I want the lands back that my ancestors walked before me.”

Struggling toward compromise

But some in the Park Service and within the tribe accuse protesters of poaching fossils from the park and selling them; that’s why, they say, certain tribal families want full control of the land. Richard Sherman, who is with the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority Board of Directors, admits that some of the protesters have illegally taken fossils, but he still believes this section of the Badlands should be returned to the Lakota people.

Park Superintendent Bill Supernaugh disagrees. He says his agency has a duty to manage the park for all visitors and the public, not just the tribe. He adds that the park does its utmost to protect Lakota cultural and spiritual sites, but must also protect fossil remains from poachers. A series of talks among the tribal administration, the protesters and the Park Service began this spring, but compromise is still a long way off. “We need to get together at the table and really hash things over and work it out to the benefit of both parties,” says Sherman. “The farther we get from spirit of the original (1976) agreement, the greater room there is for misinterpretation on both sides.”

The Park Service has said it is willing to give the tribe greater control over the South Unit of the Badlands, but the tribe insists it wants total jurisdiction over the land. But national park lands cannot change hands without congressional action. And even though the “Indian vote” is much coveted by South Dakota’s congressional delegation, including Democratic Senators Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, the Lakota have few friends in Congress, and none of them have come out in support of returning these lands.

Meanwhile, the protesters, who have been here for over a year, are determined to stay until the land is returned to the tribe. Ernie Two Bulls leans against the hood of his pickup: “We’re here to stay, we’re going to get this land back, and that’s all there is to it.”

The author writes from Rapid City, South Dakota, and works for South Dakota Public Radio.

- National Park Service Bill Schenk, regional director, 402-221-3432
- The Oglala Sioux Tribe 605-867-5821
- Badlands National Park 605-433-5361

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...