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

  • Badlands National Park map


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

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