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for people who care about the West

A new land grab

The Oglala Sioux are on a path to reclaim their territory and their culture


You can hear the blood rushing out of the buffalo's throat, even over an idling pickup truck and the stiff May wind that blows across the grassy hills of western South Dakota. Lying on its side, the 800-pound bull labors through its final breaths, kicking its legs and trying to stand up.

A dozen men, women and children, representing three generations, have gathered here on the Pine Ridge Reservation to watch Ed Iron Cloud's nephew, Bob Iron Cloud, kill the animal. This coming-of-age ritual -- a sacred ceremony for the Iron Cloud family -- is also a preparation for the upcoming Sun Dance, when the bison's heart will be buried under the pole at the center of the summer renewal ceremony. The buffalo itself came from a small herd managed by the Iron Cloud family in the rolling pastures above their homes near the community of Porcupine.

As the bull ceases to move, a few of the women break out into a cry more chilling than the relentless wind. Medicine man Rick Two Dogs begins praying and singing in Lakota. The family gathers in a circle and passes around the ceremonial pipe, its stem smeared with blood symbolizing new life and the power of the buffalo. Everyone dips a finger into a plastic coffee mug to taste the blood and share the buffalo's strength.

"This buffalo understands more than we do about pain," Two Dogs says. "That buffalo really fought hard and really wanted to live, and that's what we really want."

The Lakota, also known as the Sioux, are authorities on hard living. The counties that make up Pine Ridge, home to roughly 29,000 people, are among the poorest in the United States, with high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide.

The reservation is huge -- larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined -- but two-thirds of its land base is tied up in a government grazing program that leases land to mostly non-Native ranchers. Many Lakota receive annual interest checks from the grazing leases, but few realize they have legitimate claims to property where they could build homes, develop businesses or connect with the lost traditions of the past. A 2004 Bureau of Indian Affairs report reveals that more than 19,000 members of the Oglala Sioux tribe have claims to more than 203,000 properties. A lot of the claims are fractionated, or divided, among siblings and cousins, however, and before the land can be recovered or consolidated, the majority of the family has to agree.

Rather than wrestle over consolidating their parcels, Iron Cloud's family decided to lease 2,000 acres of tribal land adjacent to their homes. The land is used for the family's buffalo operation, and Iron Cloud, a South Dakota state representative, hopes it will also serve as a camp to teach college students about sustainability and tribal practices.

The Iron Clouds' buffalo help them to fulfill Lakota sacred traditions. They also slaughter a few animals each year for meat, some of which is sold through a new, Native-run business, the Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative, which sells grass-fed buffalo, killed and processed using Indian ethical principles.

"It's not just economical," Iron Cloud says. "We need the money, but it's also the cultural and the environmental."

Henry Red Cloud is another charter member of the cooperative. With his two long braids, a thin mustache and high cheekbones, Red Cloud is a fifth-generation direct descendant of the venerable Chief Red Cloud, often described as the only Indian who ever won a major war against the United States.

Chief Red Cloud negotiated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which created the 60-million-acre Great Sioux Reservation. Originally, the reservation spanned western South Dakota and was surrounded by protected buffalo hunting grounds. But the boundaries didn't stick: Gold miners soon trespassed into the Black Hills. After the Lakota and their allies wiped out the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn in 1876, the government forced Red Cloud and other chiefs to sign a new pact that fragmented the tribe's lands. Later on, Congress divided the Lakota, putting them on five smaller reservations, including Pine Ridge.

It was Chief Red Cloud who said of the U.S. government, "They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it."

Under the Dawes Act of 1887, the federal government doled out 160 acres of land to the head of each Indian family at Pine Ridge and other reservations. Congress could sell off any un-allotted lands, while the Bureau of Indian Affairs would maintain a tribal trust fund of revenues from mineral, oil, timber and grazing leases. (That trust fund is the subject of the ongoing lawsuit brought by Blackfeet tribal member Elouise Cobell in 1996.)

Then, in 1906, Congress passed the Burke Act, which allowed the BIA to measure Native Americans' "competence" to handle their homestead lands, based on ancestry, cultural assimilation -- even the length of a person's hair. The assessments at Pine Ridge underscored official prejudice: By 1915, government agents had classified 56 percent of the Oglala Lakota living on the reservation as "incompetent," and 700,000 additional acres were sold off before the practice ceased in 1934. Other parcels allotted to "incompetent" Indians were shifted into the leasing system, which has served mostly non-Native ranchers. But "competent" Indians didn't make out much better, since they were forced to pay taxes on their allotments. Ninety-five percent of these lands were eventually sold to non-Natives for a fraction of their real value.

And the allotment system had lasting cultural impact: By chopping up the land base, it effectively ended communal hunting practices. As the original allottees died and their children inherited the land, parcels were fractionated among dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of heirs.

A decade ago, Henry Red Cloud's father told his 11 sons and daughters that he wanted to reclaim the family's lands from the leasing system and restore the buffalo. Because he was a lone heir, a rare circumstance, he had sole rights to 320 acres of land in the government leasing system.

Henry and his father applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to withdraw the lands from the leasing program, and eventually received approval. The family decided to manage the land as a tiyospaye, a traditional communal band or extended kin network.

Within three years of removing cattle, the grasslands rebounded from overgrazing, Red Cloud says. His father died in 2003, but Henry remained faithful to his vision and introduced buffalo one year later. It seemed to be going well: Whereas lease interest from the land would bring in about $1,200 a year, Red Cloud says, "You sell two buffalo and you cover that."

But the family began arguing over land-management decisions in the wake of Red Cloud's mother's death. Ultimately, the siblings sold off all the buffalo they were raising.

Still, Henry Red Cloud hasn't given up. He plans to lease more land and begin a new herd, hoping that his kin will once again commit to their father's vision.

"In my opinion, every land exchange counts because it decreases fractionation," says Denise Mesteth, the Oglala Sioux Tribe's land director. With each completed consolidation or exchange, she adds, "I think we have a better chance to be self-sufficient."

But the system is so tangled with administrative, political and personal threads that even the officials in charge of it describe it as a bureaucratic rat's nest, nearly impossible to navigate.

"We're spending so much on these records that it's distracting us from managing the resources," says Harold Compton, the BIA deputy superintendent of trust services at Pine Ridge. "That's why the Bureau has a black eye."

Compton, an enrolled member of the neighboring Rosebud Sioux tribe, notes that land recovery isn't practical for everyone.

"I'm all for this, but sometimes with the reality of what's happened (with fractionation), the best advice I can give is, 'Sell it,' " Compton says. The reformed land-consolidation policies and probate rules are designed to enable the sale of highly fractionated parcels to the tribes, not to facilitate family efforts to sort through the divisions. "But, on the other hand, we're not in a conspiracy to keep (allotted lands) in the hands of ranchers."

Maybe not, but an analysis of BIA data by the Colorado-based nonprofit organization Village Earth reveals that just 20 people control 46 percent of the Pine Ridge land base through the federal grazing program. And tribal grazing leases pay less than those on the open market.

That disparity led David Bartecchi, Village Earth's executive director, to create a map book that now helps tribe members with the labyrinthine and time-consuming administrative process for land exchanges and recovery. Village Earth has also been instrumental in launching the Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative.

"It's all about rebuilding those things we've had," says Henry Red Cloud. "The sun, the wind, the buffalo -- we've got songs written about that."

After the buffalo kill, the medicine man Rick Two Dogs talks about the 1890 Ghost Dance movement on the reservations. He explains that his prayer "talked about how during the Ghost Dance, our grandparents cried because they had lost this way of life, following the buffalo and having them for sustenance." Two Dogs looks out the cracked windshield of a pickup as his family carefully butchers the bull. "We should be so thankful."

Listen to an audio interview with writer Josh Zaffos, Where the buffalo roam.

Click for information on Village Earth or The Bureau of Indian Affairs.