On Memorial Day 2004, a friend and I drove into the South Unit of South Dakota's Badlands National Park, located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on a former gunnery range. We stopped at the visitor center, a dilapidated trailer at one end of a crumbling parking lot, but it was closed. No matter, we thought, we can still hike. Studying an informative sign, we learned that this part of the park is "largely undeveloped and lacks access points such as roads and trails." The sign listed requirements for exploring: Get permission from surrounding tribal landowners, use a four-wheel-drive vehicle, watch for unexploded bombs, and, if you see one, don't pull out your cellphone -- the signal might detonate it. We settled for a stroll down a dirt road instead.
Then we drove to the Wounded Knee burial site. Three Natives came up to tell us about their massacred ancestors, and to ask for money. When we returned to our car, a sedan full of Indian youths pulled in and blocked the exit. They sat in their vehicle. We sat in ours, and locked the doors. After several minutes, they drove off. Thus ended the Badlands National Park experience of two nervous white women.
Our experience wasn't necessarily representative; encounters with a few people don't, of course, stand in for an entire culture. And since that time, things have started to change at the South Unit -- at least a little. While the trailer has been replaced by a permanent visitor center, there are no new roads or trails, no hotels, no restaurants. But, as writer Brendan Borrell explains in this issue's cover story, the South Unit will soon have new management. It's likely to become the first national park unit in the U.S. managed entirely by an Indian tribe. (A so-called "tribal national park" in Frog Bay, Wis., is not part of the federal system.)
Many Oglala Sioux leaders have worked hard for decades to make this change happen. The handoff is an important step away from federal paternalism and toward tribal self-determination. If all goes well, it could create an economic boon for the desperately poor Pine Ridge Reservation. And it could shape the destinies of other national parks, especially in the West where almost every park tells a tale of struggle -- of European ideals set against the rights of Natives. Early explorers and the U.S. Army pushed the Blackfeet, Shoshone and other tribes out of the Yellowstone area. In the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai regained ownership of some park lands in 1975. In Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument sits on Navajo trust land and is jointly managed by the tribe and the Park Service. The Yurok are pursuing co-management of part of California's Redwood national and state parks. Giving tribes more say over public lands they originally inhabited is a complex process, fraught with challenge, but it's a long overdue shift. And no place could use it more than the Badlands South Unit.