‘A Slice of Heaven’: Lakota Look to Buy Back Stolen Sacred Lands

The United States hereby agrees and stipulates that the country north of the North Platte River and east of the summits of the Big Horn mountains shall be held and considered to be unceded Indian Territory, and also stipulates and agrees that no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same; or without the consent of the Indians.  – Article XVI: 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie  

All across South Dakota meetings are being held this week and next on the various Lakota Indian reservations to try and raise enough money to make a bid on the purchase of lands in Paha Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota, considered sacred to the Lakota people. The site is called Oceti Sakowin, Pe’ Sla (The Heart of Everything) in the Lakota language and is considered the place where the Morning Star fell and killed seven Lakota girls/women who were later put into the sky to become the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, or Wincinchala Sakowi (the Seven Little Girls).

The area up for sale this coming Saturday, August 25 is in the shadow of a mountain the Wasicu (white people or, literally: ‘takers of the fat’) call Old Baldy, which figures into Lakota mythology and has been sacred to the Lakota since the Before Time. Pe’sla is part of a complex of sacred sites which include Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and various other sites in the Black Hills, all of which link to Lakota mythology of the union of earth and sky, and many are still used for ceremonies and prayer. 

As noted in the excerpt above, the Black Hills was set aside for the Lakota people as part of what was then called The Great Sioux Reservation. Less than ten years later the Black Hills was taken in an illegal transaction called the Act of 1877 hurriedly put together after the Custer fight in June of 1876.

Although the 1868 treaty could not be changed “unless executed and signed by at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians” (Article 12), the Act of 1877 was not a treaty but simply an Act of Congress illegally abrogating the promises made nine years earlier. 

The various bands of the Lakota have fought the theft of the Black Hills since they were run out by miners and soldiers of the US Army. Finally in the 1920s, a case was filed with the Indian Court of Claims, but it wasn’t until 1980 that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lakota.

Instead of returning the land, which is what the Lakota wanted all along, the Supreme Court ruled that the Lakota were entitled to $106 million in compensation. That figure was calculated in 1877 dollars at five percent interest per annum. Now, more than 30 years later, the Lakota, some of the poorest people in America, refuse to take the money.

They want the land, not the $1.3 billion that the original settlement is now said to be worth. 

Slice of Heaven!

In 1981, Indian activists established the Yellow Thunder camp in the Black Hills, named for Raymond Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Lakota murdered in Gordon, Nebraska (a Pine Ridge border town) in 1972 after he was stripped naked, thrown into an American Legion hall, and told to “dance Indian.” It wasn’t until the American Indian Movement virtually occupied the town of Gordon that manslaughter charges were brought against his assailants. The camp lasted for a few years, though pilgrimages continue, conducted by the original occupiers and their supporters. 

In 1982, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation appealed the original Supreme Court ruling and asked for 7.3 million acres to be returned to the Lakota and $11 billion in compensation for the minerals taken from the Black Hills over the years. The Supreme Court denied the appeal but two years later the Black Hills Steering Committee was formed and they asked that the federal government immediately give the Lakota the two million acres in federal land in the Black Hills.

For decades the Hopi, the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Lakota, and representatives of other Indian nations had sought a hearing before the UN. Pressure from indigenous groups around the world led the UN General Assembly in September 2007 to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Article 10 of the Declaration reads in part that, “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.” [Emphasis added].

Eventually, the determined efforts by the Lakota to get the US Government to return the lands in the Black Hills drew the attention of the United Nations. In 2012, James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples for the UN, met with Indians from several states and reservations. He has advocated the return the Black Hills to the Lakota and his full report is due in late 2012.

Although Lakota spiritual leaders are careful regarding the details of their continued use of the Black Hills for religious purposes, there is no doubt they visit and still use their sacred sites on lands stolen over 135 years ago; lands they’re now forced to try to buy back.

The brochure for the sale of the lands by Brock’s Auction House of South Dakota obliquely mentions the moment: “For 136 years, brave, strong, pioneering families… have forged the prairie into what it is today, one of the most beautiful, unspoiled sanctuaries in the entire Black Hills.” The brochure goes on to say that purchase of the land will give the owner a “Slice of Heaven,” where they can sit and “let your mind wander back in time & imagine the Native Americans… who passed across this land that is now a part of yours & your family’s legacy forever!” 

Buyer beware on that “forever” stuff, because if the Lakota have their way, and they have hung on for far longer than anyone thought, the lands of the Black Hills will be back in their hands—even if they have to buy it back piece by piece.