Near the northern tip of South Dakota’s Stronghold Table, where wind-whipped buffalo grass gives way to the Badlands’ chasms and pinnacles, stands a hogan hammered from plywood and chipboard. Ten summers ago, Keith Janis, a rowdy, long-haired Oglala Lakota Sioux, roared out here in his truck, hooting and gesturing at the gray-shirted park rangers. This is Lakota land, he thought. The National Park Service has no business here. He pounded two cedar posts into the high prairie and defiantly strung a hammock beneath the stars. A Colorado couple helped him finish the hogan before winter.
Janis, now in his 50s, sought to reclaim 133,000 acres of tribal land that the National Park Service had controlled since 1968. Earlier, the U.S. Air Force had used it for bombing exercises. But to the Lakota, the Stronghold, at the southern end of Badlands National Park and the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has long been a place of both protest and prayer. In 1890, Ghost Dancers gathered here to escape U.S. Army troops, which had recently arrived on the reservation after being alerted about “wild and crazy” dancing Indians. It’s believed that the last Ghost Dance of the 1800s was performed here, just weeks before the Army slaughtered more than 200 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek, 30 miles south, in one of the darkest chapters in American history.
Soon, Janis’ encampment held around 30 people, who quickly became as involved in tribal conflicts as in righting a historic wrong. Janis wanted his family’s plot of land back. His blood cousin, George Tall, who declared himself the occupation’s spokesman, wanted the land to be conserved and managed by the tribe. The Two Bulls family wanted to ensure that nobody, Park Service or not, confiscated the fossils they collected and sold on the black market.
A decade later, none had achieved their goals. Nevertheless, the protest had an unintended consequence: It catalyzed the creation of what could become the country’s first Tribal National Park. Last June, John Yellow Bird Steele, then Oglala Lakota president, and the National Park Service agreed on a management plan that would return control of this region, known as the South Unit, to the tribe. Essentially, it will remain in the park system and comply with all the federal laws that apply to national parks, yet be managed entirely by the tribe. The Park Service and the tribe are already laying the groundwork for the management transfer, though an act of Congress will be required to formalize it, a process that could take several years. At least one Lakota has suggested renaming it “Wankankil Makoce Ki: The Awesome Land.”
For all the symbolic heft of the pact, tribal members remain torn about the details and confused about what effect it will actually have on their daily lives. So last summer, I spent a week at the Badlands’ South Unit, trying to find out if the new park had a chance of succeeding amid the infighting, corruption, crime, and desperation that have long plagued Pine Ridge. Park boosters expect it to bring in tourism dollars, and say it represents one of the best economic development opportunities the tribe has seen in years. Plus, it would create a nationally known landmark that the entire tribe could rally around. “I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but it could change lives,” says Steve Thede, deputy superintendent of Badlands National Park, adding, “I don’t think for a minute it’s going to be easy.”
If you look at the official map, you’ll see that Badlands is really two parks linked by an umbilical cord of land. About a million visitors a year visit the North Unit, which has paved roads, a year-round visitor’s center, hiking trails, a café, and two campgrounds. Bison, bighorn sheep, and antelope are abundant, along with prairie dog metropolises and endangered black-footed ferrets.
Although fewer than 2 percent of tourists make it to the Badlands’ South Unit, it survives on a small infusion of cash from the north. The largest hunk of land is the Stronghold Unit. Another part, Palmer Creek, is completely separate—an island surrounded by private ranches and three strands of barbed wire. Although the geology of the South Unit rivals anything in the north, much of it is remote and accessible only by four-wheel-drive. It serves mostly as a place for locals to poach fossils and graze cattle. There are no bison or marked trails, and the land harbors unexploded ordnance left over from its Air Force days. Visitors are warned not to pick up suspicious objects; they might explode.
Driving through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (population 28,787), I was struck by its beauty: the low, chalky buttes and fissures in the rolling prairie packed with gnarled trees. The landscape was easy to romanticize. But then the next charmless town would appear, with its potholed roads, lopsided mobile homes, and gas stations with bars over their windows. One of the first things many locals told me was whether or not they had diabetes. They usually did.
The best jobs on the reservation are with the tribe or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, followed by Prairie Winds Casino, Taco John’s, and Subway. The county’s average per capita income is only $7,772, and the tribe’s unemployment rate usually hovers around 80 percent, making this one of the country’s poorest regions.
Although alcohol is banned, just south of the reservation is Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town of 10 that sells 4.9 million cans of beer each year. Fetal alcohol syndrome and drunk driving accidents are rampant on the reservation. In 2011, tribal police reported 2,011 cases of child abuse or domestic violence, 2,561 fights or assaults, and one homicide. Just 49 police officers patrol Pine Ridge’s 3,159 square miles. Rapid City, by comparison, has twice the officers and gets fewer calls.
The Oglala Lakota trace their decline to the breaking of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which gave them and other Sioux tribes land stretching east from the Black Hills through most of South Dakota and into neighboring states. Peace lasted six years. Then, Lt. Col. George Custer came to the Black Hills to establish a fort, and civilians struck gold. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull took up arms and killed Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn. One year later, Crazy Horse was stabbed in the back after he surrendered in Nebraska. The Great Sioux Reservation was splintered into five smaller reservations, and further whittled away through shady land deals. The Sioux tribes won a 1980 Supreme Court case over the broken treaty, but have refused settlement money. They’re holding out for the return of the Black Hills.
The modern saga of the Badlands’ South Unit began during World War II, when the military took control of 341,726 acres in the northern part of Pine Ridge. The government bought or leased the land from the tribe and individual owners, forcing 125 families to relocate. After the War, the South Dakota National Guard ran exercises here until 1968.
Around that time, Keith Janis’ family lobbied for the return of their land. But tribal leaders were busy negotiating with the Park Service over the southward expansion of Badlands, which would justify its upgrade from national monument status. In 1976, Tribal President Dick Wilson signed a memorandum of agreement, turning one-third of the former bombing range into the South Unit and giving the Park Service management authority.
“He gave that land away,” says Andrea Two Bulls, an artist and fossil collector. Though uprooted families received compensation, resentment lingers, in part because many had voted to impeach Wilson three years earlier. The reservation was locked in a violent conflict. On one side were the full-blooded traditionalists of the American Indian Movement (AIM), bent on righting historic wrongs and giving Native nations full sovereignty. The other, mixed-race assimilationists including Wilson and the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs), saw advantages to allying with the federal government and reaching a financial settlement over the Black Hills.
In exchange for taking over administration of the land, the National Park Service promised the Oglala Lakota infrastructure, roads, trails, and cash, most of which were never delivered. They survive only in the 1982 master plan, which includes a drawing of the White River Visitor Center that the agency was supposed to ask Congress for money to build. It was an ambitious project, complete with an open-air bazaar, curio shop, Indian heritage center, 100-seat restaurant, 100-pillow motel, a campground and employee housing. Badlands National Park now spends $166,000 of its $4.6 million budget on operations in the South, employing just three staff members, two of them seasonal. Meanwhile, the North Unit has 45 full-time employees.
The tribe, in turn, failed to fulfill its own promises, by not submitting, for instance, a yearly audit indicating how its $650,000 annual share of the North Unit’s gate receipts was being spent for recreational facility development.
Some tribal members prospered, however. In June 1999, a park ranger drove out to a remote area north of the Stronghold Table, which is loaded with the remains of Titanotheres, elephant-sized mammals with bony horns. The ranger was shocked to see bones jutting out of the dirt and weathering away in the wind and rain. He counted 19 “poach pits,” where collectors had illegally extracted prized fossils, and likely sold them.
Park paleontologist Rachel Benton won a grant to survey and protect the Titanotheres with the help of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. In April 2002, then-Badlands Superintendent William Supernaugh sent the tribe a letter informing it of the planned excavation. Tribal President Steele replied sternly: “NPS does not have unilateral authority to authorize museums and other entities to go on Tribal lands.”
Supernaugh replied by warning Steele that the federal government was not bound by tribal ordinances. “This comment, made by a United States government official, does not demonstrate respect to the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” Steele wrote, declaring a moratorium on excavation until the two sides could reach an agreement. By then, rumors had spread that the “graveyard” contained human bones, and a tribal elder claimed on KILI radio that a ranger had accosted her while she prayed on the Stronghold.
Ultimately, the pathway to peace began with two brothers. In 2005, Paige Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa from North Dakota, became Badlands National Park’s superintendent. On his watch, the rodent-infested trailer that served as the White River Visitor Center was replaced with a hand-me-down building from the North Unit. Baker brought tribal biologists from the south to train with park employees on tasks such as tracking and monitoring swift fox populations.
And Baker worked closely with the Lakota to sketch out the South Unit’s future. From the beginning, opinions varied. At a meeting in the town of Allen in April 2008, locals demanded everything from oil exploration to a new casino to the return of the land to its original owners. Some still wanted to expel the Park Service; others trusted the tribal government even less.
Less than two years after Baker retired from the National Park Service in 2010, his younger brother, Gerard, became involved on the tribal side, filling in as director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority (OSPRA). He faced a huge task: to finalize the management plan and environmental impact statement for the future South Unit. Even Janis eventually joined the planning team. The South Unit options included maintaining the status quo, returning the land to the tribe and de-authorizing the park, sharing park management, or turning management over to the tribe while keeping the land in the park system. OSPRA and the Park Service officially agreed last summer that the last option was the best: establishing a tribal national park.
OSPRA is guiding the South Unit through this first-of-its-kind transition. It’s already taken over day-to-day duties there, although it still operates under the auspices of the northern headquarters. Its funding comes from a cut of national park entrance fees and from the sale of bison, which are used for funerals and celebrations. If the South Unit broke off from the North Unit as a tribal national park, OSPRA would get some cash directly from the federal government. But it might also lose its cut of the North Unit’s gate fees, and have to compete with it to convince tourists to pay a second fee.
One person who is not averse to talking about the future of the park is Gerard Baker, an imposing figure who sports two long white braids. Baker served as superintendent of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where he ticked off Custer aficionados by hiring Indian interpreters. He says his last field posting at Mount Rushmore irked Park Service staff who didn’t think an Indian belonged at a monument to four white men.
“I spent 35 years with the National Park Service,” Baker told me. “My first job was cleaning toilets, and I worked my way down to management from there.”
Inside a restaurant in Kyle, Baker sketched out the romantic vision laid out in the new management plan. Restoring bison seemed like a natural project, and the plan includes options for removing cattle from the South Unit to make room for them. Park supporters also want to seek federal money to install a museum of Lakota culture to educate tourists and tribal children, create a bazaar for handicrafts, and hire Lakota park inter-preters to recount the history of the Badlands, as suggested in the 1982 plan. The tribe would receive an annual budget from Congress, two-dozen jobs for tribal members, and eligibility to apply for special National Park Service funds for the new infrastructure. And the park could be a boon to Pine Ridge’s modest tourist industry and roadside vendors. Between bites of his gravy-soaked sandwich, Gerard added that tourists could also learn about the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee and the 1973 standoff at the same site between the American Indian Movement and Wilson and his followers.
If the Badlands become the first tribal national park, Baker sees it as a model for other Indians to follow. Though many parks sit on land once occupied by tribes, the South Unit is one of only two national parks on land that’s still tribally owned. The other is Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which lies inside the Navajo Nation but is managed by the Park Service. “If you look at a National Park Service map and a tribal map, there’s all kinds of potential,” he said. Maybe the Miwoks will never roam Yosemite again, nor the Crow and the Cheyenne regain Yellowstone, but perhaps they can manage or co-manage the parks. “I’m not sure if parks like the Statue of Liberty will be changing, but there were Indians there, too!”
About 30 miles southwest of Kyle is the town of Manderson, known locally as “Murderville.” When I met John Rondeau outside Pinky’s General Store, he had a white, triangular bandage stretching from his cheek down to his jaw to conceal his scars. “I just got drunk one night, and got in a real bad car wreck,” he told me. As he spoke, he had to periodically suck in the saliva that came dripping out of his mangled lower lip. His right arm was a cobweb of toughened connective tissue, seared from the truck’s exhaust. Not long after the accident, his younger brother, Leonard, went to prison for murder. “It’s tough living here,” Rondeau told me. “It really is.”
When I asked him if he thought a tribal national park could help turn his fortunes around, he shook his head slowly. “If this goes through, there’s going to be a lot of rich folks on this reservation,” he said. “But I guarantee you it’s not going to be any full-blooded Indian.”
Despite Gerard Baker’s optimism, this sort of deep ambivalence is common on Pine Ridge, raising questions about the park’s potential to provide real economic benefits and become a beacon of cultural pride. Before I visited, I saw a video posted online by some tribal members, with a survey concluding that a majority supported the park. But during my week on the ground, it was difficult to find anyone who whole-heartedly endorsed it.
Residents were welcome to submit comments on the management plan as it was developed, but they had little power over the outcome of the process, and many remained cynical about their own elected leaders and bureaucrats. Ultimately, the decision to move forward, working with the federal government to form a tribal national park, was made by the 19 tribal council members. Some locals, including Andrea Two Bulls, believe that such a contentious and important issue should have been decided by tribal referendum. “There’s a lot of us who love these Badlands,” she told me, adding that the National Park Service should not have a hand in managing them. “Let’s just do a tribal park.”
There are also doubts over whether existing tribal institutions are up to managing a national park and its finances. OSPRA, despite its earnest staff, is plagued with problems. One evening, I sat in on a board of directors’ meeting in Manderson. A dozen people sat around two folding tables as a crockpot of bison stew simmered in the kitchen.
The front of the blue wooden building, which is owned by OSPRA, was a warren of cubicles—relics from a failed call center that has since been rented out intermittently. OSPRA had also recently lost the concession to the Cedar Pass Lodge in the North Unit, and a vacant property in the town of Interior was eating into its budget. It was forced to up its general line of credit to $375,000. Now, it was struggling with its core mission: bison management. A hundred or so head had vanished, and the FBI was investigating.
“How did we get so bad?” asked a woman named Donna Lamont. “We are so far in debt, but we don’t know why we are in debt.”
“Look at the big picture,” said Virgil Bush, the board president. “We have that South Unit here. The governing body is going to be responsible for millions of dollars. How are we going to manage that, if we can’t manage what little we have here?” He sighed. “This is a big ol’ black eye financially. We’re not making nothing out of it.”
A few days later, I opened my tent and looked out across an expanse of desiccated bison poop. I had arrived after midnight to sleep at the North Unit’s Sage Creek campground. I saw a pair of bison lazily shifting in the morning sun. Their shaggy winter coats seemed to be peeling off like old carpet. Nearby, a chubby white guy stood in the grass with a brown felt hat, a sage green shirt, and khaki pants, his hand in a Costco-sized box of Cheerios. He was from New Jersey, and his name was Jonathan.
I asked if he knew much about the Badlands' South Unit. Last year, he had visited the reservation. He spent the whole day driving around on bad roads and was so paranoid he handed out $20 bills whenever he parked his car. He didn’t see much. “I was intimidated,” he said. “I can hike around here, no problem, or I can go down there and there’s a slight chance I’ll come across a bomb.”
I thought Jonathan’s concerns seemed overblown. Still, it’s not uncommon for outsiders to find Pine Ridge intimidating—a formidable challenge to increasing visitation to the park and the flow of tourism dollars to the reservation. Even the spectacular North Unit has always been a second-tier park—a pit stop on the interstate to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone. The prospect of sustainable tourism in the South Unit seemed even more remote given its serious image problems, not to mention its distance from a major highway. “We’re not going to see a million visitors,” said Ivan Sorbel, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce. “You can’t expect to throw a bunch of buffalo out there and expect (people) to come and look at them.”
Indeed, a successful, mission-defining program like bison restoration seemed impossible in light of the tribe’s financial problems, land disputes, and the weight of history. The World Wildlife Fund is paying a consultant to help the tribe weigh the profitability of bison under various management schemes. But getting cattle ranchers in the South Unit on the same page as conservationists and other park supporters would be a challenge in itself.
To better understand these complications, one afternoon I met Merle Temple in Rockyford. Temple is a local legend: He won the Indian National Rodeo Finals in bareback in 1985 and qualified for the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas five times. Today, he leases range unit 508 in the South Unit from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and also grazes cattle on a patchwork of private land outside the park. In the management plan, the tribe has proposed building the Lakota Heritage and Education Center on a bluff overlooking his allotment, potentially removing his cattle and re-stocking the area with bison, so they could be next to the highway and easily visible to visitors.
In his home, Temple sat in a brown La-Z-Boy with a plate of noodles and beef. His face was sun-reddened and his hair matted from his wide-brimmed hat. “Ranching is hard enough to pay your bills,” Temple said, explaining his opposition to the park. With gas costs so high, he’d resent being pushed to a distant pasture somewhere else. “That’s just a little part of it for me,” he added. “This is my home. I don’t know why people can’t understand that.” His family, he noted, had been kicked off the bombing range in the ’40s, and he wasn’t keen to see history repeat itself. He suggested we drive out to the 508. The cattle wouldn’t be there for another week, but he could show me the land before sunset.
Bison were reintroduced to the North Unit in 1963. Things have been more complicated in the South Unit, and the biggest obstacle today may be the Prairie Winds Casino. Expanded in 2005 with a loan from Minnesota’s prosperous Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, the Prairie Winds Casino employs 200 tribal members. But it loses money every year, and Temple said that grazing leases in the 508 and other parts of the South Unit are collateral on the casino debt, something I was unable to confirm with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “We might all be speaking Shakopee before long,” Temple said, as we inched along the grassy lip of Stirk Table.
We dropped into a wide canyon, the ground lush with new grass, the dry riverbed pale and chalky. Once, Temple and his brother got lost here after dark. They finally saw their father’s headlights up on the bluff and started galloping toward them. Temple doesn’t have anything personal against bison. “A lot of times I’m just riding around thinking about the time before fences, when the buffalo was still roaming,” he mused. “That must have been quite a sight.”
Most of us like our stories to end neatly, with a clear conclusion. This one doesn’t. It’s still a work in progress, and no one can say how things will turn out for the first proposed tribal national park and the tribe that stands to benefit from it.
Still, the conflict on Pine Ridge at times seems irresolvable; the burden of history too heavy. The many arguing voices may seem like a major obstacle to the park’s ambitious goals. And yet, I began to view those voices as part of the tribe’s great strength. There is not one Lakota, but thousands. They are enduring and opinionated. The fight is part of their bones, blood, and spirit. Were it not for that, they would have never endured for so long in the face of so many tragedies and injustices. And, yet, together, they are on course to make history by regaining control of national park land. That alone is something to celebrate.
Late one afternoon, I joined Jill Majerus, a tourism expert with the World Wildlife Fund, on a few errands around Pine Ridge. We were headed to the OSPRA trailers in Kyle, and when we got there, tribal biologist Trudy Ecoffey met us at the door. “It smells pretty bad,” she warned us as we walked to the back of the building and opened a chest freezer. There, a gangly male wolf was contorted in the confines of this temporary coffin. His paws were as large as our own hands, and Majerus stroked his thick white fur. “He looks so much bigger than in the picture,” she said. The stench of rot permeated the room. Ecoffey said that the wolf’s collar traced to the Yellowstone pack, about 450 miles away. It had been hit by a car near Pine Ridge town. “This is our first one,” she said.
As sad as the sight of its dead body was, the wolf seemed like a promising sign: a hint that the primeval spirit of this land had not yet been exterminated. Gerard Baker told me that bringing back wolves in the Badlands was too much to ask for. Sometimes, I guess, it doesn’t hurt to hope.
Brendan Borrell is a journalist whose writing has appeared in Scientific American, Smithsonian, and The New York Times, among others. Reprinted from High Country News (February 4, 2013), the leading source for regional environmental news, analysis, and commentary "for people who care about the West."