Oglala Lakota: Can a Tribe Make Good on Its Badlands?

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s impoverished Oglala Lakota may soon manage the Badlands’ South Unit as the country’s first tribal national park.

| November/December 2013

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.”