Reclaiming the Sacred Black Hills

Ruth Hopkins

To say that the Black Hills (Kȟe Sapa) hold special significance for the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation) is an understatement. They’re not only our traditional homelands, where our ancestors once lived, they’re sacred. The Black Hills are the birthplace of our Nation, where we rose from Mother Earth’s womb. Our legends took place there. The Black Hills itself is a terrestrial mirror of the heavens above and thus forms the basis of our ancient star maps and Lakota astronomy. The entirety of Kȟe Sapa is a sacred site. Our rituals observe the natural cycles of the planet and our Universe. There are ceremonies that we must conduct at specific locations within the Black Hills. These ancient ceremonies benefit the whole of humanity. No, we aren’t talking about dirt protected by ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Kȟe Sapa is holy ground. It is where we are meant to pray.

As colonial invaders began to encroach upon our territory, Oceti Sakowin warriors like Crazy Horse fought to protect the Black Hills. The U.S. military could not defeat us, so they pursued other means. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie ended Red Cloud’s War when it set aside the Black Hills of western South Dakota and other lands and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana for the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation). Once gold was discovered however, prospectors began crossing into Black Hills territory, in violation of the treaty. The Oceti Sakowin rightfully defended their legally protected lands. The U.S. government responded by passing a law that took the Black Hills land away from the Oceti Sakowin in 1877.

In United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been illegally taken, and that the Oceti Sakowin were owed the sum of $105 million for the Black Hills plus an additional $44 million for the lands outside of the Black Hills.

The Oceti Sakowin had no intention of selling the Black Hills. We refused the settlement, instead demanding that our treaty lands be returned. So there the money sat. After decades of interest, the U.S. Department of Interior now holds over a billion Black Hills settlement dollars in trust.

Enter 2008, when a young Senator named Barack Obama decided to run for the Presidency and the following policy statement was released by his campaign:

“Barack Obama is a strong believer in tribal sovereignty. He does not believe courts or the federal government should force Sioux tribes to take settlement money for the Black Hills. He believes the tribes are best suited to decide how to handle the monetary award themselves. Obama would not be opposed to bringing together all the different parties through government-to-government negotiations to explore innovative solutions to this long-standing issue.”

This announcement opened the door to restart negotiations once Obama was elected President.

The Oceti Sakowin are now uniting to develop a plan of action to reclaim the Black Hills. The Great Sioux Nation owns shares in The Black Hills, by percentage. The Oglala Lakota are the biggest shareholders. I spoke with Loretta Afraid of Bear and Milo Yellow Hair, who are actively working on getting unceded federal lands in the Black Hills back into the hands of its rightful owners, the Oceti Sakowin. Together, along with others, Loretta and Milo have been visiting Oceti Sakowin communities throughout the Dakotas to educate Tribal members on the issue and garner support from Tribal councils.

“We come from the Hills. They are a part of us,” Loretta says. “We still own it [The Black Hills] and we have to act like we own it.”

Ms. Afraid of Bear, Oglala Lakota, believes reclaiming the Black Hills is crucial to Oceti Sakowin identity. “The land and language are one. If you lose them, you lose who you are.”

Working with both Tribal and Treaty councils, the group is hopeful that they can develop a realistic plan to present to President Obama, and perhaps, the U.S. Congress. New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley introduced a bill in 1985 that would have transferred 1.3 million acres of forest in the Black Hills back to the Great Sioux Nation. Unfortunately the bill was unsuccessful. Even if Congress is unwilling to pass legislation to return the Black Hills to the Oceti Sakowin, it is within the President’s power to perform the task by Executive Order.

Milo Yellow Hair, Oglala Lakota, speaks of the moral obligation that the United States bears under treaty law. “Under treaty, the U.S. pledged its honor. It is a moral issue proclaimed into law. Who is the moral keeper? Who holds them to their word? Individual Americans should start an effort to restore the honor of treaties they made with Indigenous peoples. They owe a lot in the name of manifest destiny.”

Milo thinks that dysfunction within American society is partially due to the breaking of treaties and the way the U.S. has mistreated Native people in this country.

“When you give your word it means something. Living dishonestly wears on the fabric of society. Dysfunction comes from disrespect and disenfranchisement,” he says. In this way, he thinks fulfillment of treaty obligations will help heal the country and relations between Natives and non-Natives.

The Oceti Sakowin are laying the groundwork to care for the Black Hills. “We need to be a responsible group of people taking care of a beautiful place,” Milo maintains.

Plans include training young people to care for Black Hills forest lands, and the establishment of a university, with a law school and medical school. The group is also concerned with stopping uranium mining in Kȟe Sapa, and protecting the water.

A Unity Concert to support the effort to reclaim the Black Hills is being planned. It will be held in Hill City, SD in September 2014.

The Oceti Sakowin are set to meet with President Obama to discuss the Black Hills in 2015.

As Oceti Sakowin, Kȟe Sapa is our birthright. We will see it returned to our dominion. It belongs to us and our children, for posterity.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.

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Grayhorse's picture
I want to wish you all the luck in the world on getting the Black Hills and any other land back that was taken from Oceti Sakowin. It was terrible that everything was taken from Native American Indians and the way they were treated, It should have never happened.
Two Bears Growling's picture
If there is one thing we of the People know, it is that you can NEVER trust what politicians do or say. They promise you everything & deliver the wind. Rare is the man or woman who does as they have promised. Honor is a thing as rare as common sense seems to be anymore. Should you come across these rare people, count yourself blessed with a rare treasure even more so should they grace you with their friendship. Blessed indeed.
Two Bears Growling
azpark's picture
As judge Hopkins knows very well, the Sioux happened to be in the right place at the right time when the U.S. govt. invented the reservation for the Great Sioux Nation. A few generations earlier it was the Crow and Cheyenne who lived in this land. The Lakota didn't move there until after the Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa were devastated by small pox in the late 18th century. The Sioux should thank the US for that which enabled them to get across the Missouri River. In addition the eastern Dakota people had never seen the Black Hills and knew nothing of it. The Lakota should thank their lucky stars that the US assigned the Black Hills to them in the 1868 treaty. They should also be thankful to the Cheyenne for giving them the horse which allowed them to move out on the plains. Lastly they should be thankful for small pox that killed off the AHM allowing them to cross the Missouri. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!!
Boricua53's picture
Beautiful article. I want to see the Black Hills in the hands of the Oceti Sakowin, and I am not Native American.
klittlebear's picture
AZPark is certainly correct in that the Lakota do not have exclusive claim to the land. It was used by many groups in the time before history documents specifics, as confirmed by archaeology of various sites. There were groups who used in in ancient times and other known groups who used it just prior to the Lakota use. In that respect, the Lakota, or Sioux or whatever name is/was used, had no right to be making treaties with the government to begin with because the land was not theirs but shared by all groups of the region. So it is not appropriate for one group to 'own' it now. In that it is a US park, that seems about right. Of course, all people, including native people should have access. And it should be managed responsibly. But the mythology that is used to make ancient claims is not known of prior to the 1970's by most accounts. So the mythology that is used to claim ancient 'ownership' is about as valid as the claims that women cannot drum because of 'tradition', a tradition that was also made up out of whole cloth in about the 1970's. Let's look to some actual history/prehistory here and keep the Black Hills accessible to everyone, not just one group.
klittlebear's picture
AZpark has it right. This is no more Lakota traditional homeland than it is the 'homeland' of any other native people. Archaeological and early historical record show no one actually living there permanently, as in calling it home, but rather a number of groups hunting there and spending time there, some no doubt for spiritual reasons. It is a beautiful place inspiring awe today. But just as many native groups were forced westward or moved westward to take advantages of gaps in land occupation due to movement or disaster, such as massive smallpox outbreaks, the Lakota came from nearby lands in recent history. Therefore, they probably had no real authority to make treaties for all native people to give, sell, trade, or accept lands. Lands were not owend but shared, used by all. So the Black Hills should not go to one group today, but remain as in, in public ownership as a park, accessible to everyone, for use and appreciation by everyone. Yes, it should be managed responsibly, and extractive operations such as mining and grazing should cease, and restorative replanting and animal repopulation should happen. These decisions should be made by a group that represents all people of this country, then and now. The 'ancient traditions' that are claimed for this land are from about the 1970's and just about as 'ancient' as the powwow tradition of not allowing women to join in drumming. Let's keep an eye on real history and keep this land owned and accessible to all people, not just one tribe with a claim to a tradition that is not even as old as many of us expressing ourselves here.
Hilary53's picture
honor the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and restore the Black Hills to the Sioux Indians since it is sacred to them Civilization requires respect and the honor of commitments. If our country pledged in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 that the Black Hills would forever belong to the Sioux, we are bound to honor that commitment, and that commitment unfulfilled makes us less as a nation committed to high ideals