August 30, 2009
Obama welcomes Black Hills discussion, tribes say
Campaign visit renews talk of returning land
A campaign conversation with the man who would become president of the United States has some Sioux leaders thinking they might finally get part of their sacred Black Hills back. And they're working on a plan to achieve that.
In a May 2008 campaign stop in Sioux Falls, candidate Barack Obama told a gathering of tribal leaders he was open to discussing the Black Hills with them.
In fact, those tribal leaders say, the Obama campaign gave them a proposal that read in part: "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. ... 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."
The promise of such negotiations has Sioux leaders revisiting ideas last considered in the mid-1980s, when New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, like Obama a Democrat, proposed that the U.S. government return 1.3 million acres of federal forests and unoccupied park lands in the Black Hills.
Asked to confirm his campaign proposal, or to say whether Obama would be open to negotiating an "innovative solution" that might include the return of some part of the Black Hills, the White House this week said there would be no comment at this time.
But Patrice Kunesh, a law professor at the University of South Dakota who has worked on tribal rights and land claims issues, said she thinks Obama will carry through with his promise.
"It's very accurate that Obama is sensitive to these issues and would make a sincere effort to bring the stakeholders together to create a discussion around these issues," said Kunesh, who is using a Bush Fellowship to gain her master's of public administration at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Lower Brule Chairman Michael Jandreau said his memory of the May 2008 meeting was that Obama promised "to do everything in his power to work with the tribes to bring about a settlement."
"There was no in-depth conversation about what his idea of settlement meant vis-7/8-vis the tribe's idea of settlement," Jandreau said. "He talked about it more generically."
Leaders hope to meet 'with one mind, one heart'
Sioux leaders have been meeting to try to unify under one voice before approaching the president. Tribal chairmen, council members, elders and traditionalists met in late July at Green Grass on the Cheyenne River Reservation. They are meeting next in mid-September at Lower Brule, and plan many more gatherings after that.
Their actions are prompted in part by a class-action lawsuit filed last spring in Sioux Falls seeking the disbursement of almost $1 billion in principal and interest awarded in old court cases for the improper taking of the Black Hills.
"When we meet with President Obama, it's going to be with one mind, one heart," President Theresa Two Bulls of the Oglala Sioux Tribe said. "The only way to do that is to unite everybody."
That's a formidable challenge. Eight tribes comprise the Sioux Nation that was awarded financial compensation in a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1980. Those tribes consisted of the Oglala, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Standing Rock and Crow Creek Sioux in South Dakota, the Fort Peck tribe in Montana and the Santee in Nebraska.
Leadership has to blend not only those eight tribes, but the varying treaty councils, the existing tribal governments formed under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), and other groups within each tribe. That includes those who want the entire Black Hills back, those willing to accept only a part of the land, and those who say taking the settlement money is the best solution.
"Getting them all together would be phenomenal because of the modern, contemporary way tribes are governed," Kunesh said. "Do you know the last time all nine tribes in South Dakota were unified? It was in the 1960s, when the state of South Dakota wanted to impose state jurisdiction on the reservations."
Tribal chairmen are convinced unity can be forged. Two Bulls said she held two days of meetings in August at her tribe's Prairie Winds Casino to try to find that unity. When the discussion fell into disagreements on the power of tribal governments versus treaty councils or other competing groups, she told them that such debate has to end.
"I said, 'We can't be hanging onto the past,' " Two Bulls said. "We can't be saying, 'I'm recognized as a chief.' 'No, you're not recognized as a chief.'
"I said, 'No more complaining about IRA governments. The protocol is that the IRA government is going to open that door and let treaty people in to meet with Obama, to let him know why the Black Hills are sacred.'
Tribes willing to wait until unity is achieved
Finding that unity might take a year or more, Rosebud Sioux Tribal Chairman Rodney Bordeaux said. The tribes need to agree on a proposal before they go to the president, one that has been negotiated and approved by all the various parties, and that will take time.
"President Obama will be there three more years," Bordeaux said. "If it takes that long to get a united effort, one that gets the approval of President Obama and, hopefully, the Congress, I think we need to be meticulous on this."
Imre Sutton, a retired geography professor at California State-Fullerton who has written extensively on Indian land claims issues, said the Sioux would be wise to act in Obama's first term. He is best positioned to act while Democrats control both houses of Congress - at least through the 2010 election, Sutton said.
Should either house go to the Republicans after that, "that would definitely be in the background to be considered," he said.
While lawmakers and politicians have argued in the past that the Black Hills claims issue was settled by the financial award, there is a precedence for illegally taken land to be returned to indigenous people.
An act signed by President Nixon in 1970 gave back 48,000 acres of land around Blue Lake in New Mexico to the Taos-Pueblo after President Teddy Roosevelt took it in 1906 to establish a public recreation park.
Land has been restored to tribes in Washington, Oklahoma and Connecticut as well.
Bordeaux, Jandreau and Two Bulls insisted that any resolution reached with Obama must include a return of land.
"We would start where we left off the last time with the Bradley bill," said Gay Kingman, head of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association. "That was adopted by all the tribes and all the treaty groups (in the mid-1980s). We wouldn't go back and try to reinvent anything."
The Bradley bill would have returned to the Sioux unsettled land held through the parks, forest service and Bureau of Land Management. Sacred areas such as Bear Butte and Harney Peak would have been temporarily closed for Lakota religious or ceremonial activities in the Bradley bill, which failed to gain much support in Congress.
Kunesh wonders whether the land designated in the Bradley bill would be enough for the Sioux today.
"Who would own it," she said. "Who would be in charge of managing it? Would there be some kind of co-management with a federal entity?"
Congressional delegates won't make commitment
Kunesh said she could see a situation where a small part of federal land in the Black Hills is returned, and then the Sioux are given a fund to buy adjacent land as it becomes available.
"But you know that the state of South Dakota has opposed every single petition by any tribe to put land into trust," she said. "Unfortunately, that's really the issue dividing the state and the tribes over every other issue today, whether it's criminal jurisdiction or health care or land claims. The Black Hills claim sits in the middle of every single one of those issues."
Jandreau said he is almost certain that any agreement negotiated with Obama will need approval from some or all of the state's congressional delegation. Two Bulls said she thinks a "concrete solution that everyone agrees to" will be supported by Sens. John Thune and Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
"They have been more bipartisan the last couple of years," Two Bulls said. "I'm pretty sure our congressional people will support us."
If that's true, Johnson, Thune and Herseth Sandlin aren't saying so now.
"That is an issue that the Supreme Court has ruled on," Thune said. "The money was set aside and continues to accumulate interest. That, in my view, is the resolution. I don't have any intention of wading back into that."
Herseth Sandlin said she was encouraged that Obama has expressed a willingness to work with the Sioux tribes.
"We don't know what proposals may result. ... but regardless of the outcome, I'll continue my work in Congress on the issues of great importance to the daily lives of Native Americans," she said.
Asked whether he could support any negotiation between the tribes and Obama that ultimately included a return of land, Johnson's staff sidestepped the question.
"This discussion has been going on for decades," Johnson's spokesperson, Julianne Fisher, said. "It is important for the tribes to first come together and then begin negotiations with the White House. To comment on a nonexistent compromise is to put the cart before the horse in this case."
Perhaps. But if the Sioux unite, if they can find a spokesperson who understands the indigenous ways and the historic wrong that has been done, and who is skilled in the kind of mediation, that person could lead them to what they seek, Kunesh said.
In 1993, a poll by Political/Media Research of Washington, D.C., found that 26 percent of South Dakotans favored returning unoccupied federal lands in the Black Hills to the Sioux people.
Tribal leaders guess at this time, with this president, the momentum could be even greater to finally resolve the Black Hills issue.
"I believe there is a possibility," Jandreau said. "It's been a long time since we had even that."
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