Making Good of the Badlands

Part 1: Will the Badlands really become America's first tribal national park?


Editor's Note: This is the first part of a three-part story on the transfer of Badlands National Park's South Unit to the Oglala Lakota nation, where it promises to become the nation's first tribal national park. Yet there are still many obstacles to the new park's success, and many locals fear they might not benefit from it at all. Click here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.

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 resist the U.S. Army, which had forced them onto reservations. When they later fled to Wounded Knee Creek, 30 miles south, the Army slaughtered more than 200 men, women and children 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 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 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 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 poor soil means that ranchers need vast grazing allotments, such as those inside the South Unit. Only a fraction of the reservation is suitable for farming, and the tribe's flagship agricultural experiment—industrial hemp cultivation—was quashed by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the early 2000s. Some members earn an income from the South Unit and other tourist sites, leading hunts or horseback trips, running guesthouses, or selling dreamcatchers by the side of the road. But 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 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 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. Keith Janis packed his truck.

Resolution was achieved not through consensus and compromise, but by the passing of time and weakening of resolve. Janis was the last holdout. At one point, he tied a 6-foot climbing rope around his ankle and staked himself to the earth, telling a tribal police officer that he was willing to die for his cause. George Tall even came out to urge Janis to compromise. Then, Janis' mother got cancer, and he left the Stronghold for good in 2004. In 2011, Janis says, Tall was run down in his driveway by his own drunken grandson. Janis cleaned him, dressed him, and gave him a traditional funeral service.

Click here for Part 2.

This story first appeared in High Country News.


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