News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, December 10, 2007

Who "owns" Bear Butte?

The State of South Dakota would like to forget the Treaty of 1868 which cedes most of West River and parts of East River to the Sioux nations and stipulates that it is:

set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named, and for such other friendly tribes or individual Indians as from time to time they may be willing, with the consent of the United States, to admit amongst them; and the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons except those herein designated and authorized so to do, and except such officers, agents, and employes of the Government as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties enjoined by law, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article, or in such territory as may be added to this reservation for the use of said Indians...

The Sioux nations have never assented to any changes in the treaty and have never relinquished their claim to the land, although it was taken from them. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court said they had never been properly compensated for the land and awarded them compensation plus interest, which amounts to about $120 million.

The Sioux nations have refused to accept the money. They want their land back. They want adherence to the treaty.

Bear Butte sits in the middle of the land they claim and stands as a focal point for what the land means to them. The question of whether using tax money to obtain a buffer zone around Bear Butte to preserve its geographical, historical, and spiritual significance might violate the establishment clause of the Constitution is not relevant to the legal issues that concern it. To the Sioux Nations, compensating land holders for a buffer zone is giving them money for land they do not legally own and on which they are trespassing.

In the 1980s, Sen. Bill Bradley enraged South Dakotans by submitting a bill that would resolve the dispute over the land by returning undeveloped land in the Black Hills to the indigenous people along with compensation.

The Sioux people hold that there is a spiritual presence in all creation that cannot be separated from it. Whether Bear Butte is treated as a natural treasure, a historic site, or a state park, they will observe its full significance for the indigenous people.

The issue is not the spending of state money to preserve the integrity of the site, but whether the right of the indigenous people to maintain the site is acknowledged and restored.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States