Belden C. Lane writes in his essay Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for Understanding American Sacred Space, that, “sacred places are, first of all, ‘storied’ places – elaborately woven together on a cultural loom that joins every detail of the landscape within a community of memory” (73). The Black Hills, rising above the plains of western South Dakota, southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, are such a sacred and storied landscape. Amy Corbin writes in her report on the conflicted land of the Black Hills for the Sacred Lands Film Project that, “four thousand archaeological sites [in the hills] spanning 12,000 years attest to a long relationship with native people.” Indeed, various sources report that the Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota, Cheyenne, Omaha, Arapaho, Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache indigenous peoples. The myths and histories of these native peoples, in connection with the landscape, are part of what makes the space so sacred to them. Today, the native Lakota maintain a strong connection to the Black Hills, though it is wrought with a painful history of conflict with non-native people who also make claims to the land for other uses. Although the land has been logged, mined, paved and developed in recent years, Corbin states that the Lakota continue to worship the Black Hills as Paha Sapa – “the heart of everything that is.”
The stories of the landscape of the Black Hills belong to the people who interpret its sacredness. In her article Mirror of Heaven: Cross-Cultural Transference of the Sacred Geography of the Black Hills, Linea Sundstrom traces the indigenous history of the land with regard to various tribes’ spiritual connection to it. She writes, “Recorded history suggests a complicated series of movements into and out of the Black Hills by various peoples” (178), but, she argues, the landscape maintained its sacred character since incumbent tribes adopted traditions from their predecessors: “As one group replaced another over the last several centuries, these locations [in the Black Hills] continued to be recognized as sacred locales and to operate within a system of ethno-astronomical and mythological beliefs” (187). The Lakota, the last native people to inhabit the Black Hills, were thus the recipients of the stories of the land, which they incorporated into their own cultural and spiritual identity.
According to Oglala Lakota cosmology, their ancestors descend from the spirits of the sky – the star people. Their fundamental spiritual and cultural self-understanding stems from recognizing the connection between the stars and the land. As Sundstrom explains, “the falling star myth cycle clearly illustrates a belief in a dual universe, wherein star people in the sky and humans on earth occupied analogous and sometimes interchangeable roles” (181). Their intimate relationship with astrology drew the Lakota to the sacred landscape of the Black Hills, where they identified several natural features with corresponding constellations. Manifestly, the Lakota people and the Black Hills are deeply connected through stories that demonstrate the sacredness of the land. It is inherent in Lakota spiritual and cultural understanding that this land holds infinite significance, and it is thus the obligation of the people of the earth to protect and preserve its sanctity.
The Lakota appeal to the Hills’ sacredness through ritual and ceremony. The traditional Sun Dance ceremony, according to Sundstrom, evokes the forces of creation and re-creation connected with the Inyan Kara Mountain in the Black Hills. The name of the mountain refers to “the creation of the present world through the sacrifice of the god Inyan. Inyan bleeds himself dry in order to create the world” (186). In a recently published National Geographic article entitled In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, reporter Alexandra Fuller describes Sun Dance:
“Men who are deemed spiritually equipped to withstand this symbolic act of communal self-sacrifice are pierced with bone pegs at the end of ropes tied to the branches of ritually harvested cottonwood trees. They then jerk themselves free, tearing their skin in the process. A mantle of ancient-feeling, sacred humidity settles over the rez.”
Sundstrom describes Inyan’s sacrifice as “echoed in the personal sacrifices undergone during the Sun Dance. Inyan Kara Mountain, the Lakota’s ‘special place of creation’, was traditionally visited as part of preparations for the annual Sun Dance” (186). The Sun Dance is just one example of how Lakota ceremony and ritual are manifestations of their idea of sacredness and interpreting the stories of sacred space.
Historically, the Oglala Lakota people have a longstanding claim to the land, not as a property in the Euro-American sense, but as a space of infinite significance to their identity as a people. Legal and cultural history of the conflict over this land between native and non-native peoples begins with the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, an agreement between the Lakota nation and the United States government that designated 20 million acres of land to be “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named.” Expeditions by General George Armstrong Custer in 1874 confirmed the presence of gold in the Black Hills region, resulting in a seizure of the land in 1877 by the United States government. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Government had taken the Black Hills from the Lakota unconstitutionally under the Fifth Amendment in the case United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. Instead of returning the land designated by the 1868 treaty, “the Claims Commission awarded a financial sum equal to the land’s value in 1877 plus interest” (Corbin). The Lakota have refused to accept payment, because, as Oglala spiritual leader Rick Two-Dogs explains, “all our origin stories go back to this place. We have a spiritual connection to the Black Hills that can’t be sold. I don’t think I could face the Creator with an open heart if I ever took money for it” (Corbin).
Two congressional attempts to return a portion of the land to the Lakota in the 1980s were defeated by the South Dakota delegation. Taking a non-native approach to the dilemma, former Deputy Attorney General of South Dakota John P. Guhin argued that a bill that allows for such redistribution of land “would cloud property rights by giving the Sioux Nation the right of first refusal with regard to the sale of lands deemed by the Sioux Nation to have special religious or ecological significance” (51). Guhin concludes, “the Black Hills are today the property of all the people of the state of South Daokta and of the United States, Indian and non-Indian alike. So the Hills should remain” (55). This attitude is mirrored by many non-native people who feel the Lakota should not receive special treatment, and the land should be available for multiple uses – including mining, logging, and recreation. David Miller, in his essay Historian’s View of S. 705 – The Sioux Nation Black Hills Bill, asks the important question of responsibility: “At what point in time does an historic seizure of land without just compensation become a moot point?” (56). Those non-natives residing in the Black Hills, although perhaps insensitive to the sacred significance of the area for the Lakota, were not personally responsible for the land seizure.
Far from being a unique case, the Black Hills land dispute is a debate echoed in countless places all over the world concerning the issue of ‘land ownership.’ In his analysis of The Significance of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, Robert S. Michaelsen clarifies that “Native American religions cannot be easily understood within the framework of common Western notions of religion and its role in society” (93). Michaelsen also states that, when regarding indigenous communities in terms of the First Amendment, “tribes need protection from arbitrary governmental activity in a way that groups which have less intimate governmental agencies do not” (94). When it comes to accomplishing substantial progress for indigenous efforts to regain or protect their sacred lands, however, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, when subjected to legal interpretation, has been unsuccessful. Without the stories to give the land spiritual significance, the non-native interest in the Black Hills is primarily economic and secular.
Today, much of the Black Hills region is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and has been allocated the Black Hills National Forest. “Recreational and spiritual users of Bear Butte [a sacred Lakota site in the Black Hills] continue to co-exist but native people are concerned with the growing numbers of visitors, some of whom show no respect for religious practices” (Corbin). As the land continues to be used for many differing purposes, the Lakota plea for the return of the land endures. According to Corbin, the result of mining, logging, development and recreation in the Black Hills has resulted in the destruction of all but 3% of the untouched wilderness.
Law professor Frank Pommersheim believes that, “mutual good will is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to achieve a breakthrough” and that mutual progress can be made if both sides work “to establish a dynamic, organic entity fusing Lakota people with their past and reestablishing the sacred hoop of unity and wholeness” (22). This process begins with “informed decision making” on the part of both constituencies. Pommersheim is hopeful that “a spirit of reconciliation to heal the breach between Indians and non-Indians in South Dakota” can be achieved. He concludes, “the Black Hills, which are held so closely by so many need to be unburdened from the cupidity of the past in order to suffuse the future with equanimity and balance” (23). Thus far, efforts to mend the fractured relationship between Lakota and non-natives with regards to the Black Hills have been unfruitful. I believe such a vision of reciprocity is attainable with an attitude of forgiveness on the part of the Lakota and a willingness to attentively listen to the Lakota stories of the land and maintain an attitude of respect towards their notion of the sacred.
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Justine Epstein, November 2012
 Article II, Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, 15 Stat. 635. (1868).