Tribe members insist that the 1877 act of Congress that moved the Sioux from their sacred Black Hills is not valid: it wasn’t agreed to by enough tribe members, and the land was never for sale in the first place. When the Supreme Court in 1980 affirmed the original award of $102 million, Gonzalez told me, “there was some jubilation among some of the tribal members. But there were a lot of younger people, including me, who felt that the Indian Claims Commission process, as it applied to the Sioux land claims, was a sham, and we should not participate.”
After all, if the land was never for sale, how can you ever accept money for it? Yet the federal courts consider the ownership question to be settled. The ICC had no authority to return land to the Sioux—just to give them restitution in the form of money. “The courthouse doors have been slammed in our face,” Gonzalez says. “Congress and the president are the only viable branches of government that can really resolve these issues.”
Some Sioux want to take the money now, Gonzalez says. “We tell them, ‘Our grandfathers and great-grandparents spilled a lot of blood so future generations could have a homeland that included the Black Hills.’” If the tribes accept the settlement, he adds, “and the money is all gone three years from now, that’s when the Sioux will become a defeated people. That’s when you will see them walking around in shame with their heads hanging.”
Over the years, it has been suggested that Congress find a way to let the principal stand but give the Sioux the interest for much-needed services—or even to buy land in the Black Hills. But both tribe members and federal officials have told me they have little confidence that the Sioux could put such suggestions into practice. Not long ago, one high-level official who has worked closely with the tribes told me it would take new kinds of leaders to get past long histories and territorial jealousies to effectively manage the money. This official has come to think that taking the money could actually tear the Sioux apart—a greater risk than the poverty they face today.
Gonzalez sees only one way forward. Soon after Obama’s inauguration, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association established the He Sapa Reparations Alliance (He Sapa means “Black Hills” in Lakota), to educate the Sioux about the land claim and to create a proposal for Congress. That proposal could give the Sioux shared ownership and management of roughly 1.3 million acres of federal land within the Black Hills—land, Gonzalez hastens to point out, that does not include federal installations like post offices or, to name a more prominent example, Mount Rushmore.
Little is simple in Indian country, with its treaties, regulations, widely varying systems of tribal governance—and, in the case of the Sioux, a billion dollars burning a hole in the collective consciousness. Yet what the Sioux are asking for has precedent. During the Nixon administration, Congress returned 48,000 acres of federal land in Carson National Forest in New Mexico to the Taos Pueblo. I worked on one decade-long battle to help the Salish and Kootenai in Montana co-manage the National Bison Range, which is in the middle of their reservation. The Oglala Sioux have co-managed the southern portion of Badlands National Park for 35 years.