Saying No to $1 Billion

Why the impoverished Sioux Nation won’t take federal money

Mario Gonzalez is Oglala Sioux and Mexican and walks like he was once a linebacker. A tribal lawyer for the Sioux, Gonzalez has devoted much of his career to the convoluted fight for the Black Hills of South Dakota—a fight that has already lasted a century. More than 30 years ago, the federal Indian Claims Commission awarded the Sioux what amounted to $102 million for the taking of the Black Hills. But the Sioux didn’t want the money; they wanted their land back. So the money has lingered in trust accounts, accumulating interest. Today, in the name of some of the poorest people in the country, about $1 billion waits untouched in accounts at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

In his office in Rapid City, Gonzalez told me that he’s hopeful these days; during his campaign, Barack Obama indicated that he would be open to innovative solutions to the Black Hills case. Gonzalez is working with a group of Sioux to put a proposal in front of the president. I’d like to believe something could shift: in my time working in Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, from 2005 to 2007, no issue seemed more agonizing.

The struggle of the Sioux on the 17 reservations scattered from Montana through the Dakotas to Minnesota is written in abysmal statistics. More than 80 percent of residents of the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge reservation are unemployed. Rape is pandemic. According to Oglala President John Yellow Bird Steele, almost half of Oglala Sioux over 40 have diabetes, and in the Western Hemisphere, few countries have shorter life expectancies (for men it is 48; for women, 52).

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.

The Sioux see Obama as the first president in a long time to understand their problems. He has made good on promises to hire Indians throughout the federal government, and the administration recently signed Indian-affairs bills settling long-standing issues, including law enforcement, water rights, and Indian trust accounting. Gonzalez is pressing for a solution in the next two years. “You have to be persistent,” he told me. “You get that energy from patriotism. We feel that this is our country, too; we have a duty to try to resolve this issue in an honorable manner.”

The Black Hills are an easy 10-minute drive west of Rapid City. The air smells of butterscotch from the thick stands of ponderosa. You can look out over green valleys rimmed with aspen and laced with lakes, or over hills made of cathedral-like stone spires—reasons enough for the area to be sacred to the Sioux. Then too, you can hardly miss, carved into the granite cliffs, the faces of four American presidents who presided over the dismantling of Indian lands.