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Oglala Sioux Just Might Reclaim Southern Half of Badlands National Park


Badlands National Park. Photo by Colin Faulkingham via Wikipedia Commons.

A General Management Plan for the South Unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota is now being prepared.

One possible outcome of the process is that the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) might regain exclusive control of 133,000 acres of tribal land that was converted to military use during World War II, incorporated into the national park in the 1960s, and placed under joint management with the National Park Service 30 years ago. If this land were to be returned to the tribe and entirely removed from the national park, it would establish a major precedent.

Native American interests are a hot button issue in the National Park System at the moment:

* At Everglades National Park an Indian recently demanded that the Park Service allow him to build a house on park land.

* Paiute Indians are fussing at Yosemite National Park officials, arguing that it was their Paiute forebears, not the Miwoks, who were the original stewards of the Yosemite country.

* At Death Valley National Park, the Park Service has had to agree to close some areas of the park at certain times to respect the privacy of Timbisha Shoshone Indians who are engaging in traditional cultural practices and religious activities. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe owns five tracts of land in and near the park, and there are complaints that the tribe is wasting its precious water allocation by growing truck crops in the middle of a desert.

* At Grand Canyon National Park, the Park Service must cope with sensitive cultural issues and complex economic and legal issues in its dealings with Native Americans living near the park. The Havasupai and six other Indian tribes in this region (including the Havasupai, the Hualapai, the Southern Paiute, and the Navajo) have sacred or ceremonial connections to the Grand Canyon, and their traditional folkways, religious practices, and other cultural values must be respected and nurtured. The Havasupai, whose reservation is surrounded by the park, consider the canyon to be sacred as well as part of their homeland.

* At Arizona’s Canyon de Chelley National Monument, the Park Service jointly manages the park with the Navajo Nation, not only to protect historical/cultural and natural resources, but also to sustain a Navajo community that resides in the sandstone canyon and has strong historical and spiritual ties to it. The monument is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land that the Navajo Nation now wants back.

Issues involving native peoples are not confined to the Lower 48 or to American Indians, either. On the island of Maui, native Hawaiians are engaged in a bitter struggle to prevent the construction of a giant telescope atop their sacred mountain in Haleakala National Park. Native organizations have also complained that aboriginal sacred sites are being treated disrespectfully in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and other national parks on the Big Island.

There are other examples, but these suffice to illustrate that issues involving people descended from the original inhabitants of the land now in national park status affect the Park System on a geographically widespread basis, involve difficult political, cultural, and environmental questions, and have important implications.

One of the most controversial and portentous of the American Indian issues is the one coming to a head at Badlands National Park, where the GMP for the park’s South Unit is in preparation. The Oglala Sioux want their half of the park back, and it looks like they could get it.

Even the most cursory examination of the facts will show that the federal government has bum-rapped the Oglala Sioux at Badlands. This is really a matter of dealing with the fallout of a managerial snafu that has taken decades to build to its present unfortunate state.

In the 1960s, the gunnery and bombing range that had been established on OST land in 1942 was declared excess and closed. The land was then returned to the Oglala Sioux Tribe with the provision that it be part of the expanded Badlands National Monument. A Memorandum of Agreement stipulated that the OST-owned land was to be managed by the National Park Service.

The OST land within the national park consists of two tracts (the Stronghold and Palmer Creek Units) lying entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. For park administration purposes the reservation tracts are collectively referred to as the South Unit. The South Unit accounts for a little over half of the park’s total area of 244,000 acres. (For map orientation, see this site.)

In 1976, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the National Park Service reached a new agreement regarding the governance of the South Unit. Under these terms, the Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe would henceforth jointly administer the South Unit.

Two years later, on November 10, 1978, Congress redesignated the monument as Badlands National Park, citing outstanding scenic, cultural, and scientific values. Few who have visited Badlands would argue with this characterization of the place.

The rub is this. It is the Oglala Sioux Tribe that owns the South Unit of Badlands, not the federal government. There has never been any argument about that basic fact, nor does anyone dispute that the federal government evicted Indians from this land in a most high-handed manner and has since failed to live up to its promises. (Does this sound familiar?)

America was on a war footing in 1942 when the federal government decided that the tribal land at Badlands National Monument should be used for a bombing and gunnery range. The military gave the Indians -- more than 800 of them -- one week to move out. One week. Subsequent decades of U.S. Air Force bombing and gunnery left the targeted areas of tribal land crater-pocked and littered with unexploded ordnance.

The administration of tribal land within Badlands National Park has not exactly pleased the Indians, either. Most conspicuously, a promised new visitor center and road improvements have never materialized. The northern section of the park has a paved road and a nice visitor center. In the remote South Unit, which lies about 40 miles southwest of Rapid City, the road system is substandard and the visitor center is still housed in a converted trailer – open only seasonally -- at the intersection of highways 2 and 27.

There are other issues involved here, such as the Park Service’s considerably less than careful management of the massive fossil deposits and valuable wildlife resources on tribal land. The Indians insist that they can take better care of these resources, which include extensive grasslands, the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds (but no dinosaur fossils) and some federally listed endangered species, including the black-footed ferret.

What’s going to happen next is an exceedingly interesting question. It doesn’t seem likely that present joint administration of the Badlands tribal land will be left to limp along in its present unsatisfactory configuration, though that remains a possibility.

The superintendent of Badlands National Park is Dr. Paige Baker, a Mandan/Hidatsa Indian from North Dakota who took charge of the park in 2006. Supt. Baker has vigorously argued for a change in the South Unit’s managerial arrangements. The GMP process currently under way offers an objective basis for making decisions with appropriate input by all stakeholders.

Supt. Baker has said that top officials in the Interior Department have promised to abide by his recommendations in seeking congressional approval for recommended changes.

In Badlands Newsletter #1 (Winter 2008), which was written in both English and Lakota (the official Sioux language) and published in February, Supt. Baker explained the GMP process for the South Unit of Badlands and specified four concepts that have been identified as a basis for discussion and debate:

Concept 1: The NPS would continue to manage the South Unit as one of two units of Badlands National Park. All the laws, regulations and policies pertaining to units of the National Park System would remain in effect, as would the specific enabling legislation that established the park. In addition, the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement between the NPS and the OST would remain in effect.

Concept 2: Management of the South Unit of Badlands National Park would be shared by the NPS and the OST. The NPS and OST would work together to manage resource protection and visitor use in the South Unit. The laws, regulations, and policies pertaining to units of the National Park System would remain in effect, as would the specific enabling legislation that established the park and any appropriate OST ordinances and resolutions. The NPS and ST would renegotiate the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement to reflect the changed relationship between the two parties. The NPS and the OST would each contribute funding and staff for management of the South Unit.

Concept 3: The South Unit of Badlands National Park would be managed by the OST with technical assistance provided by the NPS. The primary management responsibility for the unit would rest with the OST, while NPS could assist the OST with technical guidance in resource management and visitor use as requested, or as required by authorizing legislation. This concept could be implemented by recreating the South Unit as an affiliated area of the National Park System or by establishing a separate new unit of the National Park System. In either instance, all the laws and policies pertaining to units of the National Park System would remain in effect. The mechanism for funding varies depending on whether the South Unit would remain within the Natiol Park System or become an affiliated area

Concept 4: The lands of the South Unit would be managed by OST as a Tribal Park/Preservation Area or in some other manner determined by the Tribe, in accordance with Tribal ordinances and resolutions. Staffing and funding would be the responsibility of the Tribe. This concept would deauthorize the South Unit of Badlands National Park and end NPS management there.

Fourteen public hearings were held in April, including three on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Additional public input was invited. The planning team will hold a week-long meeting in July to sort through comments and identify leading alternatives. This winnowing process will lead to the final recommendations.

Deauthorizing the South Unit is by far the most dramatic possible outcome of the GMP process. While Congress has decommissioned nearly two dozen park units since 1930, no national park component has ever been turned over to an Indian tribe (or returned, as it were), with no strings attached.

The Oglala Sioux would not find it easy to decide what to do with their land if deauthorization of the South Unit were to occur. Some members of the tribe have said they want the land given to the descendants of the original owners to do with as they please. Others want the land to be administered by the tribe and developed for fossil-based tourism, ranching, residential needs, and related development. Some others want to see the land preserved as is, perhaps operated as a brand new national park owned and managed by the tribe. But where would the money and staffing come from?

The Navajo Nation is carefully watching events unfold at Badlands. The disposition of the South Unit might have important implications for the future ownership of the land that now comprises Canyon de Chelley National Monument.


Thank you for the detailed and thorough article about this subject. I will be very interested to see what happens with the Badlands. I support returning this land to the rightful owners. The Lakota, the Navajo, the Paiute, and other tribes deserve their land returned to them, and can manage it in accordance with their values and culture. I hope others will support the legislation needed to effect this return of tribal lands.

Yeah, support returning it, until they start building casinos and other commercial enterprises there!

Don't forget Mo, they probably owned your land at one time also.

I do not support giving any portion of our National Parks back to any group. From my view the protection and management of our National Parks have been in capable hands of the National Park Service. If we begin to break of portions of our parks to this and that group because it is felt that at one time it was owned by a specific group it could open up use of that portion of the park with no restrictions, managment or regulation. Let us preserve the natural beauty and history of our parks as it was originally intended.

Phil, if you read this article carefully it specificaly says that OST owns the land. NOT the federal government. How would you like it if someone else was making all the decisions concerning your yard?

There are many instances throughout our park system where this hubris has been confronted and resolved.
It is time the NPS as a whole recognizes the indigenous people rights and joins them in the caretaking of Our National Parks.

Hopefully but not likely our government will do the right thing and return what was wrongfully taken in the name of suppression. Perhaps but not likely we would learn a lesson from the Australians and their VERY global Olympic statement where they apologized for doing to their native peoples what we have done to ours, yet many years later issues still remain that were promised to be resolved. These kinds of issues will exist forever, as long as we decide to keep makng the kinds of bad decisions those before us made. Badlands would be an ideal place to finally make a commitment to start correcting our past mistakes. It doesn't matter what the native people want to do with the land, because it's theirs. Period. If they wish to construct casinos in an attempt to make livings for themselves and try to find ways to take care of their people then who are we to say they can't? When did the white man become the expert on what's best for the native man? We don't have the moral fiber to be able to understand how the native man lives, so we try and make him like we are. I would take Random Walkers last point and bring it one step's time our government steps up and recognizes the indeigenous peoples rights. Sadly the NPS has only limited power over their own system of parks, but our government can do so much more.

Phil, with all due respect, yours is one of the most ridiculous statements that was ever posted on this site that wasn't attributed to me. The protection of the parks is in the capable hands of the NPS? The protection of the parks, sir, is directly related to whatever economic and graft-related engine drives the cesspool that resides in the houses of Congress. Period. The NPS can do little that they are not told, and NOTHING that is not funded by our ignorant politicians, who's goals are NOT preservation, but perpetration of individualistic agenda centered around which of their constituents requires some form of pay-off or pay-back, which are virtually the same thing. Additionally, how can you in one breath state that the park histories should be preserved as intended while at the same time completely ignoring those who have contributed more to those histories than has any other segment of civilization over the course of the past thousand or so years? The ONLY part of your statement that is mildly, and I'm certain quite inadvertently correct, is that Native Americans, throughout their history, never did actually claim "title" to their ancestral lands, as the concept of actual ownership of land was quite foreign, until the European land grab of the 17th century began eating up chunks of the eastern seaboard faster than rabbits can breed. The stewardship of the land was implied across ALL Native nations, never questioned, and was more of a duty to Mother Earth than a responsibility tied to "ownership". But by all means, if ANY group has the proper pedigree to claim ancient, ancestral ownership, is would most definitively be the various Native tribal cultures, who have ties to the lands that comprise this nation that precede the Anglo invasion by centuries. It can hardly be asserted that some Johnny-come-lately decided to stake a claim to something that was never theirs, as by the way, was so successfully accomplished by the Homesteaders approximately one hundred years ago, and by various other government sponsored land-grabs dating back to the early part of the 18th century. What you and most other ignorant Europeans conveniently forget, or choose to ignore, is that hundreds of years before the actual savages invaded these shores, this continent was indeed settled, with the population thriving in a much more civil manner than was ever exhibited by white men. The native inhabitants organized functional governmental bodies, established travel and trade routes, agriculture, constructed water management canals for irrigation in desert regions, answered to regional authorities, bartered in an inter-coastal and interNATIONAL trade system, practiced organized religion, were a model of population control, had a well-defined legal structure, and collectively spoke almost 500 dialects (which proved to be the biggest sole source of their undoing, militarily speaking), to name but a few accomplishments of the "savages". How DARE you be so pompous as to decide from your high and mighty perch that people have no right to do as they see best with their "property"?

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