Custer, S.D. — There is little doubt that the Black Hills is a special spot. It is a sacred to the Sioux, carved with the faces of four American presidents, its streams still panned for gold and hills mined for precious metals, the center of a longstanding controversy between the Indians and the federal government over its rightful ownership, and focus of a more recent brouhaha over exploitation of its uranium resources.
To the Dakota Indians it is "Paha Sapa" -- a word picture describing rugged, granite cliffs thrusting from the sides of dark, pine-covered mountains. To them it is a sacred place, "our church," says Matthew (Noble Redman) King, an elderly Oglala Sioux chief.
The first white men to explore the area considered it "majestic, mysterious and unknown." Trappers reporte hearing strange booming and banging noises, like the roar of a cannon, which have never been explained.
"During most of the 19th century the Black Hills of Dakota were the epitome of the great American dream," Western historian Watson Parker writes. "The dream of wonders yet untapped, of riches for beyond the rainbow's end, of a great new land of hope and glory, far out beyond the last frontier. Remote, majestic, and unknown, they were guarded alike by distance, treaty, and hostile Indian. The stories which grew up around them, told by the grizzled trapper, subtle halfbreed, or chance explorer were those of the dream itself."
For the Sioux -- who migrated from Minnesota into the area in the 1700s and who rose from a small group of poor, isolated bands to the most powerful Indian tribe on the continent in the first half of the 19th century -- the Black Hills became the center of their cultural and ceremonial life. Each June, the far-flung bands would return from their winter wanderings to Paha Sapa. Here they would perform their religious ceremonies (many of which appear to have been lost) and enjoy the mild summer weather, rich flora and fauna, and clear, constant streams which graced the area
In 1868, after defeating the United States Army several times, Sioux leaders signed the Fort Laramie Treaty that established a Great Sioux Reservation "for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians. . . ." This included all of present-day South Dakota, including the Black Hills. For several years thereafter peace reigned and the Army tried half-heartedly to keep white settlers and prospectors out of the area. It was a difficult job because of persistent rumors of gold. By 1874 the rumours were confirmed and gold seekers began flooding into the region.
In 1875, the Sioux bands, which were allowed off the reservation to hunt buffalo, were suddenly ordered back but could not comply because of the cold weather and lack of food. Nevertheless, Gen. George Crook was ordered to drive the Indians back onto the reservation, and attacked the band of Crazy Horse. The indians escaped and defeated Crook the next spring in the Battle of the Rosebud. This was the incident which led to General Custer's campaign with the 7th Cavalry that culminated in his defeat at the Little Big Horn, the Sioux's last big victory.
Following this, the bands were scattered and ultimately defeated by the Army. Finally, they had no choice but to surrender and accept US terms, which included surrender of the mineral-rich Black Hills. Even today, however, they haven't given up hope of regaining at least part of their sacred ground.
As the Indians were subsiding into bitterness and frustration on their much-reduced reservations, miners were striking it rich in the Black Hills.
Geologically, the area is a bubble of anciet rock thrust up by the pressure of the inland sea that covered much of North America during Pre-Cambrian times. Rocks in the vicinity of Harney Peak, the highest east of the Rockies, have been dated at 1.6 billion years. As the dome was pushed up, its top layers were eroded resulting in a "layer cake" effect. Besides creating the picturesque scenery that attracts tourists by the millions, this geologic process uncovered rich deposits of valuable minerals.
The US Geological Survey estimates that more than 35.5 million troy ounces of gold and 13 million of silver have been mined in this area since the 1870s. Recent increases in the price of the precious metals have caused renewed exploration activity but no large new discoveries have been made.
Even at the height of the Black Hills gold rush, many people recognized that the dark green, almost black carpet of ponderosa pine that gave the region its name was a valuable resource as well. In 1897 President Grover Cleveland set aside nearly 10,000 acres as a forest reserve and the area was gradually expanded to its current size of 1.2 million acres. In 1899 the Black Hills was the site of the first timber sale from public lands in the US. Today, with an annual production of 102 million board feet per year, the Black Hills is the most productive forest land in the region.
The turn of the century saw another phase in the American conquest of the West: the beginning of tourism. In 1903, the Wind Cave National Park was created in response to this new public demand. In 1927 work on Mt. Rushmore was begun and by 1941 the giant, sculptured faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt stared serenely, if surrealistically, from the brow of the jagged, granite face of Rushmore.
Today, all the major roads leading into the Black Hills are lined with a parade of billboards. Reptile gardens, Old West stockades, trading posts, aerial trams, stores selling Indian pottery and jewelry, rock shops, "museums," and all the rest present in overabundance, many actively demonstrating the dictum that no one ever went broke underestimating a tourist's taste.
The Black Hills is almost the only tourist attraction that South Dakota boasts. Yet tourism is the state's second-biggest industry. Over 1.7 million people visited Mt. Rushmore this year and the state figures each traveler is worth about $85 per day to the state's economy.
Besides gold, timber, and tourist dollars, the Black Hills is a treasure trove of valuable minerals, including iron, tungsten, vanadium, tin, manganese, molybdenum, copper, semiprecious gems, gypsum, ad uranium. It also contains a certain amount of oil, gas, and coal. The possibility of uranium mining has been stirring up considerable controversy recently.
Earlier this year there was a heated local debate over Union Carbide's plan (one of six that have been approved by the Forest Service) to open a uranium mine in Craven Canyon, an area whose sandstone cliffs bear old Lakota (another branch of the Sioux) drawings and carvings. The Lakota people were concerned that their ancestors' drawings might be defaced. Another concern that spread beyond the Indian community was the possibility that the ground water which many local residents rely on might be contaminated. The Black Hills area is the source of water for the shallowest underground rivers, or aquifers, that underlie much of South Dakota. Even without major uranium mining operations, there have been periodic reports of higher-than-normal amounts of radioactive material in some wells in the area. An environmentalist-Indian group called the Black Hills Alliance fought Union Carbide with a series of lawsuits and restraining orders. Finally, because of the continued now market price for uranium and the local resistance, Union Carbide called it quits.
The uranium mining controversy has had a lasting effect, however. It has strengthened the sense of urgency the American Indian Movement (AIM) and other Sioux groups feel about regaining the Black Hills.
"In a religious ceremony last winter, it came to me that we had to do something drastic this year or lose the Black Hills forever," AIM leader Russell Means explains. As a result of this vision, 50-odd AIM members have set up a camp on US Forest Service land in the Black Hills. They applied for a special-use permit that would allow them to set up a permanent community and a special school to teach Sioux culture to the young on 800 of the 1.2 million acres of federal land in the area. This application was turned down earlier this month and the AIM members were ordered to leave. They have refused and are fighting the decision in court.
Stanley Looking Elk, tribal chairman of the Oglala Sioux, established a similar encampment in another portion of the Black Hills for similar reasons. Last year the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the US Claims court that Congress acted in violation of the Sioux's Fifth Amendment rights in taking the Black Hills away from them. As a result, the court found that they are entitled to a "fair market value" for the land, plus interest. This adds up to $122 million. The majority of the Sioux have rejected this settlement, saying that they don't want the money. They want the land back. The Oglala camp was meant to demonstrate the strength of their feelings on the matter.
In addition, Oglala attorney Mario Gonzalez has filed a suit for $11 billion and return of all federal land in the Black Hills on the grounds that seizure of the land violated not only the Indians' Fifth but also their First Admendment rights. The $11 billion is based primarily on estimates of the value of the gold and silver removed from the area, a sum the claims court decided the US did not have to recompense.
Looking Elk vacated the campsite when federal officials agreed to set up talks about the Black Hills with the Sioux people. The first discussion was held Sept. 11 and included Indian leaders, the Interior Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Roy Sampsel, and Peter Taylor, general counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.
One of the Oglala's demands was that the government turn over a piece of the Black Hills to them as soon as possible for ceremonial use and as the site where further negotiations could be staged. No one is sure what the outcome of these talks will be, but a strong possibility would be the exchange of some land in the Black Hills for a reduction in the amount of the monetary settlement.
Today, little remains of the early aura of mystery that surrounded the Black Hills. The strange, thundering sounds that Indians and whites heard and which were never explained have faded into history. Yet with its pure light and rugged yet minutely scaled needles, cliffs, and valleys, a special sense still lingers It is easy to visualize Custer and his men on their Black Hills scouting expedition riding through a valley so full of wildflowers that the battle-hardened troops could not resist gathering flowers, sticking them in their hats and plaiting flower chain for their horses' heads.
This actually happened. The Black Hills is just that kind of place.