Smokey White Bull holds a yellow plastic cup in his outstretched hand. The shadows of the setting sun cut diagonally across the ragged granite face of the box canyon wall. From a tree at the top of the cliff a flag of 1776 is flying upside down.
The young Lakota Sioux has black, braided hair and wears a bright yellow American Indian Movement (AIM) T-shirt. He is performing a traditional ceremony , thanking the Universe and Mother Earth for what the tribe has received.He is one of several dozen Lakota occupying a camp site in the Black Hills, which they claim is sacred ground, illegally taken from them by the US government.
There are certain haunting similarities to the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by AIM, with its bloody denouement. Today, however, both the Indians and the government appear to be bending over backwards to avoid violence.
Since April 4, when the band moved to the picturesque site about 15 miles outside Rapid City, their occupation has been legal. They acquired the proper permits to camp in the area from the US Forest Service (USFS). But these ran out midnight on Sept. 8, and the groups's leader, Russell Means, say they are not leaving. "We are home. We will stay here until we die, whether it is today , tomorrow, or of old age. Even my 15-year-old son has made this decision," says Mr. Means.
The Indian activists and their lawyers have mounted a three-pronged legal attack to stake a permanent claim on 800 acres of land here:
* They filed a claim for the land with the county courthouse, invoking the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 which guaranteed them the Black Hills but was later unilaterally abrogated by Congress.
* They requested that the Secretary of Interior withdraw the area from public domain for 20 years under the Federal Land Policy Management Act.
* They applied for a special use permit for the land from the USFS to set up a permanent "spiritually governed self-sufficient community that will respect all life and share with our neighbors."
Not only did Black Hills National Forest Supervisor James R. Mathers deny this application as "not in the public interest," but he also ordered them to leave the site by Sept. 8. The Indians prepared an appeal and asked for a stay of the eviction order from the Regional Forester's office in Denver. The stay was immediately denied. AIM is now appealing the decision to Chief Forester Craig Rupp in Washington.
On Sept. 9, the US district attorney here filed a civil suit against the Indians.The government is seeking a permanent injunction against the camp, but is not asking for immediate eviction. The suit could take several months before being settled. The Indians' attorney, Bruce Ellison, is more concerned with the possibility of vigilante action and state intervention than he is with federal enforcement action at this point.
"A permanent settlement is not in accord with the multiple-use philosophy with which the Black Hills National Forest area is being managed," explains Mary Sue Waxler, public information officer for Mr. Mathers. Furthermore, 325 of the 800 acres applied for by the group are subject to a prior timber sale contract, she explains.
In their application, the Lakota had an opportunity to explain how this site had singular or particular religious significance to them, the USFS spokesman says. "All they did was talk about the Black Hills in general," he adds.
"The Black Hills are our church," explains Lakota Chief Matthew King. Excluding them from this area is tantamount to cultural genocide, he and Means argue.
The people at the Yellow Thunder Camp, however, argue that their religion is so much a part of their life that the two cannot be separated. They say it is difficult to conduct religious ceremonies on public land because of interruptions and harassment by non-Indians.
"Any time Indian people attempt to be Indians, we are not allowed to do it," says Means bitterly.
The Forest Service position is that the Lakota are free to come and camp in Paha Sapa, as the Sioux call the area, and to perform their religious ceremonies as long as they do not settle permanently.
Few argue with the Sioux contention that during the centuries they lived in the area, the Blacks Hills were considered a holy place. Ranging widely throughout the Great Plains during the winter, the tribes would return to Paha Sapa each spring to spend the summer in the cool hills and to conduct a number of religious ceremonies.
"We have ceded much land to the government, but we can never give up Paha Sapa," says Mr. King, who feels that the Lakota's moral case is so strong the US government must eventually acknowledge it.
Under the Fort Laramie Treaty, three quarters of the adult male Sioux had to agree to give up land.In 1877, when the government was negotiating with the Indians about the land, only 10 percent of the tribe signed. So Congress, acting ostensibly as the Sioux's trustees, unilaterally took control of the Black Hills and turned it over to the gold miners clamoring for access.
It was only last year that the US Supreme Court upheld the US Court of Claims finding that this seizure was in violation of thr Indian's Fifth Amendment rights. As a result, the Sioux tribes were granted $122 million.
Yet the Sioux have almost unanimously rejected this settlement. Oglala Sioux tribal chairman Stanley Looking Elk led a group of about 100 Indians to camp in the Black Hills in order to protest the settlement. They vacated the camp early this week when administration officials agreed to talk to the Oglalas.
The objective of the Yellow Thunder group is different. They hope to found a small community of less than 500, which will serve as an example to all Indian people. Means and his comrades hope to establish a school to teach young people traditional Indian values and, by extensive use of solar energy, demonstrate how all people can live "free, and happy, without relying on industrial society which makes the normal absurd, and the absurd normal," Means says.
"These takeovers are nothing new. They have become part of our contemporary culture," says South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow.
While condemning the way the United States has treated the Sioux in the past, he argues that there is no chance the tribe will get the Black Hills back. Those who continue to foster these hopes, Janklow charges, are perpetuating a cruel hoax. The governor, expressing a view widely held among non-Indians in the area, argues that the Indians should accept the $122 million settlement and learn how to get along in American society while preserving their culture as other ethnic groups have done.