For the first time in five years, direct lines of communication are being opened between the Sioux nation and the US government to discuss return of the Black Hills.
The Sioux consider the Black Hills sacred, and, for more than a century, have not given up hope of regaining this land, which was taken from them in direct violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. In the past year or so the Sioux have felt a growing urgency over this issue because of the possibility of uranium mining in Paha Sapa, as they call the area.
At a preliminary meeting held here on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Roy Sampsel , Department of Interior's deputy director for Indian affairs, promised to resume discussion on the Black Hills issue.
Initiation of discussions of this sort were one of the promises made by the government to get the American Indian Movement (AIM) members to leave Wounded Knee in 1973. These talks dragged on for several years but appear "to have been lost in the shuffle" when President Carter took office, says Mr. Sampsel. "I spent two days talking with the White House before coming out here and staffers there approve of this step," he adds.
Similarly, the current resumption of talks was sparked by two separate Indian encampments in the Black Hills. The first, Yellow Thunder Camp, was set up by AIM leader Russell Means. This camp consists of 40 to 50 men, women, and children who are resolved to set up a permanent community at the edge of the Black Hills. Alcohol and firearms are banned from the camp and, until last week when the US Forest Service deadline for evacuation passed, they have followed all rules and regulations scrupulously. They have refused to honor the eviction order and are fighting it in court.
The second camp was led by Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Stanley Looking Ekik and was meant to demonstrate the Indian people's demands to have the Black Hills returned to them. This camp of more than 100 Lakotas originally was located in the Wind Cave National Park. It was later moved to another spot in the Black Hills, and the state of the original campsite when they left became a major issue.
When they moved, the Sioux reportedly left a lot of trash behind. The Indians claim they had a verbal agreement with the Park Service giving them 49 hours to clean up the area. They also charge that Park Service employees that they from returning to the site, molested the equipment that they left, and killed one of their dogs. The Park Service denies these charges, claiming that the group simply deserted the camp, and sent the tribe a bill for $4,200 for the cleanup. This played heavily in the local media, and, according to local Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives, has led to an increase in local, and-Indian sentiment in the state.
Following promises by government representatives to resume discussions on a Black Hills, Looking elk agreed to disband the camp. This time the Sioux were careful to leave the site scrupulously clean.
"We made a commitment, to go into those hills . . . even to die in those hills. This committment remains," Looking Elk told Mrs. Sampsel and Peter Taylor, staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, who also attended the gathering.
The Oglala official handed the Washington representatives of a series of demands: setting up a special committee made of White House and congressional members to negotiate with representatives of the seven Sioux nations over the disposition of the Black Hills; setting aside an area in Paha Sapa for Sioux ceremonial and religious use as soon as possible; and, setting a schedule for the process "so it won't get bogged down."
Mr. Sampsel and Mr. Taylor agreed to take this message back to the White House and Congress respectively and to "open communications." if negotiations are initiated, the Sioux believe they have two strong cards.
First, the US Supreme Court last year upheld a Court of Claims decision that the taking of the Black Hill was in violation of the Indians Fifth Amendment rights, and, as a result, they are due a fair market price plus interest for the land. This adds up to $122 million, but the Sioux have refused to touch it, saying they want the land back instead.
The second card is a lawsuit filed by the Oglala Sioux claiming that the taking of the Black Hills was in violation of the First Amendment as well. The suit seeks $11 billion in damages and return of all government land in the Black Hills, explains the tribal attorney Mario Gonzalez. Taking the area violated the Indians' freedom of religion because they consider Paha Sapa to be their church, he explains.