In western South Dakota the flat yellow plains break up into rolling hills, buttes, and arroyos. Ridges thick with pine and cedar stretch black against the expanse of sky. To the Indians, the Black Hills are the Paha Sapa, the ``heart of everything that is.'' It is land the Sioux have been trying to reclaim on the battlefield, in court, and now in Congress since it was seized by the federal government in 1877.
Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey has introduced legislation to return 1.3 million acres of the 7.3 million acres taken by the government. The proposal faces considerable opposition. The three members of the South Dakota congressional delegation succeeded in killing a similar bill in the last Congress.
All of the land that would be returned under the bill is held by the federal government, though Mt. Rushmore is excluded. All private land, leases, and mineral and timber rights are protected. The plan calls for the eight Sioux tribes to form a Sioux National Council to manage the area.
To most non-Indian residents in the western part of the state, however, the Bradley bill is their worst nightmare about to come true.
The South Dakota Legislature and the city councils of Lead, Deadwood, and Custer (all in the Black Hills) have passed resolutions opposing the bill.
Tom Blair, mayor of Deadwood and owner of the local bowling alley, says it is impossible to turn the clock back on the land.
``We are too far down the road to turn over the hills part and parcel. People are worried about being able to sell their land as they please, and that's an inalienable right.''
Many opponents express concern about the area's economy, 95 percent of which depends on mining, lumber, and tourism. Custer Mayor Annila Wright called the bill ``disastrous'' for her community, which is surrounded by US Forest Service land that would revert to the Sioux.
Cindy Reed, a rancher in the Hot Springs area, another hills community, supports the bill. ``My husband and I, as landowners in this area, feel an injustice was done, and any thinking person has to find a solution.''
Opposition to the proposal ``boils down to racism,'' Ms. Reed says. ``It's not as obvious as 20 years ago, but it's still there, underground.''
Many residents fear a lack of access to the hills. Access, however, is a major complaint of the Sioux, who now have to obtain permission to use ceremonial sites in the hills.
``What gets lost in this whole discussion is a constitutional question - our rights to practice our religion,'' says Charlotte Black Elk, secretary of the Black Hills Steering Committee.
``Those people in the mainstream religion and cultures don't afford full faith and credit in our culture,'' she says.
Many Indians can recall hearing their parents and grandparents parents talk about the importance of the hills in meeting their practical needs and as the site of their major religious ceremonies.
``The hills were our grocery store. All our food was there,'' explains a traditional elder of the Oglala tribe. ``But the full significance of the hills is something real Indians won't tell about.''
In 1980, the US Supreme Court agreed with the Sioux that the government had violated the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty with the Indians when it seized the land. In its decision the Supreme Court said, ``A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.'' But agreeing on the return of the hills has not been easy. The Indians rejected a judgment of $17.1 million plus interest awarded by the Supreme Court, saying their sacred land was not for sale.
In 1983, when Senator Bradley first agreed to sponsor the Black Hills legislation, he said he would do so only if the eight Sioux tribes with Black Hills claims could agree on wording for a realistic bill.
It took two years and 29 meetings of a steering committee formed by the traditional and tribal Sioux organizations to complete the task. Lloyd Meeds, a lawyer with a Washington, D.C., firm representing the steering committee, called the agreement a ``minor miracle.''
The issue has also attracted the attention of a California businessman who says the Bradley bill does not go far enough.
Phillip Stevens, founder of Ultrasystems, an Irvine, Calif., engineering company and defense contractor, led a caravan of reporters through the area last month.
The purpose of the trip, Mr. Stevens said, was to publicize the Sioux's case and draw attention to conditions on the reservations, where unemployment reaches 85 percent. Shannon County, which covers about half of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is the poorest in the US, in terms of income.
The trip ended in Mission, S.D., where some of Stevens's supporters made him an Itancankel (big boss) chief. (Stevens claims Sioux heritage but is not enrolled in any tribe.)
In addition to the return of the 1.3 million acres of federal land in the Black Hills, he proposes a monetary payment of more than $3 billion for ``just and fair compensation'' to cover ``past rent'' and removal of gold and silver from the hills.
His proposal has been met with mixed reactions from the Indians and a downright rejection from Bradley and others in Congress who view the $3 billion payment as unrealistic.
Some say Stevens does not represent the majority of the Sioux and oppose his installation as a chief. Only one of the eight tribes - the Oglalas at the Pine Ridge Reservation - has endorsed his plan.
Over the past few weeks most of the Indians interested in the Black Hills issue have talked more about whether Stevens should be made a chief than about the merits of his proposal or those of the Bradley bill.
Gerald Clifford, coordinator of the Black Hills Steering Committee, is concerned that these conflicts obscure what he sees as the real issues. He says the return of the land of the Lakota (the original name of the Sioux) has ``spiritual as well as economic aspects.''
``For the last 100 years, we have stood firm on the issue of the Black Hills. For us the earth is our mother, and the Black Hills are the heart of that mother. We have a moral imperative as Lakota people to continue to defend the Black Hills,'' Mr. Clifford says.