Sioux Occupy Contested S.D. Island


Special to the Progressive Populist

La Framboise Island is connected to Pierre, the capital of South Dakota, by a causeway. Visitors to the island come to stroll through the among the massive cottonwoods and maybe catch a peek of a mink or a plover. For the last year, visitors have also been able to see tipis camped in the campground.

For more than a year a group of Native American protesters occupied the island. They set up the tipis and tents and lit a sacred fire, which burned throughout the year. They came to protest the Mitigation Act, a bill passed by Congress that transfers federal lands to the state of South Dakota and two tribes. They stayed throughout the winter.

In question are 200,000 acres of land along the Missouri River Corridor. During the 1950s, the federal government took the land from the state and the Sioux people to dam the Missouri and create huge reservoirs. Hundreds of people were forced from their homes. Forty years later, the Native Americans who lost land have only been partially compensated. The Mitigation Act gives back to the Cheyenne River and Lower Brule Sioux tribes that land which is within their tribal boundaries. The rest of the shoreline lands go to the state.

For its part, the state says that the Mitigation Act will benefit both the state and all the tribes. In addition to handing over the jurisdiction to the state and the tribes, the Act also creates a trust fund to pay for restoration of river resources.

The Secretary of the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks, John Cooper says that the funds can be used to restore wildlife habitats along the river. He also says that the Act will enable the state to protect natural resources and provide better recreation facilities to the public. As Cooper puts it, "We're stronger together as state and tribes than we are separated."

But the protesters say that the transfer violates their treaty rights. Some feel that the state is more interested in exploiting the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition -- coming up in 2004 -- than in preserving cultural resources. And one protester was concerned that the state has little interest in protecting the cultural resources and historical artifacts found buried in the soft shale along the river.

But the situation is complicated, even to the Native Americans involved. Two of seven tribes in the state will benefit. Five would get nothing. And Greg Borland, the Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe -- one of the tribes which will receive lands -- says that the lands on the west bank of the river should go to the Sioux people, not the state. He bases this on the 1868 treaty, which gave all the land west of the Missouri to the Sioux Nation. "Until clear title can be established, we don't see how the federal government can transfer these lands to the state."

The protesters agree. Charmane Whiteface refers to the 1868 treaty, saying. "This treaty is still valid. This issue is much broader than most people think."

Activists say that treaty rights are at the core of an issue the state cannot ignore. Some activists in South Dakota still claim that the Black Hills and all the federal land west of the Missouri River should belong to the Sioux people. At a protest march last Fall, one activist joked: "We won't kick the Wasicu [Non-Indians] out, we just want back rent."

The thought of native Americans actually controlling the Black Hills may seem ludicrous to most whites but in 1980 the Supreme Court upheld a decision paying the Sioux $17.1 million plus interest from 1877 to compensate them for the loss. ($17.1 million was the estimated value of the Black Hills in 1877.) And despite grinding poverty on the reservations, the Native Americans have refused to take the money, so as not to lose their claim to the Hills.

The state says that this is not a treaty issue, referring instead to the 1889 congressional act that broke up the Sioux Nation. An aide to Senator Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who helped push the Mitigation Act through Congress, says that the Corps of Engineers will look at the west bank lands in an environmental study. "The state has been gracious enough to allow the environmental assessment before they take over the lands in fee title."

The transfer will begin to take effect this fall as the state leases and restores recreational sites on the east bank of the river. The rest of the transfer will take years to complete.

[Note: In late April, the sacred fire was moved to Rosebud, South Dakota. The tipis have been taken down, but some of the protesters were still camped on the island.]

Charles Micheal Ray and Joshua Welsh are journalists in Rapid City, S.D. Contact them by email c/o

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