By Leonard Doyle in Washington
Tuesday, 10 June 2008
Nearly 120 years after the last massacre of Native Americans by the
United States cavalry at Wounded Knee, some of the lands confiscated
from their descendants are to be returned to the Oglala Sioux.
Badlands National Park in South Dakota, which encompasses Wounded
Knee, is one of the poorest parts of the US. It has few paved roads.
Unemployment is shockingly high among the Sioux. Alcoholism is
rampant and there are high rates of suicide and imprisonment of
After decades of protests, the park service is now planning to return
the southern part of the park to Indian control. It will take an act
of Congress to approve, but is expected to occur next year. Though
broadly welcomed by the Sioux residents, there are those who say the
land should be returned to the original owners for private use rather
than to the tribal council as a park.
The shadow of Wounded Knee hangs over much of the discussion. The
Sioux were among the last to fight against American expansion into
the West. In the dying days of 1890, their leader, Sitting Bull, was
assassinated. About 120 of his followers along with 230 women and
children took refuge at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where they were
surrounded by the US cavalry.
About 300 men, women and children were killed, along with 25
soldiers, mostly by their own shrapnel or bullets.
In the 1970s, the militant American Indian Movement reoccupied the
site, leading to still more bloodshed, this time at the hands of the
FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But what rankles for Anita
Ecoffey, an elder of the Oglala Sioux, who lives in Wounded Knee, was
her family's eviction from ancestral lands in the 1940s by the
military. Ms Ecoffey, 65, recalled her grandmother describing the
flight, taking only what they could carry, and leaving the land where
their ancestors were buried.
Some 800 members of the tribe were given a week to leave by the
military, which wanted the land for a firing range. "To me this is as
bad as what happened at Wounded Knee," she said. "When my grandmother
was evicted they took only what they could carry. A lot of them had
no place to go, which is why I say they died of a broken heart."
Ms Ecoffey described how much of the reservation is still littered
with unexploded shells the military never cleaned up. Poachers have
also ravaged the stark landscape, with its spires of rock and
tallgrass plains. Over decades, they have illegally removed thousands
of fossils from the poorly policed national park.
Under the new plan, the northern half of Badlands, which is paved and
has a visitor centre, will remain under the control of the park
service. The Sioux hope to restore the ecologically fragile southern
portion, starting by removing the unexploded shells.
Most of the national parks – Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and
Glacier – were created when the Roosevelt administration forced
tribes from the land in the 1930s. Karl Jacoby, a professor of
history at Brown University, said: "There weren't empty wilderness
areas in the United States. They had to be created by the removal of Indians."
But there is dissent about what should happen. One of the Sioux
activists who occupied Pine Ridge in 2000 says the land should be
returned to its original Indians rather than remain a park. "That's
not respecting the rights of the people who have nothing," said Keith
Janis. "The whole national park system is environmental racism
against the Indian people of this country."
Ms Ecoffey, however, hopes that Barack Obama will be elected
president and fulfil the promises he made while campaigning in South
Dakota last week to lift Native Americans out of their poverty.