In a move that is already sparking controversy on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Ogala Sioux plan to discuss whether to open negotiations with the federal government over compensation for the wrongful taking of the Black Hills in the 1800s.
The council meeting is expected to take place next week and has the potential to reignite one of the most controversial topics in Indian Country.
The furor traces its roots to 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the federal government to pay $106 million to nine Sioux tribes. The tribes refused to accept the money without also receiving the return of unoccupied, federally owned land in the region. The tribes have been at a stalemate with the federal government ever since.
But the calculus changed in 2009 when President Barack Obama took office. The administration offered to re-examine compensation for the Sioux and potentially reach "innovative solutions" in a final settlement. The tribes ignored the invitation but now, some members of the Oglala Sioux tribal council say, it's time to consider it seriously.
"All we are trying to do is respond to Obama's invitation in a realistic way," said Mario Gonzalez, an attorney who has represented the Oglala Sioux, on and off, for the past 35 years.
But even the suggestion of re-discussing whether to accept the money from the 1980 judgment — now believed to be valued at around $1.4 billion after accumulating interest for 33 years — has evoked a strong reaction from some tribal officials, including President Bryan Brewer.
"I will not support any resolution that promotes our tribe receiving any of the money from the Black Hills without the input from the other tribes of the Great Sioux Nation and from our Treaty Council," Brewer said in a statement Tuesday. "Our tribal members have passionately said over and over again, 'the Black Hills are not for sale.' I fully support our tribal members."
The discussion item was placed on the agenda of the next council meeting after Paul Little, a council representative for the Oglala District, introduced it earlier this month during a meeting of the tribe's economic and business development committee. The item was passed and put forward to the full council.
On Tuesday, Little declined to comment about the resolution.
"I've got no comment right now because I'm busy and I've got to do things," he said.
Gonzalez, who has been in close discussions with Little, said that he largely agreed with Brewer. He didn't want to legitimize the wrongful taking of the Black Hills by accepting monetary compensation, but he said Obama's offer could open the door to the recuperation of unoccupied, federally owned land.
Gonzalez pointed to a deal President Richard Nixon reached in 1970 when he returned 48,000 acres of national forest in New Mexico to the Pueblo.
"Now why can't the same thing happen today?" he said.
Gonzalez added that the Oglala Sioux was not making any decision unilaterally. To begin negotiations with the Obama administration, there would need to be consensus from the eight other Sioux tribes involved in the 1980 case: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Rosebud, and Flandreau in South Dakota, Santee in Nebraska, and Fort Peck in Montana.
Accepting any offer from the Obama administration would also require consensus among all nine tribes.
James Cross, a council representative for the Pass Creek District, said he was strongly opposed to solely receiving monetary compensation for the Black Hills, but he said now was the tribe's last chance to seriously explore what else Obama could offer.
Cross said that Obama is already nearing the end of the first year of his second term and, based on how long negotiations could take, it's unlikely anything could happen if they began discussions in the final two years of his presidency.
That said, Cross was skeptical that the Oglala Sioux council, much less all nine tribes, would vote to begin discussions.
He said tensions were high anytime the issue of accepting compensation arose and already some council representatives, who had previously leaned toward negotiating with the Obama administration, were beginning to reconsider based on an early outcry by some tribal members.
"I don't think this resolution is going to move forward, the way the word on the street is," he said.
[Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect a correction. The U.S. Supreme Court reached a judgment in favor of nine Sioux tribes of $106 million in 1980.]