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Native American community, city in talks about possible land swaps
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City, Native community discuss land swaps

Native American community, city in talks about possible land swaps


About 25 community members gathered Thursday evening in Rapid City to brainstorm land uses and funding mechanisms if the Native American community is able to conduct a land swap with the city and school district after they let other entities build on old Indian Boarding School land — a move researchers say was in violation of federal law.  

"If we are successful — and again here comes the big asterisk, this may not happen — but if we are successful and we do get a land swap, what would be the best use of that piece of land for the community?" Heather Dawn Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and attorney who specializes in federal Indian law, asked the group. 

Wayne Lone Hill said he'd like to see the land used for a healing space with sweat lodges while Sarah Arobba suggested funding whatever is built through Native American-led tours of the Black Hills area. 

Other ideas suggested on forms passed around the I Am Legacy community center at the Rushmore Mall included building housing, an outdoor powwow grounds, a community center, museum, traditional treatment facility and a Lakota immersion school. Funding ideas included an endowment or investment fund, a hotel and conference center, and a gas station. 

The community meeting was hosted by Thompson and Eric Zimmer, a local historian whose PhD studies focused on Native American history and tribal, state and federal government relations. 

Six years ago the pair, along with a group of volunteers, began researching children who died at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School from 1898-1933 on a 1,200-acre parcel that now consists of Sioux San Hospital and surrounding areas in west Rapid City. During that research, they stumbled upon information about what happened to the rest of the property that was owned by the Department of the Interior (DOI). 

The group learned that after lobbying from the city, school district, chamber of commerce, Catholic church and others, Congress passed a law in 1948 that says the land could be sold to churches, used for "needy Indians," or given to the city, school district and National Guard. None of the land went to Native Americans. 

A Journal article with a map that detailed how the land would be divided was published before the law was passed, showing how the non-Native community "agreed among themselves" about how the land would be used with "clearly no Native participation," Thompson said. 

And most pertinent to Thursday's conversation, the group learned the city and school district have let other entities use the land — despite a clause saying the city, school district and National Guard must give the land back to the DOI if they're no longer using it.

The school district allowed the Canyon Lake Activity Center to be built on an old maintenance property while the city allowed the Regional Health mental health hospital and Clarkson assisted living facility to be built on a section of Sioux Park. 

The researchers also learned of a fourth land parcel, West Middle School, that is "not as clean cut" as the three that are in violation of the law, Thompson said.

The law regulating use of the old boarding school lands

The 1948 federal law regulating use of the old Rapid City Indian Boarding School lands.

Possible lands swaps

Any land swap would involve the Native American community, city, school district and federal government working together to find new land for the Native American community, Thompson told the Journal. 

Zimmer said the new land wouldn't necessarily be the exact same size or present-day value of the three parcels, that the swap is more about getting the Native community the resources it needs. 

"There is probably no way to entirely resolve the pain that this caused or the loss of value that it caused for Native people in the community," he said. 

Thompson said she's met with individual city and school council members over the years to discuss her research and many of them have attended her public presentations. She also gave a formal presentation to the school board a few weeks ago and has had meetings with the hospital, activity center and assisted living facility. 

She said during Thursday's meeting that she's had "brainstorming conversations with the mayor" — who has followed the research and even named the presentation "An Inconvenient Truth" —  but "there’s no promises, he hasn’t said it's going to happen."

"Negotiations have been focused on resolving the land trust issues without touching on the strictly legal issues related to it. The negotiations have been very positive and all parties have a mutual goal of finding a resolution without spending the next five years in litigation," Mayor Allender said in an email to the Journal.

"The negotiations and possible proposals are also being sought as a win/win for the Native American community as well as Rapid City generally," Allender said. "Frankly, the Native American people were not treated fairly in the early years, even if it was legal at the time or at least perceived to be, and there are deep wounds accompanying this issue. If we are to be a community, that concept will need to include and respect 100 percent of us living here both today and yesterday. Reconciliation is the goal."

"Our focus is positive and solution-oriented," Thompson told the Journal. "The goal is for us as a community to find our own good solutions rather than a judge or the federal government deciding that for us."

Mike Roesler, board president for Rapid City Area Schools, did not immediately return a voicemail and email with questions.

Other solutions, according to the form passed around at the meeting, include creating a memorial for students buried in unmarked graves (there is already an official committee for this), adding headstones for the children buried in the Mountain View Cemetery, preserving Sioux San buildings, adding historical plaques to Founders and Sioux parks, changing the name of Founders Park to Ancestors Park (the researchers said the city condemned a Native American village there), and incorporating this history into school curriculum. 

"The more people who know about this story, the better it is for everybody in the community and if we can develop lesson plans and curriculum that helps shed light on those parts our history, then it's purely good," Zimmer said. "It's good for students' critical thinking skills, it's good for building relationships between Native and non-Native students, and communities that engage only in the positive parts of their story and gloss over the challenging ones live in a constant state of having to suffer the consequences of that."

Not new history 

The Native American community, especially the uncis (grandmothers in Lakota), have known about much of this history for decades, Thompson said at the meeting. 

They knew "something was wrong with the land on the west side of Rapid City for a very long time," she said. "This is not a new story, we're just the new tellers" and now have the legal documentation and deeds related to the land. 

She said the Native American community has petitioned the federal government to use the land for decades — starting with a request for housing in 1951 — written four books and papers related to the topic and raised the issue with the federal government through letters, a petition, proposed legislation and a request for an investigation. 

Thompson said she wanted to honor the hard work of the uncis — she passed around detailed architectural proposals for land use they commissioned — but also learn from their mistakes. She said some proposals failed because the Native American community in Rapid City had different views from tribal leadership while others fell apart due to a lack of funding. That's why the researchers are going into the community so it can present a unified vision for the potential land and a long-term funding mechanism. 

"Now is the time. We’re going to honor what the uncis have been fighting for that whole time," she said.

Some attendees had ideas or wanted to talk about options beyond the official scope of the meeting. Attorney Robin Zephier said he'd like to explore the possibility of opening up a capped spring in the old boarding school lands. He said he'd like the Native American community to be able to use and protect the spring from extractive industries without selling and profiting from the natural resource. 

Other people said they'd like to discuss the violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 —  which promised all of western South Dakota to the Lakota people — and churches that legally bought the land but then flipped it for a profit. 

Johnathan Old Horse of the Woyatan Lutheran Church and David Piper of Calvary Lutheran Church, two Rapid City pastors with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), attended the meeting since the Evangelical Lutheran Church was one of the churches that bought and resold all of its lands.

"I just wanted to hear the history and hear what is it that we can do to make amends or work to better Rapid City in general," said Piper.

Old Horse said Thompson and Zimmer will be giving a presentation about the topic to pastors and the bishop of the ELCA South Dakota Synod at an upcoming retreat. 

"She's open to ideas of what the ELCA and what the South Dakota Synod can do to start a process of reconciliation," he said. 

The researchers have three more community consultations planned in Rapid City. Visit for details.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at

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