On the coattails of its days as Hay Camp, Rapid City was a fledgling municipality in 1898 when the Indian boarding school doors first opened.
It was the era of federal Native American assimilation policy, when Native American children of elementary-school age were stripped of their families, made to don Anglo-American haircuts and clothes and ultimately forced to conform to white mores of the early 20th century — often through laborious vocational training.
In Rapid City, that meant children from tribes throughout the Northern Plains were funneled into roughly 1,200 acres of prime west-side acreage dedicated by the federal government to the Rapid City Indian Boarding School.
Only the Sioux San Hospital, an original structure of the facility, continued to operate when the failed boarding school was shuttered in 1933. The swath of land from Sioux Park west to Canyon Lake was eventually dissolved into just three lots, totaling roughly 165 acres, that remain under tax-free federal trust.
Now, 16 tribes from South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska want those three parcels — spiritual land guaranteed to the Sioux Nation as part of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie — turned over to tribal care.
The three parcels are the Sioux San campus; a 25-acre slab of undeveloped land adjacent to West Middle School on Sheridan Lake Road; and another 100 acres that encompass an undeveloped, forested hill overlooking Canyon Lake.
With the support of Rapid City leadership, the tribal members have petitioned the federal government to release the remaining three lots into federal tribal trust, which is also tax-exempt and essentially bestows tribal ownership of the land.
The petition is also backed by the 16 tribes of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association.
"We’re just waiting for the government, and as you know, that takes time," Gay Kingman, the executive director of the association, said.
No formal plans have been developed for the three land tracts, but Kingman said Sioux San Hospital would remain under Indian Health Service's control. The tribes would essentially own the land via trust and potentially pursue building a cultural facility on the grounds, she said.
All that remains of the boarding school, Sioux San has been a focal point in the Native American community both past and present.
"All of the tribes had people who attended the boarding school," Kingman said. "I can't say enough about what we’re trying to do here. The Sioux San Hospital itself means so much to our people. I've always been told that’s where we go to die. It’s just of such significance to us, historically and even today.”
Plans for the 25 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to West Middle School center on creating grounds of solace and remembrance for Native children and tuberculosis patients who died under the care of the Rapid City Boarding School and Sioux San.
As for the undeveloped hill overlooking Canyon Lake, the land would be converted into a native youth camp similar to that of adjacent Cedar Canyon Camp.