A piece of the Black Hills considered among the holiest ground for the Great Sioux Nation is being sold in a week, and a number of tribes are scrambling to raise money in an attempt to buy it.
On Aug. 25, Leonard and Margaret Reynolds of Hill City will sell slightly more than 1,940 acres about 2 miles north of Deerfield Lake, ranch land known as Reynolds Prairie that their ancestor, Joseph Reynolds homesteaded in 1876.
But the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people call it something else — Pe’ Sla. They say it is one of their most sacred sites on the planet, home to their creation story and essential to their culture and beliefs because of its role in the star knowledge of the tribes.
Now, they’re in a mad scramble to try to raise money to buy some or all of the five 400-acre tracts that will comprise the sale.
“To lose this would be a big deal,” Oglala Lakota medicine man Rick Two Dogs said. “We follow a spiritual calendar; we still do to this day. People still gather at the sacred sites to make offerings, to make prayers. It’s very important to us.”
Unlike other sites significant to Natives, such as Bear Butte, Pe’ Sla is the only one privately held and not within state or federal boundaries. Two Dogs said the Reynolds have allowed his people onto the land to pray and make offerings, but he worries the next owners won’t be as generous.
“We also worry that with the state building a road through Pe’ Sla, there is development that would come, and it would spoil the purity of the place,” Two Dogs said. “If that happens, it would never be the seclusion we need to make our prayers.”
Reached at home, Margaret Reynolds would not comment on her family’s decision to auction the land. “We just don’t want to talk about it,” she said. Auctioneer Bruce Brock out of Le Mars, Iowa, did not return a call seeking comment.
Two Dogs said that for thousands of years, the buffalo would travel to different sites during the year, based on the movement of the constellations in the sky and the four-legged’s connection with the universe. His people would follow the animals and rely on them for their sustenance.
“When the sun goes across the sky, it goes right across a certain constellation,” he said. “The buffalo would gather at certain sites when that happened. Pe’ Sla was one of them. We have certain ceremonies tied to those sites. We go to Pe’ Sla around the middle part of May, and we make our offerings there.”
Even if the tribes succeed in buying the land, that likely won’t affect the county’s intention to pave and improve the existing South Rochford Road that passes through Reynolds Prairie.
Pennington County Highway Superintendent Hiene Junge said the county received a federal earmark for about $9 million in 2005 to improve an 11.5-mile stretch of gravel road from Deerfield Lake through Pe’ Sla and up to the old mining community of Rochford.
In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration determined that improving the road that connects communities in the Black Hills for timber and recreation purposes was of national significance and thus required an environmental impact study, Junge said.
Such a federal impact study had never been conducted before in South Dakota, he said. They secured a consultant in 2010, and work on it has continued into this summer, including consultations with different tribal entities.
“We’re the bad guys” where the tribes are concerned, Junge said. “They would like us to leave it alone.”
But with as many as 200 cars a day passing down the gravel road, with the dust that increasing traffic creates and the wear and tear the gravel road has on vehicles, he sees a need to pave it.
“There’s a lot of logging going on up there with the pine beetle infestation,” Junge said. “It is a road used by the National Forest Service to log. It’s another connection from Hill City to the Lead-Deadwood area. If it was an all-asphalt road, it would be easier to maintain and a lot better connection.”
That improvement was going to happen whether the land was sold or not, Junge said.
But if they can buy it, at least the tribes could stop development, said Rodney Bordeaux, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, which is helping to coordinate fundraising efforts. For the next week, his tribe is working with a group called LastrealIndians, Inc., to raise money online and to see if various tribal entities would be willing to kick in money to buy the land.
Chase Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a lawyer in Bismarck, N.D., who owns LastrealIndians, said one possibility is the trust fund settlement dollars that many tribes have received in the past year.
The Obama administration announced in April that it intended to resolve disputes with 44 tribes throughout the country over federal mismanagement of trust funds and resources, with a settlement totaling $1.023 billion. Many regional tribes will see awards from that decision, Iron Eyes said.
“If the tribes can come together and utilize trust fund settlements they have, and we all have a commitment to the Black Hills, I think it is something we can come together on,” Bordeaux said.
The trouble is, time is short, Iron Eyes said, and each tribe with settlement money has constituencies to which it must answer. Six of those tribes met Thursday to discuss the Pe’ Sla situation. At this point, “they are mum on the details of their discussions,” he said. “However, we are pleased that they have centralized.”
Both he and Bordeaux believe it will take between $6 million and $10 million to buy the land. While Bordeaux initially thought the Reynolds family was willing to negotiate with the tribes to sell them the land, Iron Eyes now believes that they will simply have to be part of the bidding process with everyone else.
By mid-afternoon Friday, LastrealIndians.com was reporting that $58,895 had come in, though Iron Eyes said the online effort was more about raising awareness than realistically thinking it could bring in millions of dollars.
“Our goal is a million online,” he said. “I’d expect we could get $100,000 to $300,000. Whatever we bring in we’ll contribute to the overall fundraising effort.”
To people like Charmaine White Face, coordinator of the Rapid City-based environmental group Defenders of the Black Hills, it seems ludicrous that tribal people should have to pay anything at all for something that was illegally taken from them in the 1800s.
“It’s always been difficult for us to accept this concept of buying back your own land, you know what I mean?” White Face said. “The question I have is, if according to the 1980 Supreme Court decision, the Black Hills was an illegal taking, then how does anyone have legal title to the land?”
That said, she, like others within the Great Sioux Nation, are hoping for the best in the next week. Iron Eyes said one of the tracts is considered most important, and the tribes would at least like to buy that one. But in reality, they would like them all.
“We keep praying for a miracle,” White Face said. “If some very wealthy person would buy it and donate the land back to us, that would be a miracle. That would be an excellent miracle.”