June 6 was the final day for public comments on the question to reintroduce bison to Badlands National Park’s South Unit – an area being considered for re-designation as the country’s first tribally-managed national park.
But recent legislation by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council has created a murky cloud over the ability of tribal members to differentiate between the issue of placing bison on the South Unit and the tribe’s desire to appropriate lands adjacent to that area.
It’s a warm May afternoon on the Pine Ridge Reservation as several dozen Natives and non-Natives gather at the Prairie Winds Casino for a meeting of the Shannon County Commissioners.
This informational meeting is being held to sift through the questions and complaints that have arisen recently regarding a proposal to reintroduce bison to the South Unit of Badlands National Park.
On hand is Badlands National Park superintendent Eric Brunnemann. He’s here to tell tribal members – as he’s advised them in previous meetings and on local radio – that his sole purpose is to assist the tribe in its goals for managing the South Unit IF U.S. Congressional approval is received to turn that area into the country’s first tribal national park.
Adding to the general confusion of the possible transfer of the South Unit to management by the Oglala Sioux Tribe are two issues. First, is a request by the tribe to reintroduce bison to the South Unit. Second, and of primary concern to tribal members, is an extremely premature resolution by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council announcing plans to cancel grazing leases and/or foreclose on property used by tribal ranchers that’s located adjacent to the South Unit.
Like most tribal members, Susan Two Bulls-Shockey won’t be affected by the transfer of the South Unit to the tribe, so she’s not concerned about the possible reintroduction of bison to that area. But the tribal council’s resolution to take back land from tribal members will affect Susan’s entire family.
“My land is within the boundaries…the set boundary,” explains Two Bulls-Shockey. My two brothers, my two sisters and I…we have a hundred and sixty acres.”
Susan’s elder uncle, Robert Two Bulls, owns equal acreage in the area the tribe plans to acquire. The purpose of the tribal council resolution is to obtain enough land adjacent to the South Unit to support a thousand-head herd of bison – to be run both on the South Unit and on the newly acquired adjacent land. But Eric Brunnemann has already stated that the South Unit’s boundaries can’t be expanded and reintroduction of bison to the South Unit isn’t a decision for the tribe alone. Brunnemann says the National Park Service, as the tribe’s partner…IF the tribe becomes manager of the South Unit – must agree to the reintroduction of bison on that land.
Brunnemann notes that what he’s observed at today’s meeting is a lot of frustrated, confused and angry tribal members.
“I’ve said at these meetings, I’ll say it again,” comments Brunnemann . “Nineteen-sixty eight legislation defined a boundary for the South Unit. The National Park Service will not condemn land. We’re not going to take private land. There is a resolution on the table and I’ll say that again…that is tribal business. So, it would be in everybody’s best interest to move forward with this and talk about this in tribal council.
Having the opportunity to discuss the tribal resolution issue with members of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council was part of the plan for this meeting. That’s why the tribal council, along with the National Park Service, was invited, says Shannon County Commissioner Lyla Hutchison.
“I was disappointed that we didn’t have some council members come,” notes Hutchison. “ I would like to hear their rationale for wanting this to go forward. We’re trying to hear that side of the story. We’ve not heard it yet. And there is no one to get it from if we can’t talk to the council members.”
Susan Two Bulls-Shockey’s feelings reflect the general attitude of those tribal members at the meeting whose ranching livelihoods will be impacted by the tribe’s resolution.
“It’s really devastating,” says Two Bulls-Shockey .” It’s like a crush. They came out to crush us…to end our lives.”
Bud May owns a small ranch north of Kyle. His biggest concern is the lack of consultation by the tribal council or the tribal leadership regarding what’s to be done with land both in and adjacent to the South Unit.
“The people who have been fighting for treaties all these years would be rolling over in their graves if they knew that the tribal council is going along with giving land back to the federal government rather than fighting to get the land that was originally in the Treaty of 1868,” observes May. “Because as stated in this meeting…the tribal council does not own this land. When it says tribal land it is owned by all the members of the tribe. And nobody was consulted on this matter whatsoever.”
The bottom line, says South Dakota Stockgrowers Association director Slyvia Christen is the Oglala Sioux Tribe plans to enact eminent domain over its own tribal members in order to obtain land for a buffalo herd that hasn’t been approved yet by the one entity that needs to give the okay…the National Park Service.
That’s a move, notes. Christen that would negatively impact the livelihoods of several dozen families already living in one of the poorest counties in the nation.