Tribal Tensions: South Dakota park proposal drawing heat from ranchers, others
May 27, 2014
The public has until June 6 to weigh in on the Tribal National Park proposed for the South Unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
Affected ranchers are against it. Residents of the Pass Creek District are against it. Members of the Red Shirt Community are against it. The Great Sioux Nation Treaty Council, which is something like a group of advisors to the various tribal governments, is against it.
But on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, 1,000 head of paper buffalo are relentless in their march to the proposed Stronghold Grazing Unit on the proposed Tribal National Park. The Tribal National Park would be created from the 133,000-acre South Unit and include some land that is currently being leased by both native and non-native ranchers in the area. It would be the nation's first Tribal National Park, and would require Congressional action to authorize. The idea is supported by the tribal council of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, including President Bryan Brewer, and the National Park Service.
Earlier this year a group of the affected ranchers filed an injunction in tribal court against Ordinance 13-21, which would create the Stronghold Grazing Unit and strip them of their leases in 2015. At the hearing on the injunction there were no tribal government members or lawyers present, despite the fact that they were subpoenaed.
Tribal judge Mary Wynne granted the injunction and scheduled a hearing on the ranchers' complaints. A few days later, the council voted 12-4-1 to suspend Wynne for 45 days without pay, based on accusations by Nicole Little White Man of a "deteriorating relationship between the chief judge and her judicial assistant that included retaliation, abusive behavior and a breakdown in communication," according to an article in Lakota Country Times.
Curtis Temple, one of the ranchers named on the injunction said he has plenty to do, but the Tribal Park issue takes precedence over other ranch work. "'Cause if we don't get this stopped, I don't know what's gonna happen to me. But anyway, we were supposed to have a hearing on the injunction in April, and here it's May and no hearing."
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Bud May ranches with his family near Kyle, S.D. Some of the May family's leased ground falls in the proposed Stronghold Unit, although Bud is quick to point out that other families are more affected. "But any time the Tribal Park issue comes up, I drop everything. This is more important. We have to stop this," May said.
In a May 2 meeting of the Shannon County commissioners in Hot Springs, S.D., May asked for the commissioners' support for the group opposing the implementation of this proposal. The county commission granted that their first obligation is to the taxpayers of Shannon County and that they need more information before reaching a conclusion, but Lyla Hutchison, a member of the commission, said, "The idea of the tribe giving land back to the federal government is just wrong," according to an article in Lakota Country Times.
"People are telling me they've already started putting up the buffalo fence around the area," May said. "One guy said if they asked him to help fence, he wouldn't do it. He's afraid he might get shot out there."
While gunfire hasn't been an issue, tensions are running high in the area, as evidenced by the first of what was to be ten National Park Service comment meetings at the Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge, S.D., Monday, April 21. The peaceful structure of the meeting was disrupted when someone brought a loudspeaker. "That meeting ended up being not so much a meeting as a protest rally. They pretty much ran the National Park Service out of the building," May said. Subsequent comment meetings were cancelled, including, at the last minute, one scheduled for Friday, April 25 at the Alex Johnson in Rapid City. "When they found out we might show up at that one, well they just cancelled it too," he said. "I don't blame them one bit. It's always just the NPS guys, the tribal government never shows up at these things. And the NPS guys, they sit up there and just get screamed at. There's a way to talk to the tribal members, and the NPS just doesn't have it. If I was them, I wouldn't show up either."
May tries to be understanding of the tribal government, but he is frustrated by a long list of things. "I think they have a hard job, so I don't want to damn them for everything they do, but it's Washington D.C.-funded anarchy," he says. "Bryan Brewer and his core team have been Harry Houdini-ing us on this thing. I've tried to get them together so we could talk and they've ducked and dodged at every turn."
Both May and Temple say the tribal leaders are straying from good management practices when it comes to employees and finances and the tribal park issue is just one item in a long queue of concerns. May points to a list of general fund contractors for 2013 to illustrate his skepticism of the administration's ethics. On the list is Wesley "Chuck" Jacobs, who received $30,000 for his duties as tribal park coordinator. "I don't know what Chuck is actually doing," says May. "He's certainly not showing up at meetings."
In early February the tribal council voted 10-4 to suspend the council's ethics commission for no more than 60 days, but the council hasn't discussed reinstating it yet, according to an article by Native Sun News.
Jacobs has been involved in tribal government in various capacities since the 1980s. In 2000, Grass Roots Oyate, a group of concerned Oglala Sioux Tribal members demanded the removal of Jacobs as Oglala Sioux Tribal Treasurer due to the abuse of power, mismanagement and mishandling of financial monies allocated to the members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, according to http://grassrootsoyate.tripod.com. In 2010 he was convicted of a felony and sentenced to 36 months in prison for "assault with a dangerous weapon."
According to May and others, the Brewer administration removed a clause in the tribal constitution prohibiting felons from tribal employment specifically for Jacobs. "Most of the time, if you're a felon, they [the Tribe] takes you to the edge of the reservation in a cop car and says 'don't come back.' If you're Chuck Jacobs, you get a job," May said.
"Yeah, he's not a good guy," says Temple. "We got a 'bad man' clause in our Constitution that we're trying to use to get rid of him so he won't harm our people."
Under the plan now being considered, the proposed Lakota Heritage Education Center will be built on Jacobs' land.
May and others say they would be more agreeable to the proposal if it didn't look like the U.S. government extracting a final concession from the tribe for lands that are rightfully theirs. "They're calling this a Tribal National Park. I say we're giving this land to the National Park Service. I keep saying 'the National Park Service has never given anything back,'" May said. " How we can we talk about getting the Black Hills back when we're giving them all this land now?"
In the 1990s, the Badlands National Park superintendent William Supernaugh rejected the tribe's demands to regain ownership of the South Unit of the Badlands by threatening to shut off the yearly payment from the North Unit, which sees a great deal more revenue from tourism. In 2013 that payment was $679,283.59. Under the new proposal, the tribe would voluntarily give that up, would cease to collect grazing fees, and the land would still be property of the U.S. government. "There's no guarantee of revenue for the foreseeable future in this deal," says May.
"I would like to live in a Utopia with fairy tales and pixie dust, but I don't," says May. "I'm not anti-buffalo, I guess. I'm anti-condemnation, and anti-removing the ranchers, and anti-giving our land away. "
"Eric Brunneman [the superintendent of the Badlands National Park] keeps saying 'I'm just doing my job,'" May said. "Finally one day I said to him 'Eric do your bosses know how mad these people are down here about what's going on?' And he said, 'Well no I haven't told them that.' And I said 'Don't you think maybe you should do that?'"
May is still hopeful about the outcome. "I'm trying to get all the parties to a meeting, where we can sit down and just be diplomatic about the whole thing. You know, sit down and talk about it."
The public comment period for the proposal is open until June 6th. Comments may be submitted at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=117&projectID=49473&documentID=58611