Panelists debate lawful ownership of Black Hills

Jill Fier

Jill Fier

The injustices of native people in regard to their freedom and property were addressed Wednesday night by the panel discussion “Who Owns the Black Hills?”

After land in western South Dakota was taken from Native Americans by the U.S. government over one hundred years ago, questions over who rightfully owns the Black Hills remain today.

The panel featured Native American student advisor Valerian Three Irons, history professor David Crain, and sociology professor Donna Hess.

According to Crain, the last to occupy and be the subject of a treaty in regard to ownership rights were the Lakota. The Lakota moved into the Black Hills area in the 1700s from Minnesota.

In the mid 1800s, the United States became interested in the land to secure a route for the Oregon Trail. They tried to buy the land with a treaty, which was denied “for economic resource and for, more importantly, the spiritual value,” Crain said.

In order to pass the treaty, 75 percent of adult male votes was needed, but never obtained. The Native Americans were eventually given a monetary compensation for the land, which today values $350 million.

The land was never returned, and Native Americans refuse to accept the money. They want their land back.

Three Irons said this was happening to tribes all over the country in this time period by something called demarcation.

“You go to somebody’s place and you plot your flag in their land. It started in the western hemisphere and has been going on for a long time,” he said.

Many natural resources have been taken from the Black Hills, like gold, timber and water.

That should be compensated, Three Irons said. “The Creator owns the world. We’re supposed to be stewards of the land, caretakers of it.”

Tribes are only asking for nationally owned land, not privately owned land.

Education Outreach Coordinator Charnel Petersen said reasons for not turning over land, like not knowing if Native Americans will put it to good use, are unfair. She said it is similar to not given someone back their stolen car because “they might drive their car recklessly.”

Petersen also said wanting their land back does not mean they are enemies.

“Unless we defend every little bit of it, we lose it. It’s hard to fight with your neighbors. It’s a messy divorce,” she said.

Although to date none of the land in the Black Hills has been returned to native peoples, Three Irons said he thought progress was being made by people simply talking about the issue.

“About twenty years ago, this kind of conversation wouldn’t even be happening in South Dakota, I’m glad it’s happening today,” he said.

Three Irons also said people need to be more actively involved in their government and know what politicians are doing.

History club president Christine L’Amour said people need to be concerned about this issue because they are residents of the state and need to care about what happens in South Dakota.

Panelists said it is unlikely for South Dakota politicians to become involved in the issue because it would be “political suicide,” as many South Dakota residents do not want to let go of the land.