Black Hills Case Reopened

From the NYTs:

A band of Sioux whose ancestors were driven from the majestic Black Hills more than 130 years ago is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation, upsetting other tribal members who say taking money for the sacred land would be legitimizing the theft.

A lawsuit filed last week asks a federal judge to release as much as $900 million in compensation and interest that eight Sioux tribes refused decades ago. The tribes insisted instead on return of the rugged land in southwestern South Dakota they lost in military battles that included Custer’s Last Stand.

The dispute has split the tribes. Some 5,000 tribal members have signed up for the class-action lawsuit, but just 19 plaintiffs are listed because many others live on reservations and fear retribution, said lawyer Wanda L. Howey-Fox of Yankton.

She said tribal members are wrong if they believe taking the money amounts to selling the Black Hills.

”There is no selling to be done because the court determined it was an improper taking and all the court can give as far as a remedy is money,” Howey-Fox said. ”They can sit and hope and pine away that the government is going to give the Black Hills back, but that is never going to happen.”

But Charlotte Black Elk, who has been active in traditional native issues including the Black Hills, said she would never consider taking money for the Black Hills, which the Sioux hold sacred.

”To take the money would bless the theft,” said Black Elk, who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

”This is obviously a move by people who just want a check,” she said. ”I believe some of them are not fully aware of the significance of the Black Hills and what taking money for it would mean.”

At stake is hundreds of millions of dollars awarded in old court cases but never accepted by the tribes.

Black Elk and Mario Gonzalez, a lawyer for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said they believe federal law prevents a court from ordering officials to disburse money from the old court cases. Congress would have to approve any spending of the money, they said.

The dispute dates back more than a century. In an 1868 treaty, the United States government agreed the Black Hills would be set aside for use by the Sioux. After gold was discovered there, miners and other fortune-seekers flocked to the area. That led to military battles culminating in George Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn in 1876.

When the Sioux refused to sign a new treaty giving up the Black Hills, Congress passed a law taking the land in 1877.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 upheld a lower court ruling that awarded eight Sioux tribes $106 million in compensation, the 1877 value of $17.5 million plus interest. The justices said the government had to pay for taking the tribal property.

But all the Sioux tribes have refused to take the money, insisting instead on the return of the land.

The new lawsuit, filed April 15 in federal court in Sioux Falls, also seeks the distribution of money from another case that awarded the Sioux compensation for the taking of timber, water and mineral rights in the Black Hills.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to decide how to allocate the money among tribal members and to order the U.S. Interior Department to release the money from trust funds, which recently held about $900 million.

Gonzalez said he expects the lawsuit will be dismissed under a federal law dealing with the disbursement of such funds. The tribes refused to accept the money during the time allotted, so the Interior Department can now disburse the funds only with the approval of Congress, he said.

Interior Department officials referred comment to the U.S. Justice Department after business hours Wednesday.

Howey-Fox said the money should be disbursed to individual tribal members.

”There are people who actually think the Black Hills are coming back. I can pretty much guarantee that’s not happening,” Howey-Fox said.

Black Elk said tribal members who agree to take the money would be giving up their identities as Indians. Anyone who wants money for the Black Hills should not live on the reservations, she said.

”You’re not just taking money. You’re prostituting yourself,” Black Elk said.

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