A Short Inquiry into Pe’ Sla: History, Public Policy, and Moral Imagination
By Frank Pommersheim
In 2012, several Lakota tribes, including Rosebud, Crow Creek, Standing Rock, and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux of Minnesota purchased a 2,400 acre ranch on the open market. The purchase price was about $9 million dollars. The land is located within the western part of South Dakota in a rural portion of Pennington County.
The land is also located within the sacred Black Hills and the historical Great Sioux Nation as recognized in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The Lakota name for this area is Pe’ Sla or the ‘Heart of All That Is.’ Tribal plans for the land include historical, cultural, and religious activities, as well as sustainable buffalo ranching.
The Tribal path best suited to these cultural, spiritual, and economic activities involves placing this land into ‘trust’ status. This process is authorized by § 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This ‘land into trust’ provision is specifically designed to permit tribes to reacquire some of their land base that was severely reduced (in the amount of 90 million acres) during the time of treaty violations and the allotment process that ran from 1877-1934.
The two major effects of placing land into trust are that the land is no longer subject to local property tax and it becomes part of ‘Indian country’ as defined by federal law at 18 U.S.C. § 1151. This latter designation establishes an area of substantial federal and tribal jurisdiction and minimal state authority.
The process for placing land into trust requires a tribal application and review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This administrative process requires notice to the public, including county and state governments. Interested parties may also submit written arguments in favor or in opposition to the tribal application.
The State of South Dakota filed written comments in opposition to the Tribal application. The essence of the state’s arguments were the loss of real property tax revenue in Pennington County and the creation of confusing ‘checkerboard’ jurisdiction in the affected area. These arguments were rejected by the Regional Director’s written decision of March 10, 2016.
Key elements of the Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative decision include the following. The loss of tax revenue in Pennington County is miniscule. The loss of tax revenue in the amount of $78,887 is .00106% of the total county tax revenue of $7,416,900,664. The potential jurisdictional problems are real enough, but have already been largely dealt with through a signed memorandum of understanding entered into between the Tribes and Pennington County. This memorandum of understanding deals with both criminal and civil jurisdiction, not simply in broad generalizations, but also in practical terms of cross-deputization and shared resources. The BIA decision also emphasizes the important fact that the local government of Pennington County, the government most directly affected by this application, did not oppose it. Pennington County submitted no arguments in opposition.
Context is also significant and relevant. In the Pe’ Sla application, the State of South Dakota not only opposes the tribes, but is in direct opposition to its own local county government. This is striking and profoundly jarring. The usual South Dakota refrain to keep the federal government out of the loop is now complemented by a desire to keep local government out too.
The Pe’ Sla case is not South Dakota’s first land into trust rodeo. Indeed, the State of South Dakota has vigorously litigated land into trust cases for the past dozen years. The State has opposed land into trust applications by the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribe, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe. The State lost all four of these cases, despite their appeals all the way to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The State even sought review by the United States Supreme Court in the Lower Brule case, but its petition was denied.
Despite this, the State does not seek conversation or dialogue with the Tribes on these matters. It seeks no common ground. Apparently, it just prefers to litigate, to use its resources without qualm, and to go as far as necessary to ‘win,’ except that the State has yet to ‘win.’
With this useful history so close at hand, one might think that it is a good time to begin a respectful conversation and public policy dialogue. Yet the only recent ‘talk’ has been Governor Daugaard’s hurtful and ill-informed comments on the Pe’ Sla case. During his appearance before the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Council to inform the Tribe of the State’s decision to appeal the case, he opined on the Tribal failure to understand their mistake:
I also oppose the Pe’ Sla land into trust for this reason. You have many Tribal members who have needs here on the Reservation. And if Grandma needs housing or if Grandma needs transportation . . . Grandma doesn’t need you to spend tribal resources on a park land setting for religious use or for buffalo agricultural use. Grandma needs housing. Grandma needs food. And so that’s your decision to make . . . not mine. That’s yours to make. But I don’t support it . . . For that reason.
While many people consider Governor Daugaard a good and decent man, his comments follow the all too common trajectory of many ‘leaders,’ who have gone before him. Such state (and federal) ‘leaders’ know what is best for Indians without ever talking to them. There is no need for conversation, respect, or reconciliation.
Just take care of ‘Grandma’ and forget about your religious heritage. Take care of ‘Grandma’ and forget about sustainable buffalo ranching. Just stay back and accept the unjust and impoverished status quo. Don’t bother us with your efforts to (re)acquire a tiny portion of your sacred lands and to initiate a new sustainable buffalo economy. Just stay back. Just stay in your place.
The State of South Dakota is just repeating itself. Just playing the same old hand of opposition to tribes. Yet repeating the past is not inevitable. Co-operative possibilities are not difficult to imagine. They include such things as a joint park and permanent exhibit that deals with the history of the Black Hills, cooperative agricultural ventures involving buffalo, or a jointly run tourism office.
South Dakota. Just turn your heart and mind around. Withdraw your appeal. Reset your political and moral compass. Imagine a better, more respectful, and more inclusive future. Good things are possible. As Basil Brave Heart wisely encouraged the Governor in the context of the name change of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak, “When I talk to him, I will say I know you’re frustrated, but I wish you would join us in our celebration. I would appreciate it if you would embrace and celebrate with us on this great venture.” Celebration without litigation. South Dakota should think about it.