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Black Hills Claims Settlement Funds Top $1 Billion

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The riches that have fallen upon those Indian nations blessed to be located next to urban centers with huge populations have bypassed the very poor tribes of the Northern Plains.

When one travels around the communities on the reservations that make up the Sioux Nation, it immediately becomes apparent that there is an abundance of poverty there. But the people calling themselves Lakota, Dakota and Nakota still hold their heads high and, against all odds, still find pride in their poverty.

In February three presidents of three South Dakota reservations -- Charlie Murphy, President of the Standing Rock Tribe, Roger Trudell, Chairman of the Santee Sioux Tribe, and Theresa Two Bulls, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe -- traveled to Washington, D. C. to meet with Jody Gillette and Kimberly Teehee, officials of the Obama Administration, to discuss the background of the Black Hills Claims Settlement.

Chairman Trudell suggested that Senate Bill S.1453 that was introduced by New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat, in 1985 was the best starting point when discussing the monetary award allocated to the Sioux tribes in 1980.

At the meeting Teehee expressed interest in the details of the Bradley Bill, but said she was looking for a broader consideration of options. The Bradley Bill called for the transfer of 1.3 million acres of Black Hills National Forest land to the Great Sioux Nation, lands that excluded Mount Rushmore National Memorial, private lands, municipalities and other park lands. Interest from the judgment award would be distributed amongst the tribes as compensation for the loss of use of the land; the principle would remain in the trust fund. Appropriations would be provided to assist the Sioux Nation in managing the returned lands.

But Teehee expressed concern about the issue of consensus. She was concerned over the lack of unity and about the opposition by treaty councils and other factions within the Sioux communities. She identified Jody Gillette as the primary point of contact in her office for the Black Hills issue.

For example, last year at a meeting set up by the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association to bring the different factions together to discuss the Black Hills and make an effort to bring about unity, one man identifying himself as a "treaty man," stood up and said that only full-bloods should be considered for money associated with the Black Hills. The man was reprimanded by Standing Rock attorney Steve Emery who told him that it was not right to steal the birthright of the iyeska (mixed blood) children who had no say on how they came into this world.

While this meeting was taking place the money allocated to the Sioux Nation in the Black Hills Claims Settlement continued to draw interest. The original award issued in 1981 has grown considerably from the $105 million for the Black Hills and the $44 million for the lands outside of the Black Hills. The settlement now stands at; $123,066,299 million for the lands taken outside of the Black Hills and $883,812,086 million for the Black Hills. This brings the total of the funds held in trust by the U. S. Interior Department to $1,006,878,985 billion.

If you compute the settlement to include the actual market value, it would add another $40 plus million to the award.

Jody Gillette works in the Executive Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Kimberly Teehee serves on the President's Domestic Policy Council. It would appear that Teehee, a member of the Cherokee Nation and Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, two strong Indian women, are in positions to deal directly with the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation on the Black Hills issue.

Nearly 30 years have passed since the monetary award was issued and the funds have been invested 100 percent into the market and the money has fluctuated as the market fell, stabilized and then rose.

Whether the tribes will find another champion to introduce Senate legislation in the fashion of the Bradley Bill or whether they accept the money outright is the subject of the debates that have raged since last summer across the Great Sioux Nation.

So far it seems that extreme poverty has not entered into the equation, but the steadfast refusal to accept any of the funds by the treaty councils has diminished over the years and a younger generation sees the settlement through the prism of the 21st century and as they gain the political power within the ranks of the tribal councils, the decisions of the settlement will gradually fall upon them. To a people steeped in perpetual poverty, one billion dollars offers many alternate possibilities.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.