THE BLOG
10/02/2011 07:42 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2011

The Irony of the Black Hills Buffalo Roundup

There is a historic marker west of Custer, S. D. that reads: "Historic Sites, Buffalo Rock - Site where the last buffalo was killed in the Black Hills in 1887 by Joe Humphreus, Bob Patterson - Charles Sager nearby is the site of the first lime kiln in the Black Hills."

As is turned out, this was not the last buffalo killed in the Black Hills.

And so how ironic it is that just a few miles from this marker a Buffalo Roundup is held annually that draws up to 15,000 spectators.

What started out as a small roundup attended mainly by buffalo ranchers has grown into an event that not only draws huge crowds, but has now expanded into a three-day spectacle that includes a Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, which includes exhibits of Native American and Western arts, crafts, musicians, dancers and poets, and educational programs on nature and history. There is the annual chili cook-off where all of the chili cookers must use buffalo meat and there are also booths stocked with tasty buffalo burgers.

The Roundup has been touted by South Dakota Tourism as "the largest herd of wild bison in the United States." The annual event takes place in Custer State Park located in the Black Hills and has become one of the biggest outdoor spectacles in America and certainly in South Dakota. Ironically, the park is named after George Armstrong Custer, probably the man most hated by the Lakota people.

The legal issues surrounding the Black Hills have never been settled. The Lakota (Sioux) still claim title to the Black Hills. When the U. S. Supreme Court decided to make a monetary settlement in the case in 1980, Justice Harry Blackmun said of the case, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history."

An editorial in the Rapid City Journal notes, "The roundup is more than mere spectacle; it helps park officials to maintain a healthy number of bison that the park can support, while providing breeding stock to buffalo ranchers at a later auction. The buffalo are also checked for pregnancy, tested for diseases such as brucellosis, and vaccinated against others. Last year the auction generated $325,000, and park officials say rising prices for buffalo nation-wide could see record income at this year's sale."

You can rest assured that not one penny from the auction sales has ever gone to any of the Sioux tribes in South Dakota. The tribes do get some buffalo to restock their herds, but with an unemployment rate hovering at 80 percent on the Pine Ridge Reservation alone, some of the profits from the buffalo sale would be welcomed by the tribes. In fact, not one penny of the millions of dollars in timber sales generated annually has ever gone to the contested owners of the Black Hills. The billion dollars in gold extracted from the Hills while they were still under litigation between the government and the Sioux has gone into the pockets of private investors.

This year the herd numbered around 1,200 head. The biggest spectacle for the tourists is to see real live cowboys pushing the herd across the prairie grasslands. For the past few years Native Sun News has suggested that Native American riders be included in the roundup, but thus far this suggestion has fallen on deaf ears. Now wouldn't that add to the spectacle to see Sioux warriors in their full regalia riding bareback chasing the buffalo herd?

I find this roundup to be the irony of all ironies because it was the policy of the United States and of South Dakota to kill off the buffalo herds in order to deny sustenance to the Lakota people and thus, bring them to their knees. Knowing full well that it was the herds of buffalo that fed, clothed and offered spiritual sustenance as well, the well-thought out program of eliminating the buffalo did exactly what it was intended to do: it starved the Lakota people into submission and eventually opened millions of acres of land to settlement, including the theft of the Black Hills. The buffalo became an iconic symbol to the Native Americans and to the whites: A symbol of survival to the Sioux and a symbol to destroy
If it had not been for a few diligent whites and Hispanics, the buffalo would have gone the way of the dodo bird.

The past is gone, but native South Dakotans can repair a lot of damage and greatly improve upon race relations if they stop thinking of the Lakota as a part of history that should be forgotten and begin to include them in all of the activities that are accepted every day as the norm. Stop leaving the Lakota at the window looking in and just open the door and invite them to the table. The Buffalo Roundup is a good place to start.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net)