Reclaiming tribal lands and focusing on the future of the tribe was the theme of the day when the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in a historic moment of agreement with the United States Government, signed a document that propels forward the vision of the first ever Tribal national Park.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis presented the final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement for the South Unit of Badlands National Park, which recommends the establishment of the nation’s first tribal national park.
In a statement released about the announcement, Salazar said, “Our National Park System is one of America’s greatest story tellers. As we seek to tell a more inclusive story of America, a tribal national park would help celebrate and honor the history and culture of the Oglala Sioux people. Working closely with the Tribe, Congress, and the public, the Park Service will work to develop a legislative proposal to make the South Unit a tribal national park.”
For over forty years, the OST has worked with the parks service to manage the 133,000 acres of the South Unit, which lies entirely within reservation boundaries.
With the establishment of the tribal national park, the Oglala Sioux people could manage and operate their lands for the educational and recreational benefit of the general public, including a new Lakota Heritage and Education Center.
Gerard Baker, Mandan and Hidatsa, Director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation spoke to the gathering, “This is like a treaty, one that cannot be broken”
Baker is the former Superintendent at Mount Rushmore, yet retired from the Nation Park Service after being named Assistant Park Service Director for Native American Relations.
The National Park Service is expected to sign the Record of Decision this summer, however, congressional legislation is necessary before the Service can implement the Plan’s Preferred Management Option.
Depending on congressional action, the South Unit could be being administered through a variety of options, including as a unit of the National Park System managed by tribal members hired as NPS employees or managed by tribal members as employees of the Tribe.
“These are our future rangers,” said Badlands Superintendent Eric Brunnemann. “These are the young people that may lead a tribal national park into the future. I do see a time when our rangers will routinely work side-by-side with tribal biologists, archeologists, and paleontologists.”
With nearly one million visitors bringing in over twenty three million dollars in revenue to the Badlands National Park in recent years future opportunities for recreation and education in the South Unit offers prospects for local area.
According to the Department of Interior website, during World War II, the War Department established the Pine Ridge Aerial Gunnery Range from lands within the Reservation. In1968, the Gunnery Range was declared excess, and Congress conveyed most of the lands to the Tribe with the provision that the South Unit be administered by the National Park Service.
In 2003, the Tribe formally requested government-to-government negotiations regarding management control of the South Unit, and the Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribe agreed to use the general management plan process to explore options for greater involvement in the South Unit.
During the ceremony at the White River Visitor Center, Brunnerman was led to an opened tipi to sit at a table draped with buffalo robes. Another robe was placed before the table with a buffalo scull placed in its center.
The entire assembly, including OST Park rangers, OST President Yellow Bird Steele and other council members, were smudged in a ceremonial cleansing.
Lakota spiritual leader Rick Two Dogs offered prayers for the blessing of the agreement and the wellbeing of all in attendance.
Prior to signing the document, Brunnerman and Yellow Bird Steel placed their hand on the scull as a public declaration of commitment to the agreement they were signing.
MJ Bull Bear, OST Parks ranger, sang a chief song as the documents were signed.
Immediately following the signing, the public were invited to visit several stations set up for hands on learning of various Lakota crafts such as tanning, bow making and archery, tipi demonstrations and song and dance demonstrations. A meal was offered for the guests of the open house.
Baker stated, “It is our hope that people come to realize that we are out here, and that we become a true destination place”