Tribe Poised to Take Control of Badlands South Unit
Dakota Digest - 05/22/2012
The South Unit of the Badlands National Park could soon become the first ever tribally run National Park in the country. The Oglala Sioux Tribe is hammering out an agreement to transfer control of half of the Badlands National Park back to tribal control and management. Some hope the move sets a precedent for other tribes around the country. SDPB's Charles Michael Ray reports that tribal officials hope the move brings more visitors to Pine Ridge. He has today's Dakota Digest.
When Gerard Baker walks through the Badlands he keeps an eye out for one thing.
"I grew up in North Dakota in snake country so I always watch for rattlesnakes and any other little things we have around here," says Baker.
Baker Served as the Superintendent of Mount Rushmore before taking a job as the Director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Parks and Recreation Authority. Baker looks out over the red clay and yellow sandy bluffs of the Badlands. It's a ruggedly beautiful landscape and it is sacred to the Lakota.
"You can come out here for example... and listen to that, and you can hear the same sounds that our warriors and our families heard coming across this area 500 years ago maybe 1000 years ago. And so those sounds are still here, the feelings are still here which means the spirits are still here," says Baker.
Baker is not Lakota but Hidatsa from North Dakota. He points out that where the lower half of the Badlands National Park sits is on tribally owned land. The land was taken by the Department of Defense around World War II for a bombing range. In 1976 the D.O.D. was ready to give back the Badlands, but it came only with the stipulation that the area become a national park. This left the Oglala Sioux Tribe little say in the management of the 133-thousand acres here.
"There has always been a sense of loss for these people here especially those who were on the land and this is one way of getting that back maybe a generation or two later," says Baker.
The agreement being worked on keeps the Badlands National Park intact--but gives the tribe the full authority to manage its portion of the park and to also reap the benefits of visitor traffic and new jobs. Sandra Washington is with the National Park Service.
"Tourism is a big industry all over this country and certainly in an area as poverty stricken as the Pine Ridge Reservation anything that provides an economic lift is a great thing," says Washington.
Washington says the opportunity will open new doors for tribal members who want to become Park Rangers. It will also allow the Oglala Lakota to create their own interpretive and educational programs at the park. Gerard Baker hopes this helps remove stigma around the Pine Ridge Reservation.
"What I want to encourage people to do is come down and it's OK to come south, and I really mean that because in the past we've had a little bit of a problem with even some folks from the state of South Dakota saying do not come down here, the American Indians are having a tough time and they say some more awful things that I completely disagree with," says Baker
Baker says families can come to a place like the White River Visitor Center in the South Unit and get a unique experience including Lakota stories and history of the Badlands.
"I think one of the biggest challenges people have coming down here is that don't know about the places to stay down here, they don't know that we have restaurants down here, they don't know that we have areas where you can go to educate yourself. And, one of our jobs this summer is to let those folks know that come down here and give them a good experience so they can go home and tell their neighbors, friends and relatives and they keep coming back," says Baker.
Tribal members hope this move sets a precedent for other areas of the country where tribal lands fall in parks. Turns out there are a number of iconic landscapes in the United States that are tribally owned. Monument Valley is the setting for the wiley coyote and the road runner. The area is every bit as iconic as any national park -- But it's not a U.S. national park - it's a Navaho Nation Park. The Navaho own Monument Valley and they've managed it as their park for over 50 years. Martin L. Begay is the Director of Navaho Parks and Recreation. Begay says what's happening in the Badlands of South Dakota should open the door for other tribal nations to take over management of National Parks in their areas.
"One case in point is Rainbow Bridge National Monument which is run by the National Park Service and it's actually a sacred site to most of the tribes that are here in this part of the country," says Begay
National Parks Service Officials say they aren't sure if this case will set a precedent elsewhere because each individual tribal nation has unique circumstances. Sandra Washington with the National Park Service.
"I don't know of another place in the National Park System where we have that kind of relationship with a tribe on lands," says Washington.
Back in the Badlands Gerard Baker is still scanning the ground for rattlesnakes as he walks. Baker says he does believe this case should pave the way for the return of other parks on tribal lands. The Oglala Sioux Tribe and the National Park Service plan to sign an agreement by the end of this month that lays out the transfer process, but full approval requires an act of congress. It's congress that created the Badlands National Park. Now those close to this process, hope congress will see fit to give control over part of the park--back to the original owners.
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