Environmental Justice Case Study: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota

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Above image of Lakota Indian protesters provided by High Country News, 1996.

The Problem

South Dakota Parks and Recreation Department has limited Native American access to what the Lakota Indians and other Native American groups claim to be holy lands in Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota. Some Native Americans have equated Bear Butte with Mecca or Bethlehem. The State of South Dakota acquired the land in 1962 to develop a State Park. This catalyzed many Native American demonstrations against the Federal and State Governments. The construction of the park facilities disrupted the Lakota's religious ceremonies at the site. Increased visitation to the park has caused many conflicts between visitors and worshiping Lakota Indians. Planned expansion will continue to erode the ability of the Lakota people to practice their religious ceremonies unmolested by visitors. The Native Americans claim that the state and its activities at the park violate their consitutional rights provided by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (42 U.S.C.s, 1996).

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Since the early 1800's the interests of the United States government and those of Plains Indians have been in conflict. The westward expansion began on the heels of Lewis and Clark's expedition and thus spawned infringements on Indian land. In the early 1860's direct hostilities broke out between the Dakota, an eastern band of Sioux, and the Federal Government. The murder of a family of white settlers in the area precipitated the conflict, which ended in the capture and scheduled executation of 392 Dakota Indians. President Abraham Lincoln reduced the list to 38, who were then executed on December 26, 1862 near Mankato, Minnesota.

In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty offered lands in South Dakota, west of the Missouri River to the surviving Indians in the area. Sitting Bull signed this treaty on behalf of the Ogalala and Lakota tribes. In 1876, for reasons unknown, Sitting Bull signed over lands which include Black Hills and Bear Butte to the United States Government. In 1882 an aggreement signed between the United States Congress and Sioux allowed for permanent claim to specific lands. In 1962, South Dakota Parks and Recreation purchased the land from the federal government for the development of Bear Butte State Park.

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Key Actors

Mario Gonzalez

Mario Gonzales is the attorney representing the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Also, at the spearhead of the issue is Gaiashkibos, the President of the National Congress of American Indians, and chairman of Wisconsin's Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa Tribe. The network of Native American Associations and other tribes are also questioning federal and state park plans which limit their access to these areas.

State Agencies

On the opposing side are the South Dakota Fish and Parks Department and the Manager of the Bear Butte State Park, who have restricted unlimited and uninterrupted access to Bear Butte State Park for the Lakota.

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The Lakota Indians have primarily pursued legal channels. However, in the past, other avenues have been taken to draw attention to these land use issues affecting other tribes across the country. In 1972 seven National Indian Organizations marched on Washington and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs to bring attention to the plight of the Native Americans. In a similar situation in 1973 the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the village of Wounded Knee for 72 days.

Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, allowing religious freedom for Native Americans. This came after spiritual leaders and religious practitioners filed a class action suit on behalf of the Lakota and Tsistsistas Nations in the United States Supreme Court (Fools Crow vs. Gullet).

In recent years, South Dakota and the Bear Butte State Park Manager have constructed roads, a maintenance building, additional camping, parking, a visitor center, and boardwalks. Such constructions have disrupted the natural setting of the Butte and the ability of the Lakota to perform religious ceremonies. Additionally, park management has done little to control visitor infringement of ceremonies.

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Evaluation of the Strategies

Although not initially successful, legal tactics have been very successful in efforts to achieve the the desired goal. Publicity from the lawsuit started the formation of many other alliances among similarly affected tribes across the nation. The Alliance to Protect Native Rights in National Parks, formed in the summer of 1996, was established to allow access to government land by Native Americans. This spread into a nationwide outcry from Native Americans demanding access to what they claim to be holy lands.

However, some feel the Lakota may be asking for more than what is granted to them in the Bill of Rights and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Nothing in these two documents indicates that the government is responsible for providing places of worship. In demanding exclusive access to public land solely for the purpose of worship, Native Americans are asking the South Dakota to put Native American interests above those of other citizens, as well as the environment. Hence, the courts claimed that the inconvience caused to the Indians did not outweigh the benefits to the public, and protection of the environment.

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The South Dakota and its Department of Fish and Parks have given consessions to Lakota who wish to worship in Bear Butte State Park. Lakota are exempt from the registration fee charged to each visitor. Native Americans involved in religious ceremonies are allowed up to ten days camping at no charge. A separate trail system has been established for Native Americans involved in religious ceremonies. Others can use this trail system, but are advised to stay on the path, whereas Lakota can leave the path. Also, half of the Bear Butte State Park are Lakota Indians, and only Lakota set up Native American interpretive displays.

While the consessions offered have quieted some of the protesters, the cry has spread across the country for more access to government lands. In some areas, local tribes, who survive on what they are able to hunt, trap, or mine from the land, claim they require more access to government lands to be able to continue their way of life. Some speculate it is the equivalent of "cultural genocide" for the federal government not to allow them their way of life. Presedent Clinton is now invloved in this issue, in that his policy requires government agencies to respect the status of Indian tribes as distinct sovereign nations.

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Notes and Contacts

Wilkinson, Todd. 1996. "Native Americans Challenge Park Agency for Land Rights." Christian Science Monitor. 26 Oct.

"Native Amrerican Religious Freedom." Orange County Register 28 June 1996: 6.

Vogel, H. Hamline University 1995: http://www.hamline.edu/law/sacred/bbsum.html.

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