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Good News in the Badlands

Over the past century, the relationship between the Oglala Lakota and the federal government has been uneasy at best. And it looked to stay that way—until a pair of brothers from an enemy tribe helped bring the two sides together, opening the door for a historic accord that could revolutionize how we think of national parks in America.

Author Brendan Borrell Photography Jessyel Ty Gonzalez

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A Badlands bison

AN ELECTRICAL STORM IS BREWING as Trudy Ecoffey and I barrel across the short-grass prairie of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I expected a rough ride—in addition to being hard country generally, some of this land once served as a bombing range and is to this day littered with unexploded ordnance— but Ecoffey, a biologist with the Oglala Lakota tribe, failed to warn me about our cargo. Which stinks like you can’t imagine. When I look to her uncomprehendingly, with pleading eyes, she apologizes. “I didn’t think about that last night. I had to put the stink sticks in the vehicle with us.”

Stink sticks, Ecoffey tells me as I thrust my head out the passenger-side window and gasp for air, are wooden stakes dipped in a vile concoction that attract swift foxes to the cameras she’s set up around the reservation. About the size of a house cat, with big pointy ears and a black-tipped feathery tail, the swift fox saw its population decline dramatically in the Great Plains around the turn of the 20th century. It’s a ferocious predator—at least if you’re a prairie dog—and is revered by the Lakota, who named an elite class of warriors after the animal. “It’s a tough little critter,” she says.

In 2009 Ecoffey brought 54 of the foxes to this windswept prairie and fitted them with radio collars, and she’s been monitoring their progress ever since. In itself, her mission to help reintroduce the animals to their former territory has been successful. But Trudy Ecoffey represents more than the gradual return of an endangered species. In a way, she’s also an olive branch from the U.S. government to the Oglala Lakota, a Sioux Nation tribe it evicted from a swath of the reservation 70 years ago to create the bombing range and, later, Badlands National Park. This land has been a source of dispute and disappointment for decades; now, suddenly, it’s grounds for hope.

“Something needed to change between the National Park Service and the tribe,” says Ecoffey. Last year it did—and that, in turn, has given rise to something that could change the way we think of national parks in America. As go the foxes, so too go the Lakota.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, and the Badlands are painted in a purplish light. The landscape is a labyrinth of ravines, a place of austere beauty and abundant wildlife. In just a few minutes I spot bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bison and even a bobcat, slinking across the road.

But there’s always been more to this place than what the paved roads reveal. You can see it right there on the park map: the South Unit, a vast wilderness within the Pine Ridge reservation. And contrary to what the friendly woman at the park gate told me—”Not much to see down there”— there is in fact plenty to see. It just takes perseverance. You need a high-clearance vehicle, and it’s best to do some research ahead of time because practically the only signs you’ll see are warnings not to “disturb unknown objects” (since, as the signs also say, “they could accidentally explode”).

This is Lakota country.

Ask most people what they know about the Lakota tribe, and you’ll likely hear about Crazy Horse, the warrior whose likeness is now being carved into the Black Hills southwest of Mount Rushmore. Back in 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Oglala Lakota, along with other closely related Sioux tribes, land from the Black Hills east through much of South Dakota and part of Nebraska, creating the Great Sioux Reservation. Six years later, a military expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills, and Congress reneged on the deal. Crazy Horse took up arms and fought in many legendary battles, including the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 (in which he reputedly shouted, “Hokahey, today is a good day to die!” before charging Custer’s troops). In 1877 he surrendered at Fort Robinson, Neb.; four months later he was fatally stabbed in the back by a U.S. soldier and became a martyr for Indian resistance. Thirteen years after his death, the U.S. Army killed more than 150 Lakota—men, women and children—at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.

The Great Sioux Reservation was eventually split into five separate reservations, the largest being Pine Ridge. In 1942, the U.S. government turned part of the Badlands into an Air Force bombing range and forced more than 100 Lakota families to relocate. “My dad didn’t want to move,” Florida Jealous Of Him, a Lakota elder with long black hair, tells me in halting English. In fact, she and her brother got a thrill out of watching the planes fly in low over their pine log cabin—at least until a bomb went through a neighbor’s roof. (No one was injured.)

In 1968, the federal government and tribal leaders began negotiations over returning the land. The agreement they reached stipulated that a third of the former bombing range would be developed and managed by the National Park Service. This so-called South Unit would be joined to the existing Badlands National Monument (a.k.a. the North Unit), established in 1939, to form a full-fledged national park; proceeds would be shared with the tribe. The rest of the bombing range would be cleared of ordnance and returned to the Lakota.

Unfortunately, the South Unit was never developed as promised, and remained merely a place to poach fossils and graze cattle. Furthermore, the Oglala Lakota resented the federal government’s symbolic presence on their sovereign territory. The tensions ignited in April 2002, after the National Park Service wrote to tribal leaders saying that it planned to survey the South Unit and excavate any exposed fossils of the rhino-like mammals known as titanotheres, to protect them from poachers. The tribe refused. As word of the dispute spread across the reservation, it reopened old wounds and led to rumors of Indian graves being disturbed.

Keith Janis, who had been fighting for the return of his family’s land from within the park’s South Unit, was furious. “I trust our own people to manage those lands better than the National Park Service,” he says. He and other protesters set up camp atop Stronghold Table, the same sacred spot where Sioux tribes had gathered in the run-up to Wounded Knee. There, the modern-day warriors performed, as their predecessors had done more than a century ago, a “ghost dance” to scare away the enemy.

For a time, it seemed the situation was intractable. When the resolution did arrive, it came with help from an unlikely quarter: two members of a tribe that was once the Lakota’s sworn enemy.

GERARD BAKER, A MOUNTAIN OF A MAN with two long braids and a beadwork belt, sits in the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort eating a hot beef sandwich. A Mandan-Hidatsa Indian from North Dakota, he spent 35 years working for the National Park Service. “It was tough coming up in the park service as an Indian,” he says. Most U.S. national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, were established on lands that once were home to Native Americans; for Baker, his loyalties were often difficult to reconcile.

After getting his start as a janitor, Baker rose through the ranks to eventually become superintendent at Montana’s Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. There, he made few friends by emphasizing the Native American version of history over the government one. And things didn’t get any easier when he became the superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in 2004, as the Oglala Lakota were battling for the return of their land nearby.

That’s where the story of the Baker brothers really begins. Not long after Gerard took the top spot at Mount Rushmore, his older brother, Paige, became superintendant of Badlands National Park. Paige Baker made it a priority to rebuild trust with the Lakota: Among other gestures of goodwill, his administration began training Ecoffey and other tribal biologists in wildlife management, part of which has involved restoring the swift fox population.

After Paige retired in 2009, it didn’t take long for the Lakota to connect with his brother—thinking, correctly, that Gerard would be an ideal bridge between the government and the tribe. He knew how to talk to Indians like an Indian; he knew how to write reports and file paperwork like a bureaucrat; and, as an outsider to the conflict, he could be objective in weighing the disparate voices on the reservation and brokering an agreement.

Last spring the Lakota hired Gerard Baker as interim executive director for the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority. It was a timely hire: Three months later, the tribe signed an unprecedented accord with the National Park Service in which the latter agreed to give back the South Unit land—which, at 133,000 acres, makes up more than half of Badlands National Park. The tribe had weighed a number of options for the land, including scrapping the park designation completely or managing it as an independent tribal park, but decided instead to help create an entirely new breed of national park, one that would be run by the tribe but meet federal regulations.

That decision was enthusiastically received by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “Our National Park System is one of America’s greatest storytellers,” he said at the time. “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.”

The next step is for Congress to formally designate the South Unit as an independent park. In the meantime—despite persistent complaints from members who’d rather see the land returned to the families who once lived there—tribal leaders are developing plans for a visitors center and studying the prospect of reintroducing bison (which currently live only in the North Unit). If the Oglala Lakota can prove themselves here, it opens the door to other tribes desiring greater involvement in parks set on former tribal lands.

It all adds up to an ideal situation, says Steve Thede, deputy superintendent at Badlands National Park, who also happens to be white. “Instead of hearing about the Indians from somebody who looks like me, you can hear about what the Indians did—and do—from an Indian.”

RANDALL BLAZE LIVES ON the edge of Cuny Table, a lush agricultural plateau that abuts the South Unit. The Indian artist has spent the past 15 years creating his most ambitious sculpture yet: his home, a boxy, glass-fronted structure that’s visible for miles in every direction. But the building is not found in any guidebook—at least not yet. Blaze has been warming to the idea of running a bed-and-breakfast, and was willing to put me up for a night.

“When I first came up here, it felt like I had come home,” he says over a beer in a sunroom filled with paint-splattered ketchup bottles, glue guns and freshly stretched canvases. Blaze, who grew up in Montana and lived in Oregon for many years, is descended from Adolph Cuny, a French trader who married a Lakota woman in the 1860s. As a member of the Oglala Lakota, Blaze came to the reservation to reclaim 160 acres of his family’s land.

After a divorce and some soul searching, he parked a trailer home here. It wasn’t long before he started ripping out walls and tearing up the floor; pretty soon, the foundation was the only thing left of the original trailer. A master scavenger, Blaze redid his home with material that was once refuse, from the driftwood in his garden to the polished granite countertops in his kitchen.

Blaze and I hop into his blue pickup to drive out past the old Cuny cemetery and to the edge of the plateau. The grassland drops away, and the canyon in front of us offers the kind of vista you might expect in the desert Southwest. He points to the distant Stronghold Table, where this entire saga began playing out over a century ago. “The ghost dance came about as a way to make the white man disappear,” he says.

Now, a new dance of sorts is being choreographed to invite them back. I wonder aloud whether that’s necessarily a bad thing. “Well, it is fun to have people up here,” Blaze says, grudgingly.

Brendan Borrell, who writes for Smithsonian, Bloomberg Businessweek and other magazines, spent at least one stormy night on the reservation chasing his tent through a horse pasture.

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