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Native group prepared to guard sites

Posted to NDN AIM by ErthAvengr

BYJODI RAVE LEE / Lincoln Journal Star

journalstar.com/nebraska.php?story_id=32388

STRONGHOLD TABLE, S.D. -- At first glance, this ancient seabed of shale peaks and gullies doesn't reveal what lies so close to the surface.

Fossils. Native burial sites. And for a small group of men, the prospect of a long, cold winter.

This is Stronghold Table, a grassy mesa in Badlands National Park's 80,000-acre South Unit on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The land here is indelibly etched in tribal memory. This is Ghost Dance land. Wounded Knee survivors fled here in 1890.

"My grandparents are survivors of Wounded Knee," said Nellie Two Bulls, an Oglala Lakota elder and lifelong Pine Ridge resident. "They always tell me stories. They said people know that's a sacred place, someone's protecting them."

Now members of Tokala Okolakiciye, a traditional Lakota police-warrior society, are taking a stand to protect what's left.

As winter edges onto Stronghold Table, Archie Little, Keith Janis and George Tall are camping on the mesa, prolonging a peaceful occupation that began six months ago. That's when the National Park Service announced plans to begin removing 35million-year-old mammal fossils from the South Unit.

South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and the Denver Museum of Science and Nature were supposed to begin excavating in August as part of the plan to protect fossils from theft and natural erosion.

But society members, fearing the excavation would disrupt what they view as sacred land, set up camp.

Their occupation thwarted the school and museum from participating in the dig.

"They both withdrew from the project," said Badlands National Park Superintendent William Supernaugh. "We didn't have the staff we had identified and needed to conduct the excavation."

Supernaugh hopes to resume excavation talks with tribal leaders in January, he said.

"We hope to continue to work toward an agreement with the tribe," he said. "Not the demonstrators, they don't represent the tribe."

The occupation will continue despite its violation of federal regulations, Supernaugh said. He considers the demonstration a First Amendment right, he said, "although they have never asked for a permit."

Said Tall, a member of the Tokala society and the Lakota Land Alliance: "We do not plan to give up or back down. We plan to protest any future excavations."

The land in question belongs to the Oglala Sioux Nation. But the tribe gave control of the land to the National Park Service in 1976.

Park Service officials have said it would take an act of Congress to return anything to the tribe.

And that's what tribal leaders will seek.

The tribe has prepared a bill it hopes to have introduced in Congress by the South Dakota congressional delegation, said Mario Gonzalez, Oglala Sioux Tribe attorney

Gonzalez said the tribe will seek compensation for hardships created when the government took land -- now in the South Unit -- for use as a bombing range in 1942. The tribe will also seek mineral and water rights held by the federal government.

Meanwhile, society members want Stronghold Table to become a symbol of courage, an old-fashioned statement of justice for those with little political clout.

"We're doing this for our people, so my people won't be scared so they can speak up for themselves," Little said recently from a cramped camper trailer. "We want to speak up for the future generations."

The men on the mesa admit some people don't like them. That's because they're hampering grave and fossil looting by locals and outsiders.

"We are very unpopular ... but the silent majority is very proud of what we're doing," Tall said. "They let us know by bringing us up food and stuff like that."

Two Bulls has never been to the Tokala camp, but she does know many stories of the land.

"They say, over there, a lot of people died," she said. She recounted her grandmother's stories of scaffold burials and other deaths in the area. "So that place is a sacred burial grounds, too."

She added: "There's probably more skulls there than anyone can think of down below in that basin."

But many of the human remains were already disturbed.

"All the skulls are missing from these bones we find," said Little, who regularly patrols the Badlands from its table rims.

Janis described the area as "a staging area for grave robbers and bone stealers."

Thievery can be big business here. It can also be costly for those caught.

Last spring, four Wisconsin residents were fined as much as $1,000 after pleading guilty in federal court to stealing government property from the Badlands, according to published reports.

And a tribal citizen was convicted of violating the Archaeological Resource Protection Act for selling shell beads found near 800-year-old human remains in the South Unit. He was sentenced to six months in prison, probation and restitution.

Society members say they plan to occupy Stronghold Table until they feel its future is safe.

"We want our own people to hear us," Tall said. "If we don't manage (the land) now, it will be almost impossible in the future."

Reach Jodi Rave Lee at 473-7240 or [email protected]

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