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Most visitors to Badlands National Park in South Dakota spend the majority of their time trekking in the crumbling earthen spires near the visitors center and roads in the northern part of the park. But there is a largely untouched southern section, where grasslands mingle with pink-and-gray earth formations and fossil remnants, and occasional unexploded bombs lie half-buried in the dirt. This 133,000-acre section of the park was confiscated from the Oglala Sioux tribe by the U.S. government during World War II for weapons testing, but now the L.A. Times reports the National Park Service is thinking about giving it back almost 66 years later.
“It’s really exciting for us to think about walking down this road,” said Sandra J. Washington, head of planning for the service’s Omaha office, which oversees Badlands. “The intention is to be as honorable as possible.”
The referendum is in the early planning stages and would need to be approved by congress to take effect; if this happens, it will be the first instance of national park lands being returned to original tribal owners. NPS officials and tribal members will eventually decide if the southern portion remains a jointly administered part of the NPS, a separate park run by the tribe, or be handed over to the tribe for sole control. Even members of the Oglala Sioux tribe aren’t sure what to do with this section of the Badlands: Some want to create a nature preserve, others want to build homes, and still others want to develop the fossil-rich area to attract tourism.
Many of our national parks were established only after natives had been forced from their land, but the Badlands confiscation is especially recent. In 1942, the military gave 800 tribe members living on the land just one week to clear out.
Anita Ecoffey, 65, remembers her father describing what it was like to flee from his home taking only what he could carry, leaving the land where he had buried his parents.
“To me this is worse than what happened at Wounded Knee,” said Ecoffey, recalling the infamous 1890 massacre of Sioux by the U.S. Army. “These were people’s homes.”
In 2000, militant activists staged an occupation in the southern portion of badlands, demanding the land’s return. Both tribal relations and prospects for a solution improved when Paige Baker, a Mandan/Hidatsa Indian from North Dakota, took over as superintendent of Badlands National Park in 2006.
— Ted Alvarez