When Sacred Land Goes Up for Sale

When Sacred Land Goes Up for Sale August 19, 2012

What happens when sacred lands go up for sale? That is the situation faced by the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people as Pe’ Sla, an area in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is being sold by its owners. Though long in private hands, tribes had been allowed access to perform necessary ceremonies, and this is now in question with the sale. In addition, the government of South Dakota is planning on paving a road right through the middle of the site, a move that is seen as sacrilegious. In response, a last-minute campaign to raise funds to purchase the land has been launched, but with only a few days to go they are still far short of their million-dollar goal.


“The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has designated $50,000 for the purpose of purchasing Pe’ Sla land.  By contributing to the effort of all the Sioux Tribes, we aim to purchase at least some of the tracts, if not all.  Many of the Sioux Tribes continue to exist in poverty and do not have a thriving casino-based economy as the media may have portrayed.  Yet we continue to fight for what is sacred, because it matters!”

Ruth Hopkins, writing for Indian Country Today, puts the importance of this land in context.

“Like many other Indigenous groups, our ceremonies are tied directly to the Universe and the natural cycles of Ina Maka (Mother Earth). Therefore, it only serves that Pe’ Sla, a location in the heart of the Black Hills that serves as a basis for our star maps, is also a sacred site where ceremonies must be observed each year. According to our beliefs, these rituals must be performed to keep the Universe in harmony and preserve the well being of all, Native and non-Native alike. You see, to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, Pe’ Sla is not merely prairie. Its grounds are holy. It is our Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is our Mecca. Pe’ Sla is our wailing wall, where we are meant to pray. The danger of the Oceti Sakowin losing Pe’ Sla is real, and imminent. Should Pe’ Sla pass into the hands of someone other than us, it’s highly likely that it will be developed. The State of South Dakota has expressed that it wants to use eminent domain to build a road right through the heart of Pe’ Sla. Development of Pe’ Sla would effectively cut off our access to it, and spell its destruction as a sacred site.”

Point of fact, this land was illegally taken from the Great Sioux Nation, and they have refused a settlement award (currently nearly 600 million dollars) for it because that would legally terminate demands for that land’s return. Native tribes across the country have been working for years to reclaim land that was taken from them in the name of greed or “integration,” and even when lands are “safely” in the hands of the federal government, that is no guarantee that the wishes of American Indian tribes will be respected.

Pe’Sla in the Black Hills (Photo: South Dakota Magazine/Bernie Hunhoff)

The protection of Native sacred lands is an ongoing issue in Indian country, encroachments and construction on sacred lands often done in the arbitrary name of economic development, or sometimes just for simple convenience (to non-Native folks of course). For some politicians it seems very plain there is no such thing as sacred land at all. However, we know there are consequences and a price to the eradication or desecration of sacred ground, whether it is Tara in Ireland or the peaks in Arizona. We can only hope that some sort of reprieve emerges, and this holy site isn’t developed and destroyed. We have to ask ourselves what sort of nation, culture, are we, that blithely moves forward in destroying indigenous holy sites in the name of commerce while screaming about “religious freedom” on somewhat flimsy (and politically motivated) pretexts. When you sell a people’s sacred ground, what dignity or honor is left, what claim do we have to be human beings?

For updates on this issue, see the site Last Real Indians.

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27 responses to “When Sacred Land Goes Up for Sale”

  1. All land is sacred. Mother Earth asks, “Would you consider your foot less sacred than your nose? Or your ear less sacred than your arm?”

    All the earth is the body of Mother Earth. Let’s stop treating her like a door mat. 🙁

    She is Ma!

  2. Oh wow, this is just sickening. So sad to hear that this is happening. I definitely think that it is rather hypocritical that we (this nation) preach religious freedom, and yet there is constant destruction of sacred lands. Of course, people are obsessed with growth, which is just as sad. My heart goes out to the Native peoples that are being affected by this issue.

  3. Ownership of sacred land is a difficult subject, when the land is not owned by those that hold it sacred.

    I can’t really talk too much on the exact subject of the case of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota because I am not in the US (nor ever have been) and hold some pretty strong feelings on the subject, generally. What I can say, though, is that when land is owned, it is treated (too often) as a commodity or an ‘asset’ rather than for what it can represent at a more emotional level.

    Some countries will respect the beliefs of their people. (Such as Icelandic Huldufólk: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hulduf%C3%B3lk )

    Other countries may not even acknowledge the people. (Obvious example being institutional racism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutional_racism )

  4. I’m still struggling with the idea of ‘owning’ land. Things sometimes take a while to sink in with me, but that seems like a very capitalist/commodity-based concept. I think I ‘get’ the concept of sacred land in the sense referred to here, but seems less like ownership of something and more like a long-lived family member. Perhaps I understand none of it and am making no sense at all; it’s entirely possible.

  5. Think of it in terms of a kid with a stick holding onto the toys in the playground.

    The toys may not actually be his, but he has the stick, so he can stop anyone else playing with them.

  6. Jason, your save Tara link is broken… I think you intended to go to savetara.org rather than .com?

    (On second thought, no, that one’s about Tara the plantation in Gone with the Wind… I don’t know where you were trying to send us?)

  7. Like it or not, our system of government recognizes individual ownership of land. Arguing against that basic principle is a losing battle and just makes you look like a loon.

    The government doesn’t have any obligation to recognize their land as “sacred” and summarily alter contracts between landholders any more than it has an obligation to recognize the primacy of Jesus in prayers before city council meetings or spare a Roman Catholic cathedral from the wrecking ball just because it’s been abandoned for years because all of the parishioners have moved away.

    The Establishment Clause of the Constitution forbids the government from playing favorites in terms of religion. That applies to Christians as well as Amerindians, or Wiccans, or Asatruar, or anyone else.

    It’s private land. It can be sold, bought, developed, paved over, or whatever the owner wants. If you want to argue about who the legal owner is based on some 19th century treaty, you’re welcome to, but you’ll lose. Just injecting some practicality here.

  8. Except that we broke a treaty, and stole that land (acknowledged by our courts), then sold it to private buyers. So the “ownership” of the land rightfully should be with the Sioux Nation.

  9. My heart cries out for justice in terms of the sale of these deemed private lands. They were stolen in such a heinous, brutal way, and now that the lands that rightly belong with the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Pe’ Sla People is being sold. It is also a slap in the face of the Indigenous Peoples to even consider developing plans for this Land.

  10. The Sioux are trying to purchase the land anyway, so I don’t know what you think you’re complaining about here, General Custer.

  11. This isn’t about whether Mother Earth or all land is sacred. It is about this particular land being sacred to this particular group of people, and trying to ensure they continue to have access to it. “All land is sacred” is irrelevant, because people who believe that don’t need access to all land, in a semi-natural state, for their traditional religious practices.

  12. General Custer? What part didn’t you understand? “However, we know there are consequences and a price to the eradication or desecration of sacred ground, whether it is Tara in Ireland or
    the peaks in Arizona. We can only hope that some sort of reprieve
    emerges, and this holy site isn’t developed and destroyed. We have to
    ask ourselves what sort of nation, culture, are we, that blithely moves
    forward in destroying indigenous holy sites in the name of commerce”- From the article above. That reads pretty clear to me.

  13. I’m pretty sure that V.V.F. was responding to the same “Guest” that Jason responded to, not to Jason’s article directly.

  14. You’re probably right. I apologize for misreading into that. I still wouldn’t call him/her General Custer though.

  15. The new format for Disqus seems to default to putting the highest-rated comments first, instead of the oldest ones. This makes it hard to follow conversations.

  16. WHY should the Souix Nation NOT have the same rights as say the Catholic church??? NO government would dare destroy a church…. LET ALONE a sacred place like the VATICAN…. The government AND the people tout Religious freedom and acceptance….but when it come right down to it… many are two faced just as out fore fathers were to ALL the Indian Nations…. ITS NOT RIGHT and SHAME on those that are a part of trying to TAKE IT

  17. Save Tara .com was set up, some years ago to try and prevent the building of the N3 road through the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath.

    Considering that the road opened in June of 2010, I am guessing that, not only is the site defunct, but that the campaign failed.

  18. Ah. Thank you for the explanation. The link is defunct now, sadly. I wouldn’t have been paying attention back before 2009 or so, so it’s not a surprise that I missed it.

  19. Not a problem.

    I had hoped to get to Tara before they put the road in, but never managed it, sadly.

  20. I see it somewhat differently. I say shame on the other wealthy tribes, like so many in California, that won’t step up and give the money neefed to a sister tribe to purchase their Sacred land. I can think of 8-10 tribes that a million dollars is not that much to. You are all brothers, help each other out!

  21. That’s not as easy as it sounds. I don’t know the ins and outs of tribal laws and how they intersect with federal laws on tribal governance, but generally speaking, governments have a fiduciary duty to their own, so to speak. If you’re a leader of Tribe A, whatever money you control from whatever source – casinos, mineral leases, taxes etc., is entrusted to you for the benefit of your own citizens/members, residents etc. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make grants or gifts, but it’s usually more complicated than just “breaking off a chunk” for a poor relative.

    It’s also dodgy to suppose that all natives are brothers. Yes, they tend to have a difficult history in common and sometimes blood ties, but tribes, like any other nations, have their own interest and sometimes some prior bad blood with other tribes. To assume all natives should hang together naturally is like saying the English and Irish are natural allies because they’re all white boys who speak the same language and had some common problems with the rest of Europe at times.

  22. So if some guy jacks your car tomorrow, you’ll be ok with the thief asserting an ownership right by virtue of possession? Should your only recourse be to pay whatever selling price he names? If he manages to hold onto the car beyond both of your lifetimes and it passes down to his family and becomes a very valuable classic car, does that negate the original offense of theft? Did your original ownership claim get magically diffused into the mists of time?