The Black Hills: A Call to Action

Lakota Law
NEPA Project – Link to Doc

As we all find ways to escape the summer heat, I want you to look at the picture below. That’s Jenny Gulch at Pactola Lake, one of the most beautiful spots in the sacred He Sapa — known to settlers as the Black Hills of South Dakota. The people of the Oceti Sakowin were this land’s original stewards and protectors. But, because the federal government won’t adhere to the treaties it made with us, these pristine headwaters of the Rapid Creek watershed are now controlled by the National Forest Service. And instead of protecting this sensitive ecosystem, that agency is accepting mining applications and permitting dangerous, toxic drilling. 

Fortunately, the Oglala Nation and others who care about our homelands are pushing back. So, today, I ask you to sign onto my tribe’s call and send a message to the Forest Service demanding they stop the Jenny Gulch Gold Exploration Drilling Project

Jenny Gulch is one of South Dakota’s natural gems. This beautiful spot at the Rapid Creek headwaters in the sacred He Sapa should never be defaced and polluted by miners.

Fortunately, the Forest Service doesn’t just get to rubber stamp their approval on this one. The public comment period is open for another few weeks, and we need to make all the noise we can. We’re not alone in this fight. As I wrote to you a couple months back, just like the Oglala Nation, the good people of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance are working overtime to raise awareness. Even the City Council for Rapid City voted to pass a resolution in opposition to the Forest Service’s finding of no significant environmental impact at Jenny Gulch.

No significant impact? The history of mining and exploration in the Black Hills tells a very different story. Mining here over the past seven decades created the need for four separate toxic Superfund sites — polluted locations which require a long-term response to clean up contamination from hazardous materials including arsenic, mercury, and cyanide. About $100 million of public money has already been spent to try and fix just one of those sites, with no end in sight.

So I hope you’ll get to know more about mining in the Black Hills, join the Oglala Nation’s call (and ours), and share all this information with your family and friends. It’s going to take pushback from all quarters to stop the new gold rush in the sacred He Sapa, but it’s worth every second of our time to do so. Because I think you’ll agree: We have to protect Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth, and some things are worth more than gold.

Wopila tanka — thank you for protecting our homelands!
DeCora Hawk
Field Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Red Cloud Indian School will dig for graves

Stairs lead down to the basement of Drexel Hall on the campus of Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where officials are set to begin excavation in October 2022 to search for unmarked graves. A search with ground-penetrating radar in the basement was inconclusive as to whether graves might be there. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. In Canada, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Mary Annette Pember

Leaders at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation have announced they will dig up a portion of the basement in a former school dormitory in search of unmarked graves.

The announcement came after a search with ground-penetrating radar in May was inconclusive about whether remains might be under what is now a concrete slab in a corner of the large basement.

A report on the testing said the ground-penetrating radar failed to show a definitive presence of graves, but that a final determination could only be determined through excavation.


The excavation is part of what the school calls its own search for truth and reconciliation as the U.S. and Canada continue to search for unmarked graves at former Indian residential or boarding schools.

“We are committed to the process of being transparent,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School. Black Elk is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

“We will investigate places that have been identified by eyewitness testimony (of the presence of graves),” Black Elk said.

Drexel Hall, a former dormitory on the Red Cloud Indian School campus on the Pine Ridge reservation, is more than 100 years old. School leaders will begin excavation of a corner of the basement in October 2022 to search for unmarked graves after ground-penetrating radar was inconclusive. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Drexel Hall, a former dormitory on the Red Cloud Indian School campus on the Pine Ridge reservation, is more than 100 years old. School leaders will begin excavation of a corner of the basement in October 2022 to search for unmarked graves after ground-penetrating radar was inconclusive. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

In May, Marsha Small, Northern Cheyenne, and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. used ground-penetrating radar to conduct an analysis of the front lawn of the school as well as an area in the basement of Drexel Hall, a former student dorm.

According to the radar report, there were no indications of graves in the area of the school’s lawn.

‘Horrific truths’

Rumors of unmarked graves and missing students have circulated in the Pine Ridge community for years but have seldom included eyewitness testimony, until now.

A former worker at the school came forward recently to report he had seen what looked like small graves in the basement in the 1990s – with small crosses marking each one.

“These stories are rooted in horrific truths of the broader boarding school past,” Black Elk said.

Red Cloud Indian School was originally opened as Holy Rosary Mission in 1888 by Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests. The name was changed to Red Cloud in 1969. In 1980, the school ceased offering boarding and now functions as a day school serving about 600 students.

Red Cloud now operates as a nonprofit organization describing itself as “a Lakota Jesuit Catholic Institution administered by the Jesuits and Lakota people.”

Unlike discoveries of unmarked graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, however, where hundreds of bodies have been discovered at several former school sites, the allegations of graves in the basement of Drexel Hall raise more sinister concerns.

Drexel Hall was built more than 100 years ago, serving first as a student dorm and later as a convent for nuns who worked at the school. Today, the building houses offices for school staff and the Heritage Center, an art gallery and gift shop.

Marsha Small and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. use ground penetrating radar to scan the basement of Drexel Hall on the Red Cloud Indian School campus in May 2022. Officials decided to dig up the concrete and excavate the area after radar findings were inconclusive about whether unmarked graves may be underneath. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Marsha Small and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. use ground penetrating radar to scan the basement of Drexel Hall on the Red Cloud Indian School campus in May 2022. Officials decided to dig up the concrete and excavate the area after radar findings were inconclusive about whether unmarked graves may be underneath. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

“Red Cloud wasn’t a boarding school in the 1990s when the graves were first discovered, so we will be involving law enforcement in addition to members of the community when we excavate the area,” Black Elk said.

“This is a hard conversation for our community to have,” he said. “If our GPR work helps open the door to those conversations, then hopefully that leads people to healing.”

‘Mitigating damage’

Not everyone in the Pine Ridge community is confident in the school’s show of transparency.

Dusty Lee Nelson, of the Oglala Lakota tribe, describes the school’s truth and healing efforts as a charade, saying that letting the Catholic Church and Red Cloud lead its own investigations into wrongdoing is the opposite of transparency.

“It’s all about mitigating damage control,” she said.

She said most efforts have been focused on a small group of Lakota Catholics.

On Aug. 16, for example, Jesuit Father General Arturo Sosa visited the school, but his presence was not widely publicized in the community.

Sosa, whose office is in Rome, is the leader of the Society of Jesus, the largest religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church. Red Cloud was founded by Jesuit priests, as was St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Reservation. St. Francis has been tribally controlled since 1979.

During his visit, Sosa presented an apology.

“On behalf of the Society of Jesus, I apologize for the ways in which St. Francis and Holy Rosary Missions and boarding schools were for decades complicit in the U.S. government’s reprehensible assimilation policies, trying to eradicate your culture,” he said. “I ask for your forgiveness for that and for any other abuses that your ancestors may have suffered.”

In response to ICT’s inquiry about why the broader community was not notified of Sosa’s visit, Black Elk said, “I think the feeling was to keep his visit intimate. So we informed our community and parents. But didn’t do anything big with press.”

A video of Sosa speaking at Red Cloud was posted on the school’s website shortly after ICT inquired about the visit.

Sosa promised to take demands from leadership of both the Oglala Lakota and Rosebud Sioux tribes for the Catholic church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery to Pope Francis. The letter, signed by Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was posted on the tribe’s Facebook page.

Demands have escalated in recent months to rescind the doctrine, a foundational document guiding Catholic and Christian occupation of the Americas. The doctrine is composed of bulls or orders handed down in the 1400s by Catholic popes authorizing agents of European monarchs to dominate Indigenous lands and people by any means necessary. The doctrine helped shape the entirety of the White settler relationship with Indigenous peoples in the Americas and is the genesis of U.S. federal Indian law.

But the issue is dividing the community. Since speaking out publicly about Red Cloud’s truth and healing efforts, Nelson said she has become a target for community members who disagree with her.

“I’m tired of being the one to say things,” she said. “God bless the [Indigenous Youth Council]. They are organizing and approaching these issues. Activism has been demonized here.”

Looking ahead

School leaders said in a statement posted to the school website that the next round of work in the Drexel Hall basement is set for this fall.

“We will be working again with Marsha Small and OVAI to follow their recommendations,” the statement said.

“The removal of concrete and excavation will take place in October 2022 where law enforcement, spiritual advisors and the community member who brought forward the testimony will be present.”

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Indian Boarding SchoolsUnmarked GravesGround Penetrating RadarTruth And ReconciliationPine RidgeRed Cloud Indian School

Mary Annette Pember


Mary Annette Pember

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for ICT.

Your Voice Will Be Critical: NODAPL

Lakota Law

A couple weeks back, I was honored to join a delegation to Washington, D.C. led by Standing Rock Chairwoman Janet Alkire. We met with congressional reps and other decision makers to inspire action to stop the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). As the pipeline’s legally mandated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) continues to stall despite the clear and present danger to Standing Rock and the Mni Sose — the Missouri River — this was mission critical. You can click here to watch our latest Water Wars video, produced in conjunction with Standing Rock, the Oceti Sakowin, and the Great Plains Water Alliance, which highlights our productive meeting with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).

Watch: I joined Standing Rock Chairwoman Janet Alkire (right) for her delegation to Washington, D.C. We had several excellent conversations about DAPL, including one with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (left).

You may recall that, in 2021, members of the Squad — progressive millennial women leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives including Tlaib, AOC, Ayanna Pressley, Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar — joined us and other Indigenous justice leaders in Minnesota to combat the Line 3 pipeline. And, of course, in 2017 AOC visited Standing Rock to take part in the #NoDAPL resistance, inspiring her run for Congress. These true leaders recognize the dangers of pipelines and care about what happens to us. Their support remains critical, but frankly it isn’t enough. We need other lawmakers and the executive branch to recognize DAPL’s danger and help us stop the oil before it spills and creates an emergency for our people.

As we pointed out during our meetings in D.C., the Army Corps of Engineers has repeatedly failed to provide Standing Rock with an adequate emergency response plan for DAPL. It has only shared a redacted version, which prevents us from planning on our own. This is particularly concerning now, because extremely low water levels in the Mni Sose have made accessing potential leak sites a logistical nightmare. We pray that something will be done before it’s too late.

In the meantime, please take a few minutes to watch our video and stay ready to take action. Eventually, the Corps will have to release its sham EIS. When it does, your voice will be critical. The public comment period will offer us an opportunity to stand strong together — again — for the water, for the people, and for our future.

Wopila tanka — thank you, as ever, for standing with Standing Rock and the Oceti Sakowin.
Chase Iron Eyes
Co-Director and Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Should Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery: Vigilance Needed

The Newsletter
  It’s been quite a week here at Pine Ridge. Last Tuesday, our Tribal Council temporarily suspended Christian missionary work within the Oglala Nation’s boundaries after the distribution of an offensive brochure which labeled Tunkasila, our Creator, as a “demon idol.” 

This hideous brochure was handed out to Oglala youth at the Pine Ridge Nation. Once our Tribal Council was alerted, it took emergency action by passing an ordinance (since rescinded) banning all missionary work on our reservation. The ordinance was rescinded a few days later, mainly because folks had events — such as weddings and funerals — scheduled. Still, previous law requiring review and registration of religious entities will now be enforced with greater vigor, and my community is once again reckoning with the living history of colonization, particularly by western faith organizations.  As you probably know, our relationship as Native People to the Catholic Church is long and, for the most part, horrific. To this day, Federal Indian Law still cites the Doctrine of Discovery — which originated in the Catholic Church in the 1490s — as a justification for our subjugation. For five centuries, European powers “discovered” and colonized Indigenous lands using the legal argument that, because Christians didn’t yet inhabit them, those lands were fair game.   Of course, we all know what happened in the wake of this colonization: forced migrations, broken treaties, the Indian boarding school era, and the continued taking of our children by state agencies. And last week, while Pine Ridge was confronting yet another manifestation of the colonial mindset, Pope Francis took a trip to Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in the boarding school era — later even acknowledging it as genocide. I, for one, am happy to see progress; but I’ll be happier when he rescinds the Doctrine of Discovery. 
Pope Francis dons a ceremonial warbonnet during his apology tour in so-called Canada. Ugh. Photo from the AP. Obviously, we still have a long way to go and many truths to tell before we, as Native peoples, can heal from the generational trauma inflicted by centuries of colonization. It’s going to have to be one step at a time. In the meantime, I’m proud of my friends — the activists who brought their concerns to the attention of our Tribal Council at Pine Ridge. I actually helped to establish the Oglala Lakota chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council, which spearheaded that organizing.   I’m hopeful that we can move forward with better understanding. Churches will now have to register with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and existing religious establishments will have until Oct. 24 to clear their activities with the Tribal Council. It’s a start. Wopila tanka — thank you for your understanding and solidarity.
DeCora Hawk
Field OrganizerThe Lakota People’s Law Project Lakota People’s Law Project
547 South 7th Street #149
Bismarck, ND 58504-5859