Indigenous advocates say federal efforts to stop mining in the Black Hills fall short

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Argus Leader, Jay Pickthorn

Indigenous activists praised a recent federal government proposal to ban new mineral exploration in a swath of South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest for 20 years but said it falls short by still allowing ongoing mining projects.

The U.S. Forest Service put forth a plan Tuesday to prohibit all new mineral exploration near one of the most contested sites in Indian Country, the Pactola Reservoir, the largest in the Black Hills.

For generations, the Black Hills have been a focal point of Indigenous activism and the subject of a court battle over the federal government’s illegal seizure of the land in the late 1800s.

This week’s proposal to protect the aquifer — outlined in the Federal Register on Tuesday — would still allow ongoing mining operations in the hills, which has gone on for decades over the objections of Indigenous communities.

More than 18% of the Black Hills remains under mining claims, according to the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, a nonprofit group advocating to stop mining in the Black Hills.

In February, despite public outcry, the Forest Service said it would allow F3 Gold, a Minnesota-based mining company, to search for gold at 39 drill sites in the Pactola area.

A federal report released in July found that the proposed gold mining project “could affect cultural resources and tribal sacred lands by altering the landscape adjacent to these sites.”

Aside from the cultural significance of the Black Hills to Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples, the reservoir also provides drinking water to Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base. It also is a popular destination for fishing and water sports.

“The problem is with catastrophic climate change, the water is not a given out here anymore,” said Mark Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and an organizer with NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy organization based in Rapid City. “So the very idea that anybody would threaten the watershed and the drinking water of 80,000 people is insane.”

As part of the proposal announced Tuesday, the government instituted a two-year ban on new mineral exploration to conduct scientific study of the impacts of mining, consult with local tribal nations and seek public comment.

The proposal is part of a broader Biden administration push to increase protections for more of the country’s land and waters.

The federal government seized the Black Hills, known in Lakota as Ȟešapa, in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. U.S. officials designated the hills a national forest and carved the faces of former presidents on what is now called Mount Rushmore.

The hills are home to endemic species and some of the world’s most distinctive ecosystems, Tilsen said, adding that the federal government has a treaty responsibility to the Indigenous communities that stewarded it long before the start of colonization.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the U.S. broke its treaty obligations when it took control of the Black Hills and awarded the tribes connected to the land $102 million. “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history,” the court wrote in its opinion.

But tribal nations refused the money, declaring that the Black Hills are not for sale. Today, after decades of interest, that money has ballooned to closer to $2 billion. Despite the refusal to cede the land, uranium mines have dotted the landscape for decades.

“They have desecrated all of our sacred sites, especially the sacred Black Hills, and they have introduced more than 2,000 abandoned uranium mines,” longtime Oglala Tituwan activist Charmaine White Face said at a United Nations consultation session in April. “What do you do whenever you have a treaty-protected territory but the country that is invading and occupying illegally your territory, how do you get them out?”

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service will hold a meeting next month to gather public comment in Rapid City. Comments can be submitted online until mid-June.

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