The southern portion of Badlands National Park is jointly managed by the National Park and by the Oglala Lakota. The hope was that one day this section of the park would be the first Tribal National Park in the country. Those plans have not yet become a reality. The northern unit of the park hosts the scientific interpretation of the land and holds all of the associated resources you’d expect at a National Park.
The southern unit is entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation. At the White River Visitor Center, you can hear the historical interpretation of the people of this area, from paleo-Indians to European settlers to US Army Air Force troops in WWII who used the reservation land for a gunnery range and bombing practice. Just under 350,000 acres were acquired by eminent domain from the Oglala Lakota in 1942 on the pretext that it was “unused, unoccupied, and blighted”.
Wounded Knee is not within the boundaries of the Park. Its history is told in signs, tombstones, graffiti and the living words of people who live in extreme poverty, mistrustful of neighbors and governments and directly impacted by changes in climate and habitat for the animals that provide their sustenance. I am grateful to Mr. Apple (age 25) and Mr. Fast Horse (age 13) for sharing their story.
My heart aches for these people, for their wounded dignity, for their invisibility, for their spoiled livelihood. That “living off the land” was ever possible for humans in this place year-round is doubtful, especially after the buffalo herds were decimated by European immigrants. This is an area of seasonal extremes, a place to which you’d make a sacred pilgrimage, spend a time in awe, and respectfully vacate.
To see the land as sacred, wild, and autonomous allows an attitude of humility to flourish and banishes thoughts of domination, extraction and exploitation. It brings truer balance and harmony to the relationship. Perhaps from this new understanding, a more sustainable future will develop for our species.
We drove north from Interstate 90 across tall grass prairies and into the Black Hills the next day. We stopped at a small town museum, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland ranger station to collect some information about the area. There are a LOT of tourist attractions here, including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. We were not interested in seeing how people had carved up the mountains, however. We were interested in exploring the ecosystem on top and the caves beneath these sacred hills.
We decided to stay in the Park campground for two nights and take a long hike in the morning and a cave tour in the afternoon of the full day in between. The campground was in a stand of Ponderosa pine, nestled in the grassy, rolling hills. We heard coyotes at dusk both nights, yipping far off somewhere. The camp sites were, thankfully, not crowded at all. But the Visitor Center sure was! The cave tours are very popular in the summer, one reason being that the temperature in the cave is a constant 53 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Probably most tourists are seeing other attractions and sleeping in town, only visiting the National Park for a few hours to tour the cave. We saw no one on the six miles of hiking trails that we covered. But we did see buffalo, prairie dogs, dung beetles, an elk pelvis, and lots of other signs of a vibrant biotic community.