Native Sun News: Sacred sites in Black Hills face desecration

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy, Native Sun News Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

A sweeping vista of Pe Sla, as seen from Flag Mountain, which lies immediately to the west.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Yet another federally funded “improvement” project threatens to further undermine the sanctity and integrity of a culturally relevant Native American landmark in the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa.

The Pennington County-initiated undertaking, known as the South Rochford Road Project, seeks to pave an approximately 12-mile graveled stretch of road between the unincorporated town of Rochford and Deerfield Lake, a recreational destination. This particular section of South Rochford Road, which remains as a historical throwback of Rochford’s gold mining boomtown days of the late 19th century, gouges a swath directly through the center of what the Lakota call “Pe Sla,” or the venerated “Old Baldy” of the Black Hills.

Pe Sla is the genuine, living heart of the Black Hills for the region’s indigenous peoples. For thousands of years prior to European invasion, the Lakota prayed and paid ritualistic homage to the earth and sky, as well as to everything in between and beyond, unencumbered at Pe Sla.

The area lies in an isolated northwestern portion of Pennington County, some 25 miles west of Rapid City, as the crow flies, and is home to around two dozen hardy souls, most of whom are ranchers.

Originally implemented in 2004 by county commissioners, the now almost-decade-long project “is considered necessary to improve year-round access to the Town of Rochford from the Deerfield Lake area,” according to a notice of intent published in the Federal Register in January.

According to some local Native Americans and Pe Sla advocates, however, the proposed project apparently began out of a desire to further develop and promote the quiet site as another Black Hills tourist mecca.

In any event, the existing roadway is difficult to maintain, with its gravel surface, steep grades, drainage issues and curved alignment. The three alternatives under consideration include taking no action, improving the existing alignment and making improvements to a new alignment.

As explicated on the South Rochford Road website, proposed improvements would involve “realigning and reconstructing the two lane roadway, providing an all-weather surface with improved drainage structures as needed, adjusting utilities and re-vegetating disturbed areas once construction is complete” and “may require acquisition of right-of-way (necessary access to private land for public road usage) … at some locations for curve realignments and utility relocations.”

In 2005, via funds jointly earmarked by U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Tim Johnson (D-SD), the county received $9 million for the project. An agreement was reached with the South Dakota Department of Transportation in 2006 to commence work, with a series of public-input meetings held over the next two years.

Due to the nation’s ensuing recession, however, the project was essentially put on the back burner until 2010, when the economy began its slow recovery. At that time, the Federal Highway Administration determined that an environmental impact statement (EIS) was necessary before the proposal could continue.

In cooperation with the South Dakota DOT and Pennington County, the Federal Highway Administration is currently in the process of conducting the EIS. The projected completion date of the study is late summer 2014.

Pe Sla is an unexpected, naturally-occurring expanse of rolling prairie situated near the Black Hills National Forest’s geographic center. The over-300-acre elevated plain, also referred to as Reynolds Prairie, “has only known cattle grazing by a handful of ranchers since the Homestead Act (of 1862). Now, subdivisions are encroaching upon this one, pristine open space left in the Black Hills,” according to, a website dedicated to the protection and preservation of Pe Sla.

The Homestead Act provided for the transfer of 160-acre tracts of what was deemed unoccupied public land to individual settlers by the federal government, with payment of a nominal fee after five years of residence. Land could also be acquired at $1.25 per acre after six months of residence. Subsequent to this act, the majority of Pe Sla is now privately owned by non-Natives, with a small portion being public land and accordingly overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.

Nearby 7,200-foot-high Harney Peak, or Hinhan Kaga Paha – an ancient name literally translated as “Making of an Owl Butte” – rises almost due south of the meadow that is Pe Sla. The majestic, skyward-reaching peak is another hallowed landmark for the Lakota and interconnected by virtue of their star knowledge.

For millennia, the Lakota have believed that certain geographical landmarks situated throughout the cordate, or heart-shaped, Black Hills mirror certain constellations in the seasonal night skies, with the earth’s, or Maka Ina, continuous orbit of the primary, life-giving star – the Sun, or Wi – dictating when and where corresponding preservation ceremonies are to be performed.

There are almost a dozen such sacred places throughout the Black Hills, including the better-known landmarks of Bear Butte, or Mato Paha, near Sturgis, which has been turned into a state park, and Devils Tower, or Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge), near Sundance, Wyo., now considered a national monument.

And, satellite images of the topography of the Black Hills show that the forested region does appear to be heart-shaped. These images also show that the area known as Pe Sla by the Lakota does indeed strike the eye as a bare, or “bald,” spot from space in almost perfect spherical fashion.

According to the Rev. Linda Kramer, founding director of Borderlands Education and Spiritual Center, which is located on Pe Sla, it is the only sacred Lakota site in the Black Hills that is not afforded legal protection by either state or federal government.

“The impact of paving the South Rochford Road from Rochford to Deerfield would just bring more issues that people around … Bear Butte deal with and would bring detrimental results to the Pe Sla,” Kramer said.

A public-input meeting regarding the South Rochford Road Project was held on March 1 at Rochford’s double-duty community hall and fire station building. As recorded in Kramer’s meeting notes, “Several people who have fished Deerfield Lake for years are putting together a petition regarding the paving of this road, indicating that there are over 400 people on their list who fish this Lake and who object to the paving of the road – they do NOT want it … .”

Borderlands Education and Spiritual Center, a component of Borderlands Ranch, was established by Kramer in an effort to assist the Lakota in protecting and preserving Pe Sla. She is also the administrator of the website.

Kramer, who is non-Native American, said she was adopted by the Sicangu Lakota, or members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, through a Hunka, or Making of Relatives, ceremony.

Following the discovery of gold, the U.S. Congress unlawfully took the Black Hills from the Great Sioux Nation in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty, just nine years after it was signed in 1868. This final seizure of Lakota land spelled the abject end of what little remained of a genuinely traditional way of life for the Oyate.

“Up on Pe Sla, the top of that mountain, (the Lakota) used to do an annual ceremony there,” said Albert White Hat, Sicangu Lakota elder. “And when all the spiritual ways were outlawed from 1880 to 1978, we couldn’t do those things without consequences, or punishment – and there were very effective punishments brought on our people. So eventually they quit doing these annual ceremonies, and our spirituality and our oral history went underground.”

The mountain 73-year-old White Hat refers to is Flag Mountain, a 7,000-foot-high peak situated directly west of Pe Sla.

In 1880 Congress enacted so-called civilization regulations, which denied Natives the right to freely practice their spiritual and cultural ceremonies and even denied them the right to leave reservations as they chose, among other things. Legally sanctioned repercussions for violating these regulations were sure and swift and included persecution, imprisonment and – in numerous instances – death.

De facto freedom of traditional religion, a fundamental American right, wasn’t granted to Natives until almost a century later.

When Natives regained the right to freely practice their traditional religions, annual Lakota ceremonies and how they should be done were still remembered very well, White Hat said, to bring peace back to all creation.

According to White Hat, Pe Sla is not a place for permanent structures or anything of the sort. He said the Black Hills and all of its sacred sites “are very valuable resources for the Lakota that bring back the energy to the people.”

“These ceremonies are slowly coming back – and it helps us,” he said. “And we believe it helps creation, bringing back relationships to all creation, not just other beings but our non-Indian relatives, friends who participate with us.”

The particular spiritual-refuge ceremony conducted at Pe Sla every spring is Wiping of the Tears, White Hat explained. The ceremony helps creation renew itself once again, he indicated.

White Hat said as he understands it, Pennington County wants to attract more residents to Pe Sla through development, which includes building things such as condominiums. But development will completely “cut (the Lakota) off from Pe Sla because the area will all become private land,” he said.

The South Rochford Road Project must pass certain federal standards and all potential alternatives must be identified before it can move forward to completion, said Terry Keller, environmental manager for the state’s Transportation Department.

“(The alternatives) have to compete against each other to see which (one) is the best one,” and “one of the alternatives that has to be considered all the way through is to do nothing because there are times when doing nothing is the best option for the environment,” he said.

A portion of the federal standards requires compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.

Pe Sla is a pretty special area, Keller said, so the agencies involved in conducting the EIS are taking it very slowly and carefully and putting an awful lot of time and effort into making sure the environmental document the Federal Highway Administration is charged with signing is the best product that we can get, and that we minimize all the environmental and cultural resource impacts that we can.

Keller said he is very familiar with the Lakota term “Pe Sla.”

If the nearly 12-mile stretch of South Rochford Road ends up being paved, “It’s anticipated that on a daily basis, the minimal traffic won’t increase,” he said. “But during the summer, when the traffic is heavier – especially during the Sturgis (Motorcycle) Rally – paving may increase the traffic quite a bit for tourists and that sort of thing.”

According to Keller, there is some concern that if the road is resurfaced, the area could be subdivided by landowners and some unanticipated development could take place.

“When you get into (the history of) traditional cultural properties, culturally and religiously significant sites … those are, many times, not documented,” said Keller. “So we have to rely upon the tribes to make those determinations about cultural significance, and in order to do that they have to go into their caucusing efforts and consultation among themselves to determine what the meaning of those sites are and what the significance is.”

He said the three agencies are “counting on the tribes to help them out” with this aspect of the EIS. In clarifying the South Dakota DOT’s involvement in the project, Keller said the federally appropriated funding has to flow through the department to the county.

“So (DOT gets) charged with making sure all the federal-state requirements are met," he said.

There are some safety issues attached to the condition of the section of South Rochford Road currently under scrutiny, said Keller, including inadequate drainage, sharp curves near canyon drop-offs and an area of water overflow from Deerfield Lake that doesn’t completely thaw in winter cold due to reduced sunlight exposure.

“There are a lot of natural resources we have to be careful of impacting, in addition to tribal resources and cultural ones,” he said. “It’s going to be a lengthy process. We have taken as many steps as we really can think of to include as many agencies and provide a lot of opportunities for the public and for tribes to have input.”

A tribal perspectives meeting, which was for tribal leadership only, to discuss the South Rochford Road project was held in Rapid City on March 15.

“It was to discuss the Section 106 requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act,” said Keller. “In order to comply with that, we laid out the process and discussed the results with all the tribes that were in attendance, and we had about two-thirds of the tribes from in the state and then three of four or five (tribes) from out of the state … . I think we had 15 tribes (in attendance) altogether.”

“Thirty-three tribes were invited to participate,” he said.

Out-of-state tribal representatives came from North Dakota, Nebraska and Colorado. Keller said specific topics of discussion included how the mandated environmental study needs to work, what the tribes’ views on Section 106 of the NHPA are, and what needs to be done as the study moves forward.

Before an official final report can be signed, all parties affected by the proposed project must be fully apprised of the significant environmental and cultural impacts of each one of the three alternative measures, Keller noted.

“At some point, we’ll probably have to do some sort of programmatic agreement or memorandum agreement that spells out the roles and responsibilities for all the agencies, the tribes, (and) how to get the advisory council involved at the national level – just so we have a very clear understanding of how this has to be done. It just makes good sense," he said.

A public scoping meeting to discuss the South Rochford Road EIS is slated for April 19 at Hill City High School from 5 to 7 p.m., local time.

Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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