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National

S.D. Tribe Poised To Take Back Part Of Badlands

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

America has nearly 400 national parks, and Native American tribes claim ownership of land in many of them. In South Dakota's Badlands, one tribe could soon retake control of part of the park, making it the first tribally run national park in the country. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray reports.

CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: When Gerard Baker walks through the Badlands, he keeps an eye out for one thing.

GERARD BAKER: I grew up in North Dakota in the snake country. So I always watch for rattlesnakes, any other little things that we have around here.

RAY: Baker leads the Oglala Sioux Tribe Parks and Recreation Authority. He's also a veteran of the National Park Service and a former superintendent at Mount Rushmore. Baker is looking out over the red clay and yellow sandy bluffs of the Badlands. This isolated area covers several hundred square miles of southwest South Dakota. It's a ruggedly beautiful landscape that's sacred to many tribes.

BAKER: You can come out here, for example, and listen to that. And you can hear the same sounds that our warriors and our families heard coming across this area 500 years ago, maybe 1,000 years ago.

RAY: The lower half of the Badlands National Park sits on tribally owned land. But in the 1940s, tribal residents were evicted by the Department of Defense to make way for a bombing range. By 1976, the DOD was ready to give the land back to the tribe but only with the stipulation that the area become part of the adjacent Badlands National Park. Baker says the Oglala Sioux have had little say in the management of the 133,000 acres here that they own.

BAKER: There's always been a sense of loss, I think, for these people here, for the tribal members, especially the ones who are on the land. And this is one way of getting that back maybe a generation or two later.

RAY: The agreement now being hammered out keeps the Badlands National Park intact, but it gives the tribe the full authority to manage its portion of the park and to reap the benefits of visitor traffic. Sandra Washington is with the National Park Service.

SANDRA WASHINGTON: Tourism is a big industry all over this country, and certainly in an area as poverty-stricken as the Pine Ridge Reservation, anything that provides an economic lift is a great thing.

RAY: Oglala Sioux tribal members here hope this move sets a precedent for other areas of the country where tribal lands fall in parks. And it turns out that a number of iconic landscapes are tribally owned. Here's one you may recognize.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTOON)

RAY: Monument Valley is the setting for Wile E. Coyote's endless chase of the Road Runner. The area is every bit as iconic as any national park. But it's not a U.S. national park, it's a Navajo national park. The Navajo own Monument Valley, and they've managed it as their park for more than 50 years. Martin L. Begay is the director and says what's happening in the Badlands should open the door for other tribal nations to manage national parks on their land.

MARTIN L. BEGAY: One case in point is Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which is run by the National Park Service, and it's actually a sacred site to most of the tribes that are here in this part of the country.

RAY: National Park Service officials say they aren't sure this case will set a precedent. Sandra Washington with the Park Service says the Badlands are a unique case.

WASHINGTON: I don't know of another place in the national park system where we have that kind of relationship with a tribe on land.

RAY: But those like Gerard Baker maintain that this case should pave the way for more tribal sovereignty over park lands. The Oglala Sioux Tribe and the National Park Service plan to sign an agreement by the end of this month, but full approval requires an act of Congress. It's Congress that created the Badlands National Park, and now those close to the process hope that Congress will see fit to give control of part of this park back to its original owners. For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.