PINE RIDGE, S.D. – There is only the light of a quarter-moon and a canopy of shooting stars when Lakota voices in Stronghold camp say, “They are coming.”
In the distance, fourteen Lakota horseback riders, some riding bareback, are approaching on the same route that survivors of the massacre of Wounded Knee followed 112 years ago.
Here on Stronghold Table they Ghost Danced so the people would live and they were massacred. Now, the remains of men, women and children — Lakota, Paiute, Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and other tribes — are apart of this earth.
With a drum and Lakota song by elder Archie Little, the horseback riders circle in the darkness and hear strong advice from Percy White Plume on the need to respect women and be kind and loving fathers.
They camp on the Stronghold where the Tokala (Kit Fox) Society, the traditional Lakota warrior society, has come to defend the sacred. They are prepared to do whatever necessary to prevent the National Park Service from excavating in the Badlands.
Robert Tall, 20, rode horseback to the Stronghold. “I feel we have been violated, they took our lands from us. We are trying to keep our place here as our home. We are free here.
“I wake up every morning, whether I am here or at home, not knowing whether there will be a gun in my face or a big smile and plate of breakfast.”
It is morning in Stronghold camp and the voices of the Lakota Land Alliance on KILI Radio salutes the horseback riders and Tokala here. The morning radio news drifts across camp as the scent of potatoes, onions, bacon and coffee fills the air.
Tall says to Indian young people, “Be who you are and don’t change what you feel inside. Be strong for your people.”
James “Toby” Big Boy, says Lakota medicine men are clear on what this struggle is about.
“It is not about fossils and it is not about money. It is about protecting the sacred, protecting the remains of our ancestors. They are resting now, let them rest.”
Looking out across Stronghold Table, Darwin Apple says, “This was the last stronghold of Crazy Horse. He came to this place to escape the troops who were pursuing him.”
Apple points out that the National Park Service intends to excavate and place the remains in trust for the tribe in museums.
Apple, however, says, “They are already being kept in trust by a greater power.”
Lakota elder Archie Little, Tagliskawakan, said the region of the Badlands is littered with live bombs and explosive from testing during World War II. While there are tribal and federal efforts underway to clear the explosives out of the Badlands, he said bombing range efforts are being used as a guise for something else: elicit searches for fossils and Indian remains.
“There are a lot of live bombs. But their tracks go right by the bombs. They are looking for bones. They are like dogs. They like to chew on those things.”
Little said of the haunting trafficking of Indian remains, “If you go to a fancy office, you will probably find one of these skulls that they are using for an ashtray.”
The secret, he said, is to be humble, show respect and offer respect. The white man, however, has violated these spiritual laws.
“When they die are they going to take this land with them? This earth they claim will eat them up in the dust.”
Little said there are children’s bones here, over the edge of Stronghold Table, where they were massacred during the Ghost Dance. He hopes other tribes will come to honor their ancestors who died in the Ghost Dance here and help carry on the struggle.
Little also points out that the skulls are absent from the remains in Indian graves here.
Then, pointing out that the zeolite mineral is plentiful here, he said, “That is also what they want.”
Just below Stronghold Table, are the remains of those who died here. Buried in shallow graves, the bones are now being exposed by drought and erosion. Lakota say it is no accident. The spirits of those who passed have chosen this time to reveal themselves.
On a steep cliff, the remains of a Lakota teenager are present with the bones of his horse he was buried with. There is a grave, covered with stones nearby. Teepee rings, now photographed for a pending court case and testimony before a Senate Select Committee, are also here. The number of rocks in the teepee circle and the absence of firepits indicates Lakota may have hidden here during winter months during times of massacres.
The National Park Service, however, planning to excavate here, states there are no remains here.
“The National Park Service has no knowledge of any human remains having been discovered in the South Unit of Badlands National Park. No human remains are at risk . . .” wrote William Supernaugh, superintendent of Badlands National Park, to Cecelia “Lovey” Two Bulls, among the leaders of this movement, on Aug. 2.
Meanwhile, Lakota gathered beneath a canopy, with sandwiches and stew, at the Stronghold for a day of sharing and talks on strength and healing. Michael Standing Soldier, from Wakanyeja Pawicayapi Inc. (Children First) in Porcupine spoke on ancestral grief.
Standing Solider said the Oglala have long held their power in the symbol of the four colors of the four directions and the powers represented. “We had all these things deep inside of us as a people.”
Historical trauma, however, has been passed from generation to generation. Healing comes through remembering, understanding and placing blame where it should be, he said.
The trauma began when the innocent, children and elderly, were murdered. It continued through the attack on the minds in boarding schools and on the spirits by Christians.
Although the night was a time of spiritual revelation for Lakota, Christians tried to change this. “They made us fear the night. In the nighttime, they said there was a devil out there.”
Percy White Plume spoke on fatherhood and respect. “Hold your children,” he urged. Speaking of how men grow up without being hugged, he told men to ask the women in their lives to hug them and realize how it feels. Then, he said, think about how good children feel when hugged.
This story begins here, but it does not end here.
On night patrol in the Badlands, following the gathering for strength and healing, four American Indians and this reporter are staked out on three mesas, armed only with walkie-talkies and pints of water.
It is eerie in the darkness, the only sounds are of a bull and the only movement is of bats. There is this question, “What do we do if a helicopter lands next to us?”
The night before, at the Stronghold patrol lookout point on the edge of the mesa, Lakotas watched with binoculars as three helicopters hovered in the darkness above the Badlands. The area is closed by tribal order to the National Park Service and fossil-hunters. Still, the helicopters come at night. A cable appeared to be lowered from the helicopters and a large box lifted from the area below.
Lakota at the Stronghold fear fossils are being taken in the cover of darkness. The other possibility is that the large amounts of zeolite, used in nuclear waste dump lining, baby diapers and cat litter, are being tested or taken out in the cover of darkness.
On this night, however, with the team staked out on the mesas, the helicopters return and hover in circles above, but do not land. The National Park Service said it has no knowledge of the helicopters at night.
Earlier in the week, Toby Big Boy, sister Lovey Two Bulls and family members protested the planned excavation at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Meeting with them was Cahuilla “Kaweah”” M. Red Elk, Lakota, from the Center on Human Rights and Indian Law in Colorado Springs, Colo. As the National Park Service, under the Interior Department, pressed for the location of remains, she said Indian tribes are not required to tell the location or description of the remains of their ancestors.
“Tribes do not have to disclose this to anyone.”
Julia Taylor, public relations manager for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science told the Two Bulls that the museum became involved because it was asked to be a contractor to help with the science in the project at the excavation.
“But, we have pulled out of the project until your tribe and the National Park can come to an agreement.”
The National Park Service, which administers the Oglala land in the Badlands by way of a 1976 memorandum of agreement, told the tribe the excavation will be a research project and salvage operation of the fossils which are at risk of vandalism and theft.
Badlands Supt. William Supernaugh said it would work with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the Denver Museum of Science and Nature on the three-year project.
The National Park Service said the site has always been a “titanothere graveyard”, with animal bones around 40 million years old, but the excavation would not be in the area of human remains. Titanothere was an elephant-sized prehistoric animal and an indirect ancestor of the modern-day horse.
Halting the Aug. 12 starting date for the excavation, Supt. Supernaugh tentatively scheduled a meeting with Oglala President John Yellowbird Steele for August 27 at the Badlands office. The National Park Service, however, has said it does not intend to halt the excavation indefinitely.
Neither do the Lakota at the Stronghold plan to halt their resistance to the excavation, pledging to take any means necessary to protect it.
Little said, “I don’t care if it takes up 10 years, we will stay here.”
Remembering the Ghost Dancers led by the Paiute Wovoka and massacred here, Two Bulls said, “They are resting. Just let them rest.”