December 08, 2007
Who Owns Thunder Butte?
Before I traveled out to see the butte and its environs last March, I had read on the internet one hiker's account of having taken a trip out to the butte and climbing it. He made reference to asking permission of the of the local ranchers. So, I thought the land technically belonged to one of the ranchers. Then, when I arrived and began making my own inquiries, no one was sure who owned the butte. But, the consensus among the locals I talked to was that it did belong to one of the ranchers.
Without meaning to impugn anyone, I thought it was a bit sad that Thunder Butte didn't actually belong to the Lakota. As much as we non-native folks might appreciate the butte, it is one of their holy places and one which is the regular scene of Lakota holy practices to this day. In thinking about buying the butte, one of my thoughts was about ensuring that the Lakota would always have access to it. I also thought, too, about possibly buying it only to turn around and deed it back to the reservation on which it sits. All of these thoughts I nursed in the back of my mind until last March, when I traveled to South Dakota. And, then, I promptly became consumed with finding my grandfathers' first homestead, located just northeast of Thunder Butte.
Then, one day, while reviewing the plat maps in Dupree – trying to identify which parcel of land my grandfather had owned, I noticed that Thunder Butte was marked as land belonging to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. In asked just to be sure, but yet, the butte already belongs to the Lakota. That promptly put to an end any thoughts I had ever had about buying the butte. But, I was gratified to learn that the butte already belonged to those who considered it most holy.
Last month, I had an opportunity to hear Navajo President Joe Shirley, Jr. speak in Washington, D.C. The overall theme of President Shirley's talk was the need for more help for the Dineh, as the Navajo call themselves. However, one of the most poignant things that President Shirley said was that we – both native Americans and not – are brothers and have obligations to respect, value, and nourish each other. (These were not his exact words, but my interpretation of what he said.) President Shirley has got it right. We owe to each other.
I know that there are lingering tensions on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation about the division and sale of tribal lands around the turn of the last century. Some of the ranchers say that the local Lakota occasionally tell them that the land the ranchers work is their land – Lakota land – and, no doubt, they feel quite strongly about that. On the other hand, the ranchers have been on the land quite some time now. My hope is that the people who live in Thunder Butte country will eventually come to seem themselves as brothers who owe respect to each other. Also, I hope that Thunder Butte will remain available for all to visit, cherish, respect, and protect.