Winyan – The Women: Decades of Rejected Efforts by the Native American Community to Utilize the RCIS Lands

This article describes decades of efforts by Native American community leaders and organizations to gain access and use the Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands for one of the original purposes outlined in the Act of 1948: providing services to “needy Indians.” All their requests were denied, which has contributed to a deep sense of frustration in members of Rapid City’s Native American community that is as yet unresolved.

By Karin Eagle and Heather Dawn Thompson

Cecelia Montgomery. Eva Nichols. Marie Lambert. Mary Wright. Elizabeth Fast Horse. Violet Weston. The Wenona Club. Waokiya Ospaya. United Sioux Tribes. These are just a few of the known names of the Native American women and organizations who fought for decades to obtain access to the Rapid City Indian School lands (RCIS lands), pursuant to the “needy Indians” provision of the Act of May 20, 1948.

The 1948 Act permitted the Department of Interior (DOI) to grant RCIS lands for free to the City, School District, and the National Guard; allowed the sale of the lands to churches for religious purposes; and allowed the land to be used or exchanged for “needy Indians.”  All of the land was distributed under the first and second section, but no land was distributed for use by the Native community.

Rejected Requests for Land Use

Many documents have been lost over the years, and memories have faded. But even with those impediments, history highlights numerous efforts by members of the local Native American community, each trying to obtain their people’s share of property under the 1948 Act. These efforts spanned decades, but each was denied.

1950s: Indian Housing. The first effort after the Act was passed was aimed at creating more permanent housing opportunities for the Native community living on and or near Rapid Creek. Non-Indian residents of west Rapid City objected to this plan, pressuring local politicians to reject these requests. Instead, Rapid City and the Department of the Interior (DOI) devised a creative and questionable land deal that would displace Native Americans, moving them to the periphery of north Rapid City.

1950-1960s: Requests to the DOI for Various Purposes. Despite the very polarizing result of the denied request to place housing near Sioux San, the Native community persisted.  As reflected in an internal 1968 memo, numerous Native organizations submitted formal requests for access to the lands for housing, a cultural center, an Indian center, for the development of powwow and ceremony grounds, and for the creation of health facilities. Some of the requests came from:

  • United Sioux Tribes
  • Rosebud Tribal Council
  • Black Hills Council of American Indians
  • Black Hills Sioux Shrine
  • Office of Equal Opportunity Project, led by Mrs. Violet Weston
  • Rapid City Indian Health Committee, led Mr. Edson Briggs
  • War Eagle Dancing Club, led by Mr. Joseph C. Dudley

1962: Black Hills Sioux Shrine. Led by Ms. Eva Nichols, this organization was created to develop a plan for a Sioux Museum and Indian Education Center. She submitted a formal request to the DOI, but the agency did not want to allow the facility to be built on federal land and therefore just redirected the community to seek congressional legislation.

1971: United Sioux Tribes – Federal Legislation. After repeated denials through the regular request process, in 1971 an intertribal organization of the Sioux Tribes in South Dakota, called the United Sioux Tribes, proposed federal legislation to transfer of some of the lands to build and Indian Center. The Center would include a Library Research Center, Junior Achievement Activities, a Fine Arts Laboratory, Adult Education Services and would also serve as a cultural source of technical and information resources for several Sioux tribes. Senator George McGovern, Congressman James Abourezk, and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Louis R. Bruce all supported the legislation. Unlike the prior three Acts submitted by the citizens of Rapid City for access to these lands, however, this bill never passed into law.

1974: Wenona Club – Indian Arts & Crafts Board, Sioux Museum, & the Journey Museum. After the failure of the direct requests, and the efforts to secure a Congressional act, the Native women of Rapid City got creative. Through a civic organization they called the Wenona Club, they requested that land not be used directly for the Native community, but be transferred to the U.S. Indian Arts & Crafts Board for the creation of a Sioux Museum. The Wenona Club had designs and a plan. However, no funds were ever appropriated to the Indian Arts & Crafts Board for the museum, and the facility was never built. In the 1990s, the collection was transferred to the Journey Museum.

1990s: Waokiya Ospaya – Native Elderly Housing. In 1998, Mary Wright, on behalf of the local Native community, sought the usage of the land to build housing for elderly Natives. The organization Waokiya Ospaya, Inc. had a design and an architect, but no land on which to build. In her correspondence, Wright called the RCIS lands a “large area of Indian Trust Land” intended to be used by needy Indians. But the lands were never approved for this housing project.

Request for Answers

After the numerous denials of requests from the Native community in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, the women of Rapid City’s Native community continued to push for answers. How had the RCIS lands been dispersed and why had none been used to assist Native Americans, per the Act of May 20, 1948? Most of these inquiries have been lost to time. But a handful of their letters, which tell the story of their unsuccessful efforts, have been preserved in the homes of their descendants.

1971. Ms. Elizabeth Fast Horse wrote to the DOI in 1971, demanding answers. She received a cursory response stating that the agency “has the authority to convey Sioux Sanatorium lands as provided by the Act of May 20, 1948,” and that they could make no commitments until the outcome of legislation pending at the time was determined.

1974. Members of Rapid City’s Native American community sent a petition to the Secretary of the Interior, outlining several grievances concerning the alleged misuse of RCIS lands. The petition demanded that the Secretary “‘cease and desist’ from further conveyances of the land.”

1982. Ms. Eva Nichols wrote another series of letters to the General Services Administration (GSA) on behalf of a group called the Working Indians Civil Association. She requested an inquiry into the distribution of the lands. The GSA responded that it was not authorized to conduct the kind of survey necessary to obtain that information.  

Undeterred, Ms. Nichols wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on June 25, 1982, asking once again for a full inquiry into the process that had allocated over 1,000 acres to various entities, but not “needy Indians.” In her letter, Ms. Nichols expressed concern that churches receiving lands under the 1948 Act “immediately [sold] such parcels of land and set up a realty business to make money for their churches.” She also worried that land recipients were “stripping” top soil from unallocated lots for their own purposes. She begged that an investigation be conducted, as she put it, because “everyone certainly made a big effort to see that Indians never got one acre of [the land].”

1988. Community member Marie Lambert sent numerous hand written notes to U.S. Senator Tom Daschle asking for help for a full study on potentially illegal land transactions. She ended one letter by stating that after the requests for housing were denied due to protests, “we were put up north of the Interstate by the City of Rapid City, where the tourists would not see us and that is how it has been ever since.”

Sioux Addition Civic Association. The Sioux Addition Civil Association, a group of Native residents of the Sioux Addition in North Rapid, was perhaps most active group when it came to raising awareness and seeking a resolution to concerns about the Indian Boarding School lands. Under the leadership of Native women like Cecelia Montgomery and Mary Wright, dozens of community members participated in these efforts. The Association repeatedly asked questions about the equity and fairness of the process that distributed the RCIS lands over the course of several decades. They never received any clear answers.

These are only some of the names and stories of the women and organizations who stepped forward and pressed their local, state and federal governments about the land transfers, to no avail. The consistent ignoring of their concerns has led to a deep-seated sense of frustration by members of Rapid City’s Native American community, who have been searching for answers for decades.