By Zoltan Grossman

Excerpted from Unlikely Alliances: Treaty Conflicts and Environmental Cooperation between Native American and Rural White Communities (University of Wisconsin Geography doctoral dissertation, 2002), and published in Unlikely Alliances: native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands (University of Washington Press, 2017).

In the mid-1970s, as the Pine Ridge conflict was lessening, the global energy crisis led to a rekindling of the historic conflict over minerals in the Black Hills. Multinational mining companies, such as Union Carbide and Exxon, proposed the development of the Black Hills for energy resources, including coal mines, uranium mines, and coal slurry pipelines. The Hills had been mined for gold since the arrival of Custer’s troops a century before, and had also been mined for uranium in the 1950s, resulting in the extensive irradiation of the southern Black Hills community of Edgemont.

In the mineral rush of the 1870s, the battle was over gold, and non-Indian residents were the enemy of the Lakota. In the mineral rush of the 1970s, the battle was over coal and uranium, and the white residents of the Black Hills were not enemies but allies. This time, the Lakota who feared damage to sacred sites were joined by non-Indians who perceived the new proposals as a particular threat to surface waters and groundwater supplies. The Lakota treaty rights movement entered a new phase in the late 1970s, when they gained new, strange bedfellows in their fight to save the Black Hills.

Traditional leaders describe the Black Hills are the “heart of the Earth,” pointing out that the Hills are in the shape of a human heart. They attribute the presence of uranium, gold, and other minerals to sacred forces that were feared and left alone by precolonial Lakota. They point out that storms are common in the region, and that rainfall recharges the groundwater supply in subterranean aquifers for hundreds of miles in every direction. The sense of “Sioux” cultural identity is geographically situated in this sacred place, even if the larger “Sioux” people have never possessed a single standardized language or centralized political system.

In 1978, a gold miners’ group in the northern Hills, Miners for Safe Energy, began to hold meetings to educate local citizens about the radioactive dangers of uranium mining. Other groups, including the Sierra Club and Black Hills Energy Coalition, also began to oppose the mining plans, but refused to associate with Native Americans because they feared alienating potential white followers. Yet at the same time, some ranchers and farmers concerned about the large-scale diversion of groundwater began to sit down and discuss the issue with the Lakota. Native traditionalists were concerned that the primary site where Union Carbide had identified uranium deposits was Craven Canyon, where many ancient pictographs (rock art) were located.

IITC Director and AIM leader Bill Means remembers the delicate process that followed of “building a bridge” between rival communities. The issue of water rights had at times brought the Lakota into conflict with white local governments and ranching organizations. Means says the first approach to the ranching community was to “explore through mutual friends, who get along with Indian people,” and “old friends” in the ranching community. Their message was that the Lakota “had something in common with ranchers”–the view of water as a “precious commodity,” and a desire to keep the land in good condition.

Means eventually spoke directly with small groups of ranching families, with the message that if the energy corporations had their way, there would be little water left to fight over. Means says he and other Lakota “didn’t push the racism issue,” and defined the treaty as covering only state and federal lands, not private lands. He says he in turn also came to understand the concerns of ranchers about low cattle prices and contamination from pesticides and herbicides. Out of these discussions came the 1979 founding of the Black Hills Alliance (BHA), a coalition of Lakota, grassroots white environmentalists, Black Hills residents, and a handful of off-reservation ranchers and farmers opposed to corporate plans for the region.

BHA co-founder Mark Tilsen remembers that before the group was founded, the Lakota and white ranchers had only two points of social contact: rodeo and basketball. There was also some overlap between the groups, as some Lakota had taken up ranching, although they were rarely the same traditionalists who strongly opposed the mining of the Black Hills. He explains that it was a “political statement” by white ranchers to simply meet with the Lakota, and that the meetings at times went poorly until the ranching women stepped in to demand that the Lakota be treated with respect.

BHA co-founder Bruce Ellison remembers the early Native/non-Native meetings: “You could feel the tension in the air…ever since white people came [to the region] the corporations have used ignorance, to keep the people most in common with each other at each other’s throats. We wanted to avoid that being an available tactic.” Yet in a series of community meetings in small Black Hills towns, Ellison saw local residents’ faces change when they examined the extent of mineral leases on a BHA map, believing that uranium mining “threatened them and their families’ future survival.” Oglala Lakota BHA organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk observes that the non-Indian residents came to understand that the treaty could help to prevent uranium mining: “They realized how helpless they were in the face of eminent domain. But Indian people had treaty rights–they could stop things!”.

Marvin Kammerer, whose ranching family has lived east of Rapid City since the 1880s, opposed mining because of the use of uranium in nuclear weapons. He had opposed the expansion of the Ellsworth Air Force Base onto his land, and recalled the afternoon when all the B-52s took off from the base at once, causing him to fear that a nuclear war had begun. Kammerer was one of the ranchers who served as a bridge to the Lakota, and helped to form the BHA.

In a New York Times interview, Kammerer said, “I’ve read the Fort Laramie Treaty, and it seems pretty simple to me; their claim is justified. There’s no way the Indians are going to get all of that land back, but the state land and the Federal land should be returned to them. Out of respect for those people, and for their belief that the hills are sacred ground, I don’t want to be a part of this destruction.”

Kammerer’s children were teased in school for being “Indian lovers,” particularly when his ranch hosted the 1980 Black Hills International Survival Gathering, which drew 11,000 participants from around the world. Means also reports that his children were teased by fellow Lakota students. Ellison asserts that the BHA was “looked at in the Indian community as a white organization, and in the white community as an Indian organization. We looked at it as both.”

After the courtroom defeat of most of the corporate mining plans in 1981, Means’ brother Russell, another AIM leader, attempted to turn the BHA from an interethnic alliance into a group devoted solely to treaty defense. Russell Means led the establishment of the Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills, which drew numerous traditionalists through the early 1980s, as well as negative attention from some law enforcement authorities.

Kammerer and his rancher allies continued involvement not only in environmental issues, but also demanded prosecution of white youths who had killed a Lakota man in nearby Sturgis. The process of alliance-building clearly resulted in tensions within both communities, but also had some success in defending the environment and building improved community relations. Bill Means credits the success to the “breaking down of doors” at the grassroots level, asserting that a similar effort to build ties between tribal and local white governments would have met the barrier of entrenched political interests.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Black Hills had indeed been stolen from the Lakota in 1876, and backed the ICC’s cash-based “just compensation” rather than a return of land. A bill sponsored by Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) proposed the return of 1.2 million acres of Black Hills federal lands to the tribe, which would then establish a “Sioux National Park,” but the bill could not overcome objections from South Dakota’s congressional delegation. The Black Hills remained an area outside of any federal reservation, but an area that would become increasingly important in building internal and external support for Lakota treaty rights.



BHA 1 Files:

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (Aug. 1979)

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (Mar. 1980)

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (Aug.-Sept. 1980, Vol. 1)


BHA 2 Files:

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (May-June 1980)

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (Mar.-Apr. 1981)


BHA 3 Files:

Water and Energy (Black Hills Alliance, 1979)

Pine Ridge Health investigation, Women of All Red Nations (WARN), May 1980

Pine Ridge Health investigation summary, Women of All Red Nations (WARN), May 1980

1980 Black Hills International Survival Gathering pamphlet

1980 Black_Hills International Survival Gathering Official Handbook

BHA Speaker’s Bureau pamphlet

Water and Energy report (BHA)

Low Level Radiation–It’s Everywhere

The Road Not Taken pamphlet

Water is the Key pamphlet

Did You Know? (taxpayers pamphlet)

Catholic Rural Life article (Dec. 1980)

Federal Gov’t Subsidizes Nuclear Power pamphlet

1868 Treaty Could Protect Our Water and Land

Western South Dakota Report (by Lillias Jones)

Low-Level Ionizing Radiation Update 1979 (by Lillias Jones)

Effects of Low-Level Ionizing Radiation on Native Americans (by Lilias Jones)

Survival is Still the Issue (by Lillias Jones)

Legal Battles Over the Craven Canyon Uranium Project Black Hills

Rapid City Journal news clippings (Oct. 31, 1980)

Western South Dakota (Jan. 1981)

South Dakota Uranium Activity (1980)

Uranium Activity Survey (1980)

Community Action and BHA Build Solar Collectors

BHA Letter to Richard E. Traylor (Bureau of Land Management)

Letter to Subcommittee on Natural Resources (Feb. 2, 1980)

BHA Information on Rapid Valley Water Contamination (Oct. 30, 1980)

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (Apr. 1980)

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (Aug.-Sept. 1980, Vol. 2)

Black Hills-Paha Sapa Report (Aug.-Sept. 1981)

Mine Talk (July-Aug. 1981)


Remember the ’80s: Social Movements Between Woodstock and the Web

By Zoltan Grossman, Z magazine (April 2008)