Home of the Bison - Landscapes and Landforms: Issues of Protection and Access

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The ways in which the Lakotas and Cheyennes have talked about and conceptualized the Black Hills and their various landscapes, including those identified with the region of WCNP, make it difficult to single out a series of discrete sites that can be identified, segregated, and ranked for purposes of cultural protection and management (pp. 641-643). The importance of Wind Cave, the Race Track, the Buffalo Gap, and the Hot Springs is not about these sites as single landforms, separated from each other and isolated from the living world of which they are a part. Instead, their significance resides in their relationships to each other and to the wider area that constitutes the entire Black Hills (pp. 454-455, 576-577, 637, 640-642). This is an integrated landscape but only part of it comes under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Wind Cave and a portion of the Race Track are located on park properties, but the Buffalo Gap and Hot Springs are situated outside park boundaries.

All of the Lakota and Cheyenne cultural resource personnel with whom we spoke singled out the Race Track as a culturally significant traditional property (pp. 635-636). For many different reasons already described here and in the text of the report, it is considered a sacred site (pp. 483-482, 562-573). Much of the Race Track, however, has been disturbed, opened to settlement and development since 1877. Large portions of it are also in the hands of private property owners. Only a few areas of this geological depression remain on public lands and retain any semblance of their original state. One of the places where the track is still relatively isolated and "pristine" sits on park properties. All of the Lakota and Cheyenne resources officers we interviewed concurred that this area of the Race Track requires special protection, and two even suggested that it should be nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places to protect it from any further development. Given its importance in the history, cosmology, and current religious practices of these two tribes, we agree that it should be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed, we would argue that the entire region encompassing the lands between the Buffalo Gap and Wind Cave should be designated as part of an historic district rather than an historic site. Since it is an integrated landscape, not just a small self-contained location that is significant, we recommend that the entire region be included under some kind of protected land status. Outside the Hogback, the town of Buffalo Gap is already part of a NRHP historic district, and this designation should be extended to include the landscape in and around the natural landform known as the Buffalo Gap, a place that is also vitally important to the Lakotas and Cheyennes.

The Lakota cultural resource officers we interviewed identified Wind Cave and the mountain in which it is nested as sacred and culturally significant traditional properties (pp. 636-637, see also, pp. 446-451, 487-490, 532-562). The cave is already protected and so are some of the human-made structures that surround it. Both carry a NRHP designation. The mountain in which the cave is nested also carries a degree of protection because much of it sits on NPS land, but the restrictions on its use are probably not as rigorous as those that hold a NRHP status. Further protection, as described momentarily, might be handled in other ways.

Many other landforms or sites of traditional cultural significance probably exist on park properties that have not been referenced in the published or archival literatures we studied (pp. 638-639). None of the tribal cultural resource staff with whom we spoke volunteered information on other sites. Since all of the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho people we interviewed indicated that the park continues to be used for fasting and prayer, observances that typically take place in areas of spiritual significance, there are bound to be other places that can be regarded as traditional cultural properties or sacred sites. Some of the types of places that might require special consideration in the future include:

1) Rock Art: All rock art in the Black Hills is believed to be sacred, representing one of the ways that spirits communicate with humans (pp. 453, 638). Wind Cave National Park, however, is not in an area where heavy concentrations of rock art are known to exist. Hidden and unidentified petroglyphs and pictographs might still be located on park properties. One of the Lakota cultural resource people we spoke to indicated that there was rock art on "the mountain above the cave, " although he did not specify its exact location. All rock art is protected under federal laws governing prehistoric remains, and special efforts need to be made to locate and protect those that may be situated inside the park.

2) Other Cave Openings and Springs: All springs and cave openings have sacred significance in Lakota and Cheyenne traditions because they are the portals between the earth's surface and the subterranean world where some spirits keep their homes (pp. 446-452, 638). While these sites may not have any tribal-wide traditions associated with them, as exist in relation to Wind Cave and the Race Track, some of them may be a part of traditional and culturally significant beliefs and practices of smaller circles of people, including families, communities, and associations of religious practitioners. As indicated previously, these sorts of locations are often tied to Little People, the Double-Woman, and a host of different animal spirits in Lakota and/or Cheyenne traditions (pp. 561-562).

3) Unusual Topographic Formations: Standing stones with unusual shapes might be known to have extraordinary properties and origins (pp. 453, 639). One location marked on an old GLO map as "Giant's Thumb" could be one of these (p.560). Distinctive landforms, such as Rankin's Ridge, are often identified as the "backbone" of an animal spirit and therefore hold special interest. Canyons or rock outcroppings in which gypsum or other crystalline mineral formations are located are also likely to have significance, especially if they exist in locations with unusual concentrations of certain plants (e.g. chokecherries) or in areas animals are known to frequent and feed. Again, traditional cultural knowledge about these kinds of locations is probably restricted to certain circles of people.

4) Burial Sites and Remains: Burial areas are especially sacred, and in historic times, it was not uncommon for the Lakotas and Cheyennes to bury their dead near caves and in rock crevices. One of the primary reasons many modern day Lakotas and Cheyennes consider the Hills sacred is because they hold the burial grounds of some of their ancestors. In fact, one Lakota identified an area just above Wind Cave as the location for the burial of his grandfather's sister (pp. 451, 513, 639). Since this type of burial took place in the Hills before 1877, the locations of specific internment sites may not be known. If burials happen to be uncovered by accident in the course of routine park maintenance or improvements, they need to be left alone. If they have to be moved to protect them, their approximate age needs to be identified in order to determine which tribal nation(s) should be consulted. As a general rule of thumb, any remains found in the park that date between 1500 and 1700 probably have Apache or Arikara affinities, between 1700 and 1750, the situation becomes more complicated and the tribes involved also include Arapahos, Comanches, Kiowas, Poncas, and Cheyennes. After 1750, the Lakotas need to be added to the list, and between 1800 and 1877, the relevant tribes are the Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos.

The identification of other traditional and culturally significant sites on park properties requires additional in depth and on-site consultations with tribes who have vested and continuing cultural interests in the park, namely, the Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Even if knowledgeable tribal educators, elders, cultural resource personnel, and spiritual leaders from each of these tribes are invited individually or as groups to tour the area and identify sites, many of them may still not come to light. The sites may remain unidentified because only some individuals and families know about them, or because there are cultural reasons for not divulging information about their whereabouts (pp. 639-641).

As argued in greater detail in Chapter Sixteen (p. 641), each tribal nation and even each of its constituent communities probably has a different map of the sacred sites on park properties, and it would be an enormous undertaking to attempt to locate all of them. Since most areas of the park are left alone and not in any danger of being disturbed, it may not be necessary on a practical level to know these places in advance. Park staff and visitors, especially hikers and backpackers, may come across them from time to time because of the presence of offerings and other evidence of spiritual activity. If they do so, the sites need to be left alone and the prayer ties and banners associated with them untouched. One tribal cultural resource officer suggested that park staff and visitors be advised not to disturb these offerings when they are found (pp. 459-461).

Even if the park does not attempt to locate all the sites of cultural importance and/or sacred significance, it is absolutely imperative that such locations be identified whenever the park undertakes any form of development or pursues other actions that will alter the landscape. This includes such things as improving or expanding trail systems and carrying out prescribed burns. It is true that burns often reveal archaeological sites not readily visible in dense stands of vegetation, but this kind of activity can have devastating consequences if it takes place in locations where people customarily fast and pray or where spirits, such as Little People, are known to frequent. Any type of action that is likely to disturb or alter a location demands on-site consultations with interested tribes, and it is often under these circumstances that information otherwise kept secret will often be revealed to protect a spiritual site from desecration.

The park also has important connections to the conduct of a variety of religious observances (pp. 459-474). All cultural resource officers of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes indicated that the park is a site for the conduct of certain solitary religious observances involving fasting and prayer (pp. 459-460, 63-464, 643-644). It is also mentioned in relation to small group observances such as sweatlodges and pipe ceremonies (pp. 462-643). Even larger events, most notably Sun Dances, are known to have taken place on park properties in recent times (pp. 467-474.). Some of the Lakota cultural resource staff admitted that the frequency of group spiritual observances at the park has declined in the last decade, but they also observed that more private devotions continue to be held here. Many contemporary religious practices of the Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos do not take place in a set place. Sites are chosen for such purposes on the basis of the instructions religious practitioners receive from their spirit helpers, the solitude they offer, and/or their association with a specific spiritual presence (p. 474). Whatever the motivation for holding religious observances on park property in the past, it appears most of them were conducted at locations away from the heavily trafficked areas of the park. This will likely remain the case in the future, although one Lakota cultural officer indicated that some spiritually knowledgeable people want special access to the cave's interiors to hear what the spirits are saying. In order to accommodate such a request, special provisions and policies would need to be developed to permit religious observances inside the cave. As discussed elsewhere, granting such requests should be determined on the basis of a neutral standard that evaluates the activity's relative impact on the cave and its fragile boxwork formations, not on the grounds that the activity fails to conform to current policies governing the present-day access of spectators and spelunkers (pp. 642-645). In general, allowances need to be considered and made for certain kinds of traditional religious activity that do not fall under the urbanized, tourist and recreational models that typically manage human relationships to the natural world under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. It is also important to note that many sacred sites may not have any religious observances attached to them. They are left alone out of respect and regard for the spiritual presence that resides there (pp. 455, 640).

The most recent Executive Order on sacred sites, 13007 defines the parties whose interests need to be taken into consideration in terms of identifying and accessing sacred sites on federal lands. First, the person(s) must come from a federally-recognized tribe with established religious and ceremonial affiliations to the area; and two, the person(s) must be "an appropriately authoritative representative of an Indian religion." The second determination can be tricky, as discussed elsewhere, because there is not always widespread agreement on who constitutes a legitimate religious practitioner (p. 651). Among some tribes, such as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, there is a formally-organized association of medicine men and women, which makes their identification fairly easy. In most other tribes, the identification is more informally based. Even though there might be disagreement on the worth of particular practitioners, there is a general consensus on the identity of these people. Thus, at Pine Ridge, Rich Two Dogs and Wilmer Mesteth are widely respected religious practitioners and very knowledgeable about the park and its environs. While this law has merit in eliminating the "fakes" and "wanabees," its restricted wording could potentially exclude people who come to the park for private devotions, if "religious practitioner" is narrowly construed to mean people otherwise identified as "spiritual leaders" or "medicine men and women" (pp. 457-458). Adherents and practitioners of tribal religions who would not be classified as a religious specialist or leader undertake much of the religious activity that takes place on park properties. Most private religious observances are unobtrusive and have impacts on the land that are no more invasive than a hiker or backpacker, and therefore, they are not likely to require any kind of elaborate policy-making decisions. The conduct of sweatlodges, pipe ceremonies, Sun Dances, and other comparable group observances, however, require more consideration and accommodation.

Generally speaking, most forms of religious observance will not require a great deal of intervention or management on the part of park staff when it comes to finding suitable locations that are isolated enough to give individuals and small parties the solitude they need. Only some of the larger observances, notably the Sun Dance, raise management issues that involve, among other things, providing road access and sanitation and minimizing impacts on the land. Where conflicts of interest are most likely to emerge, and where management policies are most needed, pertain to issues of resource extraction, including requests from religious practitioners for soils, minerals, and plants used in the conduct of their observances. It should be pointed out that most of this kind of extraction is limited in scope. In the case of plants, only berries, shells, and nuts can be legally collected on park property. Other takings are illegal, but if exceptions were to be made to allow limited harvesting for traditional religious purposes, much of it could be carried out in ways that do not damage or destroy a plant. Except for roots and bulbs, barks, leaves and branches can be harvested without removing a plant from its habitat (pp. 645-646). Indeed, we would recommend that the park service consider the possibility of allowing limited forms of extraction for religious purposes that do not destroy the resource and/or its habitat.

In this regard it must be pointed out that most Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho religious observances require a ceremonial altar and fire, the smoking of a pipe, and smudging (pp. 459-462). This is not a matter of choice; it is absolutely imperative in the conduct of virtually all religious observances. Propane-fueled fires or carbide lamps cannot serve as functional replacements. Most ceremonial fires require specific types of wood to produce the coals that light the pipes or the smudges that carry prayers and messages to the spirit world. Here the use of certain resources, such as box elder or cottonwood for fire, cedar for smudge, and kinnikinick for tobacco, is prescribed and absolutely necessary to insure a successful and effective outcome (p. 460). In the case of subsurface spaces, fires might be built on the outside and the coals carried in containers to light pipes and smudges in a cave interior. On the surface, open fires always pose a danger during dry periods and times of drought. Since most religious observances on park land are likely to take place from March 21 to August 1st during seasons of low fire danger, this is not likely to be a major concern. When fire danger is high, however, other kinds of accommodations might be made in consultation with tribes to determine how to contain and monitor open fires so they do not pose a risk.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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