He Sapa (also called the Black Hills) in the US state of South Dakota was stolen from the Sioux Nation by the federal government of the United States in 1877. He Sapa is a large region that contains many sacred sites, and some Indigenous people regard it as their place of origin . It is also claimed by other Indigenous nations such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho . The Sioux have never relinquished their claim over this land, and the resulting tension between the Sioux and the US government continually shapes conflicts that have occurred in the region over the past 150 years. These conflicts include the massacre of Wounded Knee (1890), the later occupation of Wounded Knee (1973), the Dakota War (1862), the desecration of Tunkasila Sakpe (so-called Mt Rushmore; 1927-39) , the Dakota Access pipeline protests (2016-17) ; opposition to the Keystone pipeline (2008-15 ) , and the emergence of the modern Land Back movement . All of these episodes in American history should be understood in the context of an over-arching struggle for ownership of the so-called Black Hills.
Sioux ownership of the Black Hills was established by the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 between several Indigenous nations and the US government. This treaty created the 60-million-acre (24.3 million hectares)  Great Sioux Reservation that included the Black Hills and upon which trespass of white settlers was expressly forbidden .
Black hills gold rush
Six years after the Fort Laramie treaty was signed, white settlers discovered gold in the Black Hills, and thousands of prospectors invaded the reservation . This resulted in several conflicts, culminating in the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) when George Armstrong Custer’s 7th cavalry was defeated by the Sioux . In retaliation for this defeat, President Ulysses Grant reneged on the treaty of Fort Laramie, doubled military presence in the Black Hills, and relocated the Sioux to smaller reservations in 1877 .
Indigenous subsistence became increasingly difficult through the late 19th century as settlers hunted buffalo to near extinction. The Dawes Allotment Act (1887) redistributed commonly held tribal land to individuals and families, further eroding communal land ownership. Much of the land re-alloted by the Dawes act eventually fell into the hands of settlers .
Gold mining in the Black Hills produced an incredible amount of gold for over a century. The Homestake mine was one of the largest known gold deposits in the world and produced 40% of the gold mined in the US—a total of 1,100 metric tons between 1876-1991. Homestake operated until 2001, became over 8,000 feet deep, and discharged millions of tons of mine tailings into local creeks . Whitewood creek became a superfund site in 1983. Although the mining company did some cleanup in the 1990s, a 2018 study found high levels of arsenic and mercury in the Belle Fourche, Cheyenne and Missouri rivers . Silver was also mined in the region .
Ongoing Sioux resistance to westward settler expansion revived in about 1890 when the ghost dance emerged as a spiritual/religious resistance movement. This alarmed settlers, and fearing that Sitting Bull (a leader at the Battle of Little Bighorn) would support the ghost dance movement, federal Indian agents killed him in a botched arrest attempt. Two weeks later, on December 29, 1890, the US army attempted to disarm Lakota people at the Pine Ridge Reservation and ended up slaughtering over 250 people .
The Wounded Knee massacre became a highly symbolic event in American history, and eighty-three years later (1973), the massacre site was occupied by secessionist leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who were protesting against reservation leadership and demanding re-negotiation of rights granted by the Fort Laramie treaties. The occupation resulted in a 2-month standoff between AIM supporters and US Marshalls supported by the FBI. A few people were killed, and a privately owned home and museum on the massacre site were destroyed . In 2013, the landowners attempted to sell 40 acres (16.9 hectares) including the massacre site to the Sioux for nearly $5 million dollars (the land assessed at $14,000). The Oglala Sioux tribe seized the land under eminent domain . The Oglala and Cheyenne River Sioux agreed to purchase the land in 2022 .
Tunkasila Sakpe (Mt Rushmore)
Between 1927 and 1939, white settlers carved the faces of four US presidents (Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt) into the face of a mountain called Tunkasila Sakpe  which is a Sioux sacred site. This sculpture—which the US government calls Mount Rushmore—is an important tourist attraction that is presented as a shrine to democracy, but many people see it as a symbol of white supremacy . The sculptor Gutzon Borglum who was contracted for the carvings also carved a prominent confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, GA and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan .
In 1971, AIM staged an occupation of Tunkasila Sakpe, scaling the mountain and refusing to come down until their 1868 treaty rights were honored. About a dozen people were arrested.
Donald Trump held a campaign rally at so-called Mt Rushmore in 2020; hundreds of people protested the event and barricaded roads, leading to several arrests . Attention garnered by this act of resistance amplified the Land Back movement that was launched in part by the NDN Collective, and which is becoming a meta-narrative that brings together various organizations and elements of the Indigenous environmental movement . Land Back is a widespread meme appearing at environmental justice conflicts throughout North America. The central demand of Land Back is return of public lands to Indigenous people. Federal land accounts for about 28% of land in the US.
Legal battle (US vs Sioux Nation)
In 1920, the Sioux petitioned to argue for their land claim in US courts . The lawsuit persisted for sixty years, but in 1980 the US Supreme Court ruled in United States vs. Sioux Nation of Indians that Sioux land was illegally stolen and awarded them $102 million. The court opinion stated that “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history” . The Sioux refused the money (a pittance considering the amount of gold taken from the region), maintaining that their sacred land was not for sale, and demanded their land back . The money was placed in an interest-bearing trust and amounted to about $2 billion in 2021 .
Pipelines transporting crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the gulf coast were a source of conflict in He Sapa from about 2008 to 2017. Sioux people opposing these pipelines on the grounds of treaty rights have been an important focal point in fights against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines . The pipelines present a threat to lakes and rivers that would be endangered by an oil spill.
|Name of conflict:||Black Hills gold mining and land theft, South Dakota, USA|
|Country:||United States of America|
|State or province:||South Dakota|
|Location of conflict:||Deadwood|
|Accuracy of location||MEDIUM (Regional level)|
|Type of conflict. 1st level:||Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction|
|Type of conflict. 2nd level:||Tourism facilities (ski resorts, hotels, marinas)|
Logging and non timber extraction
Tailings from mines
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Establishment of reserves/national parks
Land acquisition conflicts
|Specific commodities:||Crude oil|
The Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 established the Great Sioux Reservation at 60 million acres (24.3 million hectares) . Most of this land has been stolen, as in 2021 the nine Indian reservations in South Dakota cover only 5 million acres in total (2 million hectares). Black Hills National Forest is 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares).
Homestake mine produced of 1,100 metric tons of gold between 1876-1991. The mine closed in 2001. Placer mining of alluvial deposits and smaller hard-rock mines produced some additional gold and silver.
Mount Rushmore is visited by over two million people per year.
The Dakota Access pipeline has a capacity of 750,000 barrels of crude/day.
|Project area:||24,000,000 hectares|
|Level of Investment for the conflictive project||multiple projects|
|Type of population||Rural|
|Affected Population:||Sioux nation population 170,110 (2010 census)|
|Company names or state enterprises:||United States Federal Government (USA)|
|Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:||NDN Collective|
|Intensity||HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)|
|Reaction stage||PREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)|
|Groups mobilizing:||Indigenous groups or traditional communities|
Local government/political parties
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
|Forms of mobilization:||Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment|
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Refusal of compensation
Boycotts of companies-products
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Development of a network/collective action
Official complaint letters and petitions
Threats to use arms
|Environmental Impacts||Visible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Mine tailing spills|
Potential: Oil spills, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
|Health Impacts||Visible: Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Deaths|
|Socio-economical Impacts||Visible: Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place|
|Project Status||In operation|
|Conflict outcome / response:||Criminalization of activists|
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (undecided)
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
|Proposal and development of alternatives:||The Land Back movement demands that land be returned to Sioux Nation.|
|Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:||No|
|Briefly explain:||Although the Sioux won their 60 year legal battle with a decision from the Supreme Court in 1980, they have refused compensation for their land and demand that it be returned. They have received no compensation for gold extracted from their land, and their sacred sites have been desecrated.|
|References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries|
Homestake mine in He Sapa was the largest underground gold mine in North America from 1876-2001
Many people perceive these carvings of US presidents as desecration of a sacred site and a monument to white supremacy.
A land defender confronts US National Guard during a Trump rally at Tunkasila Sakpe in 2020. The phrase "no more stolen sisters" refers to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis affecting Indigenous people in North America. (Source: https://intercontinentalcry.org/natives-seize-trump-stump-at-mount-rushmore/)