For Sale: The Sacred Center of the Sioux Universe

The site of Pe’ Sla has been privately owned since 1876, but indigenous people have always been free to worship there. All that could change on August 25, when the land is set to be auctioned off.
Devils Tower photo by Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography

Like Pe' Sla, Grey Horned Butte, or Devils Tower (pictured) is sacred to indigenous groups.

Photo by Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography.

Editor's note and update: Pe' Sla sits on 1,942 acres of land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is sacred to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Sioux people, who consider it the center of the world. When this story was originally posted on August 22, the site was scheduled to be auctioned off on August 25. On August 23, we were notified that the auction had been canceled “on direction of the owner’s representative." 

As the wind breathes out of Wind Cave in my face, I am reminded of the creation of humans and my own small place in this magnificent world. Wind Cave National Park is named for the Cave itself, called Washun Niya, or the Breathing Hole of Mother Earth, by the Lakota people. In this creation story, it is from here that they emerged to this world.

It is a complex cave system. According to scientists, we may only have a sense of 5 percent of the cave’s volume and breadth, and likely even less of its power. In the vernacular of some, this might be known as the “known unknown.” To most indigenous peoples, there is an understanding of the “great mystery.”

So it is that in 2012, a time of change and transformation in American politics—and also according to the Mayan calendar—we come face to face with the smallness and the greatness of humans in the Black Hills. A most sacred place, Pe’ Sla, the center of the Lakota Universe, is up for sale, and values and questions clash.

Lakota scholar Chase Iron Eyes explains how indigenous people see this sacred place:

Pe’ Sla, to the Lakota, is the place where Morning Star, manifested as a meteor, fell to earth to help the Lakota by killing a great bird, which had taken the lives of seven women. and Morning Star’s descent created the wide-open, uncharacteristic bald spot in the middle of the forested Black Hills. On American maps this is called Old Baldy. … The Morning Star placed the spirits of those seven women in the sky as the constellation “Pleiades” or “The Seven Sisters.”

There is no place more sacred to the Sioux people than this. And sacred places have been set aside for protection by Supreme Court decision in 1988, by Presidential Executive Order in l996, and by the United Nations in its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted in 2007.

Yet, on August 25, the Center of the Heart of Everything That Is will come up in on the auction block at Rapid City’s Ramkota Inn. It is destined to be diced into five 300-acre tracts, where developers plan to build ranchettes and a possible road through the heart of what has been, until now, a relatively un-desecrated sacred site. The land is owned by Leonard and Margaret Reynolds, who grazed cattle there and allowed native peoples open access.

“We didn’t even know it was going to be sold,” Debra White Plume, a Lakota from Manderson, tells me. “We heard nothing about it until we saw the auction announcement.”

In mid-July, the Brock Auction Company of Iowa and South Dakota listed the Reynolds Ranch for sale, announcing that the story of the land began “in 1876 just two short years after General George Armstrong Custer led his historic expedition through the then-almost unknown Black Hills in the Dakota Territory.” Brock goes on to tell potential buyers to imagine sitting “in quiet solitude, with only the whispering of the wind gently easing through the pines,” where you can “imagine the Native Americans, the Homesteaders, and Pioneers who passed across this land.”

Some Lakota may find this ironic, perhaps.

Sacred Places Are Part of the Commons

Is it possible that not everything should be privately owned? While other religions have sacred sites that are revered and protected, the Lakota continue to struggle to protect their most sacred places. At Mahto Paha, or Bear Butte, numerous challenges to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle rally have finally yielded some success. And at Grey Horned Butte, or Devils Tower, a legal battle led to limitations in rock-climbing access in order to protect the privacy of native people engaging in vision quests.

In this time of crashing ecosystems, it may be worth resisting the commodification of all that is revered. A 2005 editorial in the Rapid City Journal points out that protecting Lakota sacred sites is of interest to all:

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Non-Indians have little to fear if familiar sites are designated as sacred; visitors are still allowed at Bear Butte, Devil’s Tower and Rainbow Bridge, even though they are being managed as Indian sacred sites. And in fact, expanding non-Indians’ knowledge and appreciation of the Indian lore surrounding such sites could lead to greater cultural understanding.

Meetings are being held in most of the Lakota nation this week, with organizers hoping to secure both a stop to the auction, and a plan to protect Pe’ Sla from the auction block and encroachment. Another group has organized a campaign to purchase as much of the land as possible during the auction.

It is 2012, and whether you measure time by the elections, by the Mayan calendar, or just by the movement of the Earth, it’s a good time to recognize and protect what is sacred. Today I return to Wind Cave, and have the wind blow on my face, hoping to greet the great mystery and, perhaps, to see something sacred preserved.

For more information about the Sioux campaign to raise funds and purchase Pe’ Sla, visit this Indiegogo campaign.

Winona LaDuke

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