Few places on Earth rival the stark beauty of the Black Hills (He Sapa) of South Dakota. Part of the vast, traditional homelands of the Lakota People granted by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, this territory was never willingly ceded by us to the United States.
And yet, like all treaties made by the U.S. with Native People, the Fort Laramie Treaty wasn’t honored. Colonial forces advanced across the land in search of resources and riches. And today, the Black Hills’ landscape and water systems are being desecrated by a host of exploratory and mining operations because of an archaic law that favors ease of colonization and extraction over the health of the land, water, and people.
Thankfully, there is something you can do to help: Ask U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to suspend all claims, in perpetuity, until the Lakota’s treaty rights are properly acknowledged and honored. The Landback movement seeks to return the Black Hills to the Lakota. But even that will be for naught if the land itself is destroyed before it is home again with the Oceti Sakowin.
The Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, established in 2009, has been actively fighting to stop the aggressive mining in and around the Black Hills for well over a decade. The Alliance initially brought people together to focus on eliminating the detrimental effects of uranium mining in the southwestern part of the Black Hills..
“We get information out to the public, stressing that their public opinions and comments should be directed to the National Forest Service, the State, and other entities like the State Water Management Board,” says the Alliance’s executive director, Lilias Jarding.
Recently, the Alliance’s quest to cleanse our homelands has been made even tougher. An increase in gold mining exploration has exacerbated the stress on the land and contamination of the water. The Alliance has identified five gold mining companies in the Northern Hills Forest Service Ranger District that have submitted mining claims. Currently, there are 184,000 acres of mining claims littering the He Sapa, covering 15 percent of the sacred grounds.
Water system contamination caused by mining represents the greatest threat to the Black Hills area, according to the Alliance. Many abandoned mines in South Dakota have caused lasting damage. Whitewood Creek was contaminated for more than 100 years by Homestake Gold Mine, until the mine ceased operation in 2001. As a result of this contamination, an 18-mile stretch of the creek was deemed a Superfund site from 1983 through 1996.
And, of course, mining companies walk away after tearing up the land, contaminating the water, and leaving waste behind — leaving the clean up costs to taxpayers.
Intervention is needed now. But because the law is set up to favor extraction, the only remedies appear to be changing the law and a moratorium on new mining. The “current” law governing this harmful extraction — the 1872 Mining Law — gives anyone the permission to file a mining claim on 350 million acres of “public land” controlled by the United States Federal Government, including that under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, a subdivision of the Department of Interior.
This 150-year-old Mining Law was designed to entice settlers to come west by creating mining communities, an agent of colonization. So archaic in its execution, this law removes tribal and local control and gives power to the mining companies. And, to make things worse, it directly subsidizes extraction by allowing miners to take taxpayer-owned minerals and avoid paying the royalties tied to other extractive industries.
It’s a continuation of the pattern of erasure faced by this land’s first inhabitants since the moment colonizers arrived on our shores. Resource extraction and Native erasure have always gone hand in hand.
“After Gold was discovered in 1874, Custer came to the Black Hills to start the direct removal of Indigenous Peoples."
— Lilias Jarding, Black Hills Clean Water Alliance Executive Director
The western half of South Dakota is already threatened by contamination, and newly proposed mining at a greater scale — such as the F3 Gold company’s Jenny Gulch Project — will increase the danger and widen its scope. If the current mining rush continues unabated, new locations upstream of Rapid City will threaten large populations in other areas of South Dakota. Elevated Uranium levels will further pollute Angostura Reservoir and the Cheyenne River, eventually contaminating tribal lands and the Missouri River. The local economy, based on tourism, agriculture, and outdoor recreation, will inevitably suffer. Critically, once again, the concerns of Native People will have been ignored and our health and safety disregarded. It is time we allow the waters of the Black Hills to heal.
Please take action now. Tell U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to use her authority and put a stop to new mining claims in the He Sapa. It’s up to us to put the pressure on the U.S. government to do the right thing and defend the sacred. And please continue to follow and support the work of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance and the Lakota People’s Law Project. Mni wiconi — water is life.