PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Rosebud Sioux member Russell Eagle Bear remembers feeling relief as night was falling at a sacred site in the Black Hills of South Dakota called Pe' Sla. People had gathered to pray on a cold, windy evening in December 2012 just after a group of tribes completed the purchase of the roughly 3-square-miles of land.
"We paid a high price for it because we wanted to protect our burial sites, our cultural sites, our ceremonial sites," Eagle Bear, historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said Wednesday.
But nearly 140 years after Congress seized the Black Hills from the Sioux for gold mining, the tribes are facing opposition in South Dakota to preserving the small sliver of their former lands.
The state in April appealed a federal decision to take the land purchased by the tribes into trust. The opposition in part stems from jurisdictional concerns over the rolling grassland hills near the center of the Black Hills National Forest. The state contends that tribes can already use Pe' Sla as a sacred site, while it remains subject to state law.
Some Rosebud Sioux were dismayed when South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said last month that he believes the money to buy and maintain Pe' Sla should be spent on the reservation, which is among the poorest places in the United States.
"You have many tribal members who have needs here on the reservation, and if grandma needs housing, or if grandma needs food, or if grandma needs transportation, grandma doesn't need you to spend tribal resources on a parkland setting 200 miles away for religious use or for buffalo agricultural use," Daugaard said at a Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council meeting.
To some Native Americans, it showed a lack of understanding.
"It definitely is not a white guy's place to dictate to the tribe anything after the history of what has happened between the state of South Dakota and the tribes from the taking of the Black Hills till now," said O.J. Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Health Board.
Pe' Sla holds cultural and spiritual significance beyond monetary measure, similar to sites across the world held dear by other religions, Rosebud Sioux tribal member Wizipan Little Elk said.
The change would guarantee that Pe' Sla stays in the hands of Native American people and would exempt it from taxes, said Kurt BlueDog, an attorney representing the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota and the Crow Creek, Rosebud and Standing Rock Sioux tribes of the Dakotas.
In 2012, the tribes raised $9 million to buy roughly 2,000 acres from private landowners. They later acquired additional acreage and reintroduced buffalo to the site, with about 20 there now.
Most Americans know the Black Hills for the popular tourist destination of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where the faces of four ex-presidents are carved in towering granite.
But before the presidents, the mountain range sprouting from the Great Plains in western South Dakota was the territory of Native Americans including the Sioux.
In an 1868 treaty, the U.S. government agreed that a huge area west of the Missouri River would be set aside for use by the Sioux. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills, miners and other fortune-seekers flocked to western South Dakota. That led to military battles that culminated in George Custer's defeat by the Sioux in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
When the Sioux refused to ratify a new treaty giving up the Black Hills, Congress passed a law in 1877 seizing the land anyway. More than a decade later, the Rosebud Indian Reservation was created — roughly 200 miles away from Pe' Sla — through the division of the Great Sioux Reservation.
"We may not be attacked by U.S. Cavalry anymore, but now people are using the law to attack us," Little Elk said of the state's attempts to block the trust.
There are many translations for Pe' Sla, including "the bald area" and "the center of our world" because of its central location in the Black Hills, which are significant in creation stories that vary among tribes and family groups, said Duane Hollow Horn Bear, an instructor at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud reservation. There is beauty in the diversity of the legends and language, but they share a common reverence, he said.
A ceremony held at Pe' Sla helps teach people how to deal with grief, he said.
South Dakota has fought against converting the land in part because of concerns over jurisdiction, which would be exacerbated by the distance of Pe' Sla from existing reservations, according to a 2015 letter from the state attorney general's office to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Daugaard, a Republican, said at the tribal council meeting last month that he opposes an "island of tribal trust jurisdiction" on land away from the reservation.
He also conceded then that it's not his decision how tribal resources are spent. A spokeswoman said Daugaard's statement against the Pe' Sla plan is "his personal opinion," separate from the state's opposition.
"We are a poor tribe. All the tribes, we struggle every day. Yet we had to go out and seek monies to purchase this land," Eagle Bear said. "It should have been given back to us."