Vigil on the plains: Crow Creek Sioux chairman is “not going anywhere”

Published in Indian Country Today in 2009. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Fort Thompson, SD — On Tuesday, December 15, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Brandon Sazue got a visit from eight horseback riders on a pilgrimage to memorialize 38 Dakota men who died in the nation’s largest mass hanging, in December 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota. “The group took a detour from the main ride to fill a pipe here that will be smoked and prayed over when they get to Mankato,” Sazue said.

            The 35-year-old chairman was camped on 7,100 acres of wind-swept, snowy land owned by Crow Creek Tribal Farms. The IRS recently seized the tract and on December 3 auctioned it off for $2 million less than its $4.6 million value to pay a purported tax bill for the tribe, a separate legal entity.

The riders found Sazue holding his own in sub-zero temperatures. The chairman took up residence on the expanse shortly after the auction, intending to fast and pray for its repatriation until the crisis is resolved. “I’m not going anywhere. This land never was and never will be for sale. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow. As chairman, I inherited the tax problem and tried to work with the IRS. They claim they ‘consulted’ with us, but all they did was tell us ‘here’s how it’s going to go.’”

The IRS action appears to fly in the face of legal precedents as far back as a 1790 law prohibiting the transfer of Indian land without a treaty, according to a legal memorandum drawn up by the tribe’s attorneys, Mario Gonzalez, Oglala Lakota, and Terry L. Pechota, Rosebud Sioux Tribe. The document was filed on December 2 in US District Court in an effort to stop the sale. That request was denied; however, a trial will take place in March, during which the tribe will attempt to regain the site.

“It’s the Black Hills gold rush all over again,” said historian Waziyatawin, PhD, Wahpetowan Dakota from Upper Sioux and a University of Victoria research scholar. “Nowadays, the press is reporting on a green-energy land rush and Department of the Interior efforts to free up millions of acres for wind and solar development. Open prairie land, such as that on Indian reservations in the Plains, is suitable for such enterprises. So the US government is going after the poorest of the poor to find the resources it needs.”

The tribe, which has an unemployment rate of about 80 percent and lives in one of the poorest counties in the nation, had been planning a wind farm for the area, said Sazue. “If we lose this land, we miss that opportunity. We have profound connections to this place as well. Our ancestors are buried here, and tribal members come to collect sage and other traditional medicines.” When Waziyatawin visited the site with her family on Saturday December 12 for a pipe ceremony, she joined Crow Creek tribal members and visitors from Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, the Yankton Sioux Reservation, and the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.

The tax problem appears to have arisen after Harold Condon, a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee who became financial manager of Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in the early 2000s, advised the community not to pay federal employment taxes. According to a document that A. Gay Kingman, Cheyenne River Sioux and executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, received from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in early December, the agency claims Condon did “an excellent job.” Further, the BIA letter says, the tribe did owe the taxes and Condon was “instrumental in working with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to get the large bill paid.”

The tract, which makes up 20 percent of Crow Creek’s reservation, was originally sold off after the Allotment Act of 1889 moved it into the hands of individual Indian owners. Notably, this was done without the majority vote of the tribe required by law. “We all know the referendum never took place,” said Pechota.

The tribe repurchased the land in 1998, according to Gonzalez’s and Pechota’s legal memorandum. Crow Creek then attempted to put the acreage back into trust, said Sazue. “We started the process in 2000. It shouldn’t take a decade to accomplish this.”

Nedra Darling, Prairie Band Potawatomi and a BIA spokeswoman, refused to comment on any aspect of the situation, citing the ongoing litigation. Darling added that Hilary Tompkins, Navajo, Solicitor of the Interior Department and one of the Obama administration’s high-profile Native appointees, would also not comment.

The crisis occurs against a background of economic devastation created by the building of a series of giant dams along the Missouri River in the mid-20th century. The dams flooded valuable riverside agricultural areas on Sioux reservations throughout the Dakotas. Starvation ensued in many areas. In return for giving up the richly diverse bottomland, Crow Creek was promised free electrical power, which it never received. It did get $27.5 million that has been put into trust. However, the tribe can only touch the interest, not the principal, said Sazue. “I call that living off scraps. Why couldn’t we use that money to pay the IRS?”

The tribe’s difficulties have been exacerbated by the IRS siphoning off earnings from Crow Creek’s small casino and motel, making it difficult for the tribe to meet payroll and provide public services, as well as to pay the tax bill in an orderly fashion, Sazue said. The problem has also arisen at the worst time of year, according to the chairman. Despite frigid temperatures, the local electric company has been disconnecting the only power source for many Crow Creek families, claiming nonpayment of bills. This forces the tribe to shelter members at its Fort Thompson motel, thus forgoing income it might receive by renting the rooms.

This is an annual occurrence, according to the humanitarian organization Can-Do, which filmed the electric company ripping out meters throughout Crow Creek during the winter of 2008, as babies cried and mothers tried to understand mysteriously escalating bills. (To see the group’s video, go to Can-Do’s investigation found “severe increases of illness, disease and mortality” on the reservation.

Chairman Sazue’s own family was affected this year. “A month ago, my cousin called. She just had a baby, her husband is on oxygen, and her electricity got cut off. Companies are not supposed to do that in inclement weather, but they do here. Our people are suffering.”

“The Obama administration could help solve this crisis,” said Waziyatawin. “Obama is talking the talk when it comes to Indian Country, but are he and his appointees going to walk the walk?”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

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