The Pennington County Commission voted 3–2 on Tuesday to not oppose the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s effort to put the Pe’ Sla prairie oasis in the middle of the Black Hills into federal trust. Moving that land from private ownership to trust status will remove it from the tax rolls. One would think that Black Hills property would add big bucks to Pennington County’s coffers, but when I checked in 2012, the county appeared to be getting $1.50 an acre on some parcels of Pe’ Sla, suggesting that removing the roughly 2,000 acres from the rolls nicks the $86.3-million budget by a few thousand dollars. That seems a small price to pay for restoring tribal sovereignty to a tiny, protected enclave in the Paha Sapa.
Conservative county commissioner George Ferebee nonetheless opposes the trust move:
Ferebee said Pe’ Sla should be allowed an exemption from taxes for religious reasons but kept in private ownership.
“I’m a private-property rights person. That land doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to (the tribes),” he said, “and that’s the way it should remain” [John Lee McLaughlin, “Pennington County Commission Will Support Putting Pe’ Sla into Federal Trust,” Rapid City Journal, 2015.08.19].
Ferebee here plays Conserva-Twister, positing that private property includes his ability as a government official to prevent Indians from disposing of their private property as they see fit.
As he revealed at a May commission meeting, Ferebee doesn’t understand that he can’t imperialize his Indian neighbors with his concept of private property:
Ferebee said he cannot understand why the tribes insist on placing the land in trust rather than leaving it under the tribes’ own private ownership.
The short answer is that tribal jurisdiction and full Native American land status would not apply if the land is not held in trust. Kurt BlueDog, a lawyer representing the tribes, expanded on that explanation by saying tribal history does not include the concept of land ownership. The tribes participated in a land transaction to secure access to Pe’ Sla, he said, but they do not feel comfortable with the concept of owning land they consider sacred. Rather, they view themselves as benefiting from land gifted by the Creator.
“It needs to have a distinction away from other land,” BlueDog said [Seth Tupper, “County O.K.’s Law Enforcement Pact for Pe’ Sla,” Rapid City Journal, 2015.05.06].
For the Rosebud Sioux, acquiring Pe’ Sla was all about rescuing the prairie island from private development and preserving it for the tribe’s ceremonial uses. Federal trust status is the surest way to protect that land from the temptations of Western capitalism and maintain it as a public good for the tribe’s future generations.