Political Matters: Pat Bellanger travels on/Recovering Pe'Sla
Monday, May 04 2015
Written by Ricey Wild,
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mordecai_specktor_some.jpgPat Bellanger travels on

On April 2, Pat Bellanger, one of the stalwart leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), went to the spirit world. Raised on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, she was 72.

I met Pat in the late-1970s, when I started writing for The Circle and traveling around Indian Country. She was always friendly, encouraging and helpful. A mutual friend remarked, during the wake for Pat at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, “I never heard her complain about anything."

“For years, she was the leading female spokesperson for Indian causes. She was known as Grandmother AIM,” Larry Leventhal, a legal champion of the Indian community, told the Star Tribune.

And Bill Means, a fellow board member of the International Indian Treaty Council, told the newspaper: “She was renown at a grass-roots level all the way to an international level for her ability to communicate the issues of indigenous people, and indigenous women as well.”

Pat leaves a legacy of struggle for Indian treaty rights and environmental justice. May her memory always be a blessing for her loved ones.

Recovering Pe’Sla

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF), which works to recover Indian lands that have been taken out of tribal control by hook and crook over the years, hosted a celebration April 23 at the Minnesota History Center. The group’s motto is “Indian Lands in Indian Hands.” David Garelick, the foundation’s corporate relations officer, invited me to the event.

In the spacious hallway amid the exhibition spaces – one of which features the works of renowned Ojibwe artist George Morrison – speakers honored the efforts of four Sioux tribes in the recovery of Pe’Sla, a sacred site in the Black Hills.

I was only vaguely aware of Pe’Sla before attending the April celebration. Briefly, this area, known as “The Heart of Everything,” is one of the five holy sites of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the Sioux Nation), according to Cris Stainbrook, ILTF president.

In 2012, 1,944 acres of Pe’Sla came up for auction; the area is within the 1968 Fort Laramie Treaty, in which all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including the Black Hills, was reserved for the Great Sioux Nation. In 1874, Gen. George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and the discovery of gold led to prospectors streaming into the hills, and the abrogation of the treaty by U.S. authorities. Pe’Sla ended up in private hands.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Sioux tribes seized the opportunity to regain control of Pe’Sla — through a real estate deal. The foundation event, which took place with the Minnesota Capitol in the background, celebrated the efforts of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe; the Rosebud Sioux Tribe; the Standing Rock Tribe; the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community; and Mark VanNorman, a lawyer working on behalf of the tribes, to recover Pe’Sla.

Stainbrook discussed the main land purchase, in 2012, and two subsequent deals, including the recent purchase of homestead acreage, which brings the lands back in tribal hands to around 2,300 acres. “We have reintroduced buffalo to Pe’Sla,” noted Stainbrook, “after being away for 120 years.”

The keynote speaker was Henry Buffalo, Jr., an eminent legal mind in Indian country who has served as counsel for the Red Cliff and Fond du Lac Ojibwe bands. He also was the first executive director of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Buffalo talked about Indian treaty rights, and stressed that education is key to promoting understanding of the basics of federal Indian law among the general public. He pointed out that tribal rights predated the establishment of the United States; European nations treated the tribes as sovereigns, in the time before the U.S. came into existence as a nation.

He mentioned the troubled, post-1983 Voigt decision history — the so-called “Wisconsin Walleye War” — and that “many people were reacting ignorantly,” when tribal members exercised their hunting and fishing rights. Non-Indians instigated riots at northern Wisconsin boat landings.

After litigating tribal treaty right for 30 years, Buffalo commented, “I still get some blank stares when I talk about this history.”

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation (iltf.org) event also included talks by Kurt BlueDog, who has been negotiating the transfer of Pe’Sla land into a tribal trust, and Keith Anderson, vice-chair of the Shakopee Mdewakanton band. Anderson noted the irony of the tribes buying back land that is rightfully theirs by the terms of the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty.

I’d like to visit Pe’Sla, and write more about this significant achievement in tribal land recovery.

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