BRAVE HEARTS GET THEIR LAND BACK

FINAL IN A SERIES  

Basil Brave Heart, a veteran of the Korean War and Lakota spiritual leader, is preparing for the social upheaval he says is coming.

720-acre ranch next to receive donated Rye buffalo herd

By JUAN ESPINOSA THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN

PINE RIDGE, S.D. – On July 1, Basil and Charlotte Brave Heart successfully pulled the family’s 720 acres out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs land-leasing program. They are now busy preparing the land for the arrival of a donated seed herd of buffalo from Rye, Colo., rancher Ken Danylchuk in late September. Influenced by the Village Earth’s Adopt-a-Buffalo Project, the Brave Hearts decided to reclaim their land, located between Pine Ridge, S.D., and Oglala, and remove the cattle ranchers who had been leasing it for $3 an acre per year. Basil Brave Heart claims the land itself called him back. “The earth was crying; it was being overgrazed,” he said. In addition to most of the grass, the cattle had eaten the tipsila (wild turnips), he lamented. Regaining control of land on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by the Oglala Lakota inhabitants has never been easy, according to Basil, who gave a brief history of the Brave Heart tiyospaye’s (family’s) land. “Dad had 160 acres given to him by his grandma in the 1920s (under the 1887 General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act),” Basil Brave Heart said. “He used the land as collateral to build a house and defaulted. But the bank couldn’t take possession because the land was in a trust.”

COURTESY PHOTO/DAVID BARTECCHI
A large bull keeps a watchful eye on the photographer as other members of a buffalo herd graze in a Pine Ridge Indian Reservation pasture.

Under the Dawes Act, Lakota landowners had to be determined by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be competent to be able to live on and use their own land. If they were competent, they were issued a forced fee patent, which meant they had to pay taxes. Over the years, much of this land was lost to back taxes. If an owner was ruled incompetent, the land went into a land bank managed by the BIA. In 1919, more than half the reservation landowners were determined to be incompetent. “Indian people who didn’t speak English were determined to be incompetent and you couldn’t use your land,” Basil Brave Heart said. The Brave Heart land was subsequently bought by an Austrian immigrant who married a Lakota woman and bought the land in her name. The Austrian, known as “Hungry Joe,” purchased additional land. Eventually, Hungry Joe ended up in a nursing home and in the 1980s, the Brave Hearts bought the land back from his second wife, Christine Blacksmith. The process of getting the land out of the BIA’s control was frustrating, Basil Brave Heart said. “The whole bureaucratic obstacle course was designed to discourage people,” he said. “It was hard to understand.”

According to David Bartecchi, director of program development for Village Earth in Pine Ridge, the Brave Hearts’ story is typical. Roughly 60 percent of the land allotted to Lakota families during the 1887 General Allotment Act is being leased out bythe Bureau of Indian Affairs to non-tribal members for an average of $3.50 an acre per year, Bartecchi said. In comparison, a 2004 South Dakota State University Farm Real Estate Survey says the average rental rate in this region of South Dakota for non-irrigated cropland is $23.10 and $10 an acre for rangeland. Basil Brave Heart, who is known on the reservation as a spiritual leader, now wants to dedicate his time and his land to rebuilding the Lakota Nation by bringing back the buffalo. “Bringing the sacred ones back will reclaim and restore the land,” he said. “Since I took the land back, we’ve had rains. It’s like the lands knew to bring the water back . . . I don’t see the buffalo as an economic (endeavor). The creator gave the Lakota the buffalo to survive. When they attempted to destroy the buffalo, it was an attempt at genocide.”

A group of seven from the Parker, Colo., Methodist Church spent a week in June helping the Brave Hearts build their community and ceremonial center.

Like Henry Red Cloud, Basil and Charlotte Brave Heart want to bring their extended families, or tiyospayes, back to live on the land. “We’re getting ready to bring the family back in anticipation of the chaos that’s going to go on in the cities,” Basil Brave Heart said. “Most of the cities have lost their souls.” In preparation for the return of his clan, Brave Heart is building a community ceremonial building on his land. In late June, a group of seven adults from the Parker Methodist Church in Parker, Colo., were putting the finishing touches to the exterior of the 30-by-50-foot building. “We bring a team each year,” said Barbara Meyer, a retired elementary school teacher. “We’re building bridges between our people. We learn not only the Lakota thing, but we learn what we have in common.”