Unexploded bombs lie in ravines, a reminder of when the military confiscated the land from the Oglala Sioux tribe during World War II and turned it into an artillery range. Poachers who have stolen thousands of fossils over the years have left gouges in the landscape. On a plateau, a solitary makeshift hut sits ringed by empty Coke cans and shaving cream canisters. It is the only remnant of a three-year occupation by militant tribal activists who had demanded that the land be returned.
Now the National Park Service is contemplating doing just that: giving the 133,000-acre southern half of Badlands National Park back to the tribe. The northern half, which has a paved road and a visitor center, would remain with the park system.
The park service has dissolved 23 parks and historic sites since 1930, but none has been returned to tribes. "It's really exciting for us to think about walking down this road," said Sandra J. Washington, head of planning for the service's Omaha office, which oversees Badlands. "The intention is to be as honorable as possible."
The change would require congressional approval and the process is in its earliest stages, with officials still to decide whether the south section should be handed over solely to the tribal government, become a separate park run by the tribe with help from the park service, or left as is.
"The national park is a sort of wonderful ideal, but it's an ideal that was created," said Karl Jacoby, a professor at Brown University who studies Western history. "There weren't empty wilderness areas in the United States. They had to be created by the removal of Indians."
The confiscation of the land that is now the south end of Badlands National Park is fresher in locals' memories. In 1942, the military gave more than 800 people a week to move out.
Anita Ecoffey, 65, remembers her father describing what it was like to flee from his home taking only what he could carry, leaving the land where he had buried his parents.
"To me this is worse than what happened at Wounded Knee," said Ecoffey, recalling the infamous 1890 massacre of Sioux by the U.S. Army. "These were people's homes."