Federal Agencies Seek to Protect Pactola Reservoir and Rapid Creek from Mining

The proposal should be expanded to defend the health, religious freedoms, and culture of the Indigenous Tribes.

A federal proposal to ban new mining-related activity in portions of the Black Hills should not only be accepted but also expanded. 

The ACLU of South Dakota supports the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to close more than 20,000 acres of land in the Pactola and Rapid Creek watersheds to mining activity for 20 years and urges the agencies to withdraw it permanently from future mining or settlement and to broaden its scope to include the entire Black Hills. 

Protecting the area from mining is important because it serves as a major drinking water source for the Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base. The water system, natural resources, and delicate ecosystem should not be exposed to further desecration. But the devastating impact of mining and illegal occupation on the ancestral Indigenous Black Hills and Pactola Watershed cannot be ignored. 

The health, religious freedoms, and culture of the Indigenous Tribes who hold the Black Hills and the Pactola Watershed sacred surpass any economic need or policy. The land rightfully belongs to the Sioux Nation Tribes and ongoing mining in the area detrimentally impacts constitutionally protected rights and treaty laws.

The Pactola Watershed and the Black Hills of South Dakota have long been the spiritual and ancestral lands sacred to the Oceti Sakowin Peoples along with two dozen other Indigenous Tribes. This region carries deep cultural, religious, spiritual, and sovereign significance to the Dakota, Lakota and Cheyenne Peoples of South Dakota. The very existence of Indigenous life and culture is dependent upon the Black Hills and Pactola Watershed for spiritual, religious, and cultural continuity, along with drinking water and natural resources to Indigenous People. 

The ACLU and the ACLU of South Dakota are longtime supporters and defenders of the rights of all Indigenous Peoples to retain their specific and unique cultural and religious traditions and practices and enforce assurances made to them by the United States in treaties, compacts, and other government commitments. In our Indigenous Justice work, we are committed to following the lead of Indigenous Peoples as they endeavor to uphold their sovereignty, dignity, and identities. We believe that the future existence of Tribes across our country depends ultimately upon secure and permanent land bases. 

So, too, does their religious freedom. We vigorously defend the rights of all people to practice their faith. The First Amendment protects religious equality for all; people of every religion, not just the majority faith, have the right to hold and to exercise their religious beliefs. In the context of Indigenous Peoples and sacred landscapes, there can be no exercise of religious freedom if the foundation for the practice of one’s belief system has been forever decimated. For Indigenous Peoples, whose belief systems and spirituality are intimately tied to the land to which they belong, exercise of religion is intimately tied to the protection of sacred landscapes.

The continued operation of mines destroy these sacred sites and preclude safe access to them. The presence of pollutants like arsenic and other chemical contaminants caused by the mining process have not only desecrated the Black Hills but also actively interfere with, defeat, and prevent the ability of Indigenous Peoples to practice religious ceremonies which are intricately tied to the protection of natural resources like water, wildlife, and forests. Additionally, the ongoing mining and occupation of these sacred sites interferes with Indigenous religious beliefs that require the protection, honoring, celebrating and worshipping of natural resources as a source of all life.

The permanent withdrawal of the Pactola Watershed is not only necessary, but critical to the future existence of Indigenous Peoples in the Black Hills and to other populations that rely on the rivers within the Pactola Watershed for their drinking water supply, agriculture and ranching.

What’s next?

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service concluded its 90-day public review period, which included public meetings and consultations with affected Native American Tribes, last month. Now, federal officials will have up to two years to consider implementing the mining ban. While federal officials gather the public input, studies, and analysis needed to decide whether the mineral withdrawal should be implemented for a 20-year term, no new mining activities can take place. 

The secretary of the interior, who will make the final decision on the proposal, has the authority to withdraw lands from mining activities for a maximum of 20 years, subject to renewal. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal.

Keep informed