Sitting Bull's tribe to regain control of southern Badlands

Nearly 120 years after the last massacre of Native Americans by the United States cavalry at Wounded Knee, some of the lands confiscated from their descendants are to be returned to the Oglala Sioux.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota, which encompasses Wounded Knee, is one of the poorest parts of the US. It has few paved roads. Unemployment is shockingly high among the Sioux. Alcoholism is rampant and there are high rates of suicide and imprisonment of American Indians.

After decades of protests, the park service is now planning to return the southern part of the park to Indian control. It will take an act of Congress to approve, but is expected to occur next year. Though broadly welcomed by the Sioux residents, there are those who say the land should be returned to the original owners for private use rather than to the tribal council as a park.

The shadow of Wounded Knee hangs over much of the discussion. The Sioux were among the last to fight against American expansion into the West. In the dying days of 1890, their leader, Sitting Bull, was assassinated. About 120 of his followers along with 230 women and children took refuge at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where they were surrounded by the US cavalry.

About 300 men, women and children were killed, along with 25 soldiers, mostly by their own shrapnel or bullets.

In the 1970s, the militant American Indian Movement reoccupied the site, leading to still more bloodshed, this time at the hands of the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But what rankles for Anita Ecoffey, an elder of the Oglala Sioux, who lives in Wounded Knee, was her family's eviction from ancestral lands in the 1940s by the military. Ms Ecoffey, 65, recalled her grandmother describing the flight, taking only what they could carry, and leaving the land where their ancestors were buried.

Some 800 members of the tribe were given a week to leave by the military, which wanted the land for a firing range. "To me this is as bad as what happened at Wounded Knee," she said. "When my grandmother was evicted they took only what they could carry. A lot of them had no place to go, which is why I say they died of a broken heart."

Ms Ecoffey described how much of the reservation is still littered with unexploded shells the military never cleaned up. Poachers have also ravaged the stark landscape, with its spires of rock and tallgrass plains. Over decades, they have illegally removed thousands of fossils from the poorly policed national park.

Under the new plan, the northern half of Badlands, which is paved and has a visitor centre, will remain under the control of the park service. The Sioux hope to restore the ecologically fragile southern portion, starting by removing the unexploded shells.

Most of the national parks – Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier – were created when the Roosevelt administration forced tribes from the land in the 1930s. Karl Jacoby, a professor of history at Brown University, said: "There weren't empty wilderness areas in the United States. They had to be created by the removal of Indians."

But there is dissent about what should happen. One of the Sioux activists who occupied Pine Ridge in 2000 says the land should be returned to its original Indians rather than remain a park. "That's not respecting the rights of the people who have nothing," said Keith Janis. "The whole national park system is environmental racism against the Indian people of this country."

Ms Ecoffey, however, hopes that Barack Obama will be elected president and fulfil the promises he made while campaigning in South Dakota last week to lift Native Americans out of their poverty.