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Yellow Thunder Camp Going But Not Thriving

September 29, 1986 GMT

YELLOW THUNDER CAMP, S.D. (AP) _ Weathered, white canvas teepees sit helter-skelter among the trees, defying 5 1/2 years of federal efforts to evict a band of Indians who built the camp on land they claim as their sacred home.

A sweat lodge, used for rituals of purification, and a solar shower peek above the weeds along small Victoria Lake. A garden grows lettuce, zucchini, turnips and some tobacco.

Little has changed the appearance of Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota. But the Sioux camp, crippled from a four-year court battle, has fewer residents today than it did in 1981 when up to 40 activists made the encampment their home.


″There hasn’t been more than five people there all summer long,″ said Paul Ruder, Pactola District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. ″Last winter was the first time no one was up there.″

Dakota American Indian Movement members established the camp in April 1981 on 800 acres of U.S. Forest Service land 12 miles southwest of Rapid City.

The Forest Service said the Indians were camping illegally and moved to evict them. In December 1985, U.S. District Judge Donald O’Brien of Sioux City ruled the Forest Service was wrong to deny the Indians’ request for a special- use permit. He ordered the agency and the Indians to agree to a plan for establishing the camp, and is expected to direct the government to issue the Indians a permit. Government attorneys say they will appeal.

Russell Means, a camp founder, said volunteers are ready to build log houses out of timber from the Pine Ridge Reservation as soon as the judge’s order is final. Some models could be built this winter, he said.

″The stagnation has been very crippling to the spirit of the camp,″ Means said. ″The (judge’s) decision will allow us to repopulate Yellow Thunder Camp with a future of financial security.″

Means, who lives at Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation, said the people living at the camp are caretakers. ″I still have a teepee up there and visit periodically for spiritual renewal,″ he said.

Means’ 13-year-old son, Danny, along with camp residents Beth Dunstan and Adam Clark, say they intend to spend this winter at Yellow Thunder and predict the population will grow once the legal battle is settled.

Danny Means said a few permanent buildings would make camp life easier.

″My mom just sent me up here because I wasn’t being too good, and I just got addicted to the place,″ he said.

Dunstan, 23, was at the camp in 1982 and 1984 and returned this summer from Michigan.

″I was just tired of living in the city. I wanted to get back to the land again,″ she said, sweeping the floor of the guard house at the camp’s entrance.

Smokey White Bull, 28, was one of the original campers at Yellow Thunder. He’s left and come back during the years, and intends to enroll in art classes this winter in Minneapolis.

″The way of life hasn’t changed too much,″ he said, pointing to four vacant teepees. ″I just wish there were more people out here.″

But tensions ran higher when more people lived at the camp. One of its residents pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the July 1982 shooting death of a white man from Rapid City on the pine-covered ridge overlooking the camp.

As the camp population dropped, so did curiosity from outsiders, White Bull said.

″There’s no more harassment anymore,″ he said. ″No people up on the ridges. No people running around in camouflaged uniforms.″

He is unsure why Indian interest faded.

″The attraction is spirituality,″ he said. ″Here, I feel more at peace with myself. There’s places you can go here if you want to seek solitude to meditate, pray.″