Black Hills, White Justice

On May 7, Washington attorney Ralph Case, acting for the Sioux tribes, filed what became known as “The Black Hills Claim.” The claim centered on the terms—and the legality—of the 1877 treaty between the United States government and the Sioux. In the Indians’ view, not only had this treaty, in which they relinquished title to their ancestral land, been obtained by fraud and duress, but also the goods, services, and money promised in the treaty had never been delivered. Children would be born, grow to adulthood and die, and two generations of lawyers would serve out their careers, before a settlement was finally reached in 1980.

Lazarus opens his history with a description of the prosperous, wide-ranging Sioux Nation before the arrival of the white men and during the early years of European exploration and colonization. He chronicles the subsequent periods of confrontation and treaty during which the Indians were driven onto smaller and smaller pieces of land, culminating in the Manypenny Commission Treaty of 1877, in which the starving Sioux surrendered the Black Hills, their last large independent territory, and settled into a few tiny reservations.

From 1923 to 1956, the Sioux suit for just treatment languished in the hands of a well-intentioned but incompetent and unaggressive attorney. In 1957, when Marvin Sonosky and Arthur Lazarus (the author’s father) assumed the case, it appeared that the Black Hills claim was completely dead. Twenty-three years later, following two acts of Congress and an appeal to the Supreme Court, final judgment was rendered in favor of the Sioux—for more than $106 million, plus another $40 million from a parallel suit involving an earlier treaty. Ironically, during the last years Sonosky and Lazarus were battling not only an entrenched government bureaucracy but also their own clients. The present generation of Sioux leaders refuses payment for land they claim never to have relinquished. They are now engaged—unsuccessfully to this date—in an attempt to institute a suit for the return of the Black Hills themselves.