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Small Sioux band still 'occupying' Black Hills area

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A February thaw brought some relief from winter to Yellow Thunder Camp, but the legal thaw its inhabitants hope for is not in sight.

Camped defiantly on federal land in a small valley nestled among the Black Hills of South Dakota, a few dozen Sioux are trying to reclaim a small portion of their inheritance.

They are occupying one small part of ''Indian Country.'' This act of defiance is part of a larger effort to bolster their claim that Indians are suffering disproportionately from the current federal austerity.

The glare of publicity that swirled about Yellow Thunder Camp last September when the government ordered its occupants to leave their chosen spot has faded like the leaves of autumn. The traditional but transient tepees have been supplemented with a geodesic dome. The legal battle which will determine the camp's future drags on in nearby Rapid City.

''We are just wrapping up the discovery phase of the case. It will be a few months before a decision, but I am confident of the outcome,'' says Bruce Ellison, the camp's attorney.

The Forest Service maintains the Indians have no legal right to be there and are violating federal regulations. The small group of Sioux, including American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, maintains that the US government took this land away from the tribe in direct violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The Black Hills, they say, play a vital part in their religion and they want 800 acres where they can perform religious ceremonies, build a school for their children, and live more in accordance with their traditions. The district court allowed them to keep the dome, but has not yet ruled on whether the government can kick them out.

Their claim is one that the US government has repeatedly refused to acknowledge.

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