The Sioux Nation of Indians, trying to get repayment for the U.S. government's taking of the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1800s, filed a suit in 1922.

In the years that followed, the stock market crashed, the New Deal was born, the Allies fought World War II and won it and the Space Age dawned.

And through all this time and change, the Sioux Indian claim, believed by many lawyers to be the longest running litigation in history, is still in the courts.

The Supreme Court is considering it now but the Sioux are not counting on a conclusion. For them, the case has taken on almost mystical proportions and they talk about it as if they were doing their own version of "Roots."

"I remember hearing about it from my father," says Standing Rock tribal chairman Frank Lawrnece. "He heard about it from his father. People have always talked about it.

"They knew it was coming one of these days, but we never knew when."

Neither Lawrence nor any other living participant seems able to explain why it has taken so long. There were delays throughout the legal process, they say. "The U.S. Court of Claims, for example, took 20 years to render judgment unfavorble to the Sioux in 1942 and government lawyers once delayed for six years their answer to a simple motion.

The case had to be handed down from judge to judge and lawyer to laywer, each of whom had to be briefed anew.

Ralph Case, a Washington attorney, started the Sioux suit when he was 42.

He died at the age of 77 while it was still going. Marvin J. Sonosky, 71, one of the current lawyers, got involved when he was 48.

The closest parallel may be Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, the everlasting legal dispute over a will in Charles Dickens' book, "Bleak House."

"The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking horse when Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce would be settled," Dickens wrote, "has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse and trotted away into the other world. . . . Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. . . .

"No man alive," he said, "knows what it means."

In "Bleak House," no money was left in the Jarndyce will be the time the book ended. In the Sioux Nation suit, the Indians may get more than $130 million if they win, which would be the largest Indian lands award in U.S. history.

But even a full award by the Supreme Court would give the Sioux only a fraction of their original claim of $70 million when inflation is considered over the last 100 years. And during that period, the Home Stake gold mine -- once on Sioux territory in the Black Hills -- has yielded more than $1 billion to non-Indians. It was the foundation of the Hearst fortune.

Buried deep in the record of this case is a prophetic quote from Dead Eyes, an angry Sioux chief, who in 1875 told off federal agents: "You have put all our heads together," he said, "and covered them with a blanket."

At issue are 7 million acres of the Black Hills, a land modern Americans may know from advertising that pictures a ceremonially dressed Sioux among the scenery. A hundred years ago the Sioux valued it not for tourism but for timber, agriculture, hunting and eventually gold.

The land belonged to the Sioux forever under an 1868 treaty, the government concedes. But when whites discovered gold there, miners descended on the area, sparking armed conflict with the Indians and the U.S. Army.

Unable to control the entry of whites into the Indian territory, however, the U.S. government tried to get the land by trading it for "subsistence provisions." The government offered about $6 million. The Sioux, those willing to negotiate, wanted $70 million.

"There is gold and silver and a great many kinds of minerals in that country," a tribal chief, Little Wolf, told government commissioners sent to talk.

"If the Great Father gets that for the whites, they will live on it and become rich.

"We want him to make us rich also."

The talks broke down, gold fever continued, and in 1874, Gen. George Custer made his ill-fated mission into the territory, with results that angered Congress.

In 1877, Congress followed the recommendations of a special commission and sealed the deal unilaterally.

One hundred years later, the U.S. Court of Claims said that "a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."

For years after the 1877 congressional seizure, the Indians had no legal recourse. Finally at their urging, Congress passed a law in 1920 allowing them to sue in the Court of Claims.

Ralph Case, among others, filed suit for the Sioux in 1922 along with 11 other Sioux claims stemming from the same historic events.

In all of them, the basic question was the same: Did the government take the land illegally, in violation of the Constitution's prohibition on seizing property without just compensation?

Current Court of Claims judges offer no explanation for the 20-year delay in the ruling. None of them was around then.

"The answer always comes back that it was a complex case," says Sonosky. "But that's not really the answer."

"All I can tell you," said Richard Case, a prominent Baltimore lawyer and son of Ralph Case, "is what I understood as a kid around the house. The procedure took a voluminous amount of testimony. There was an extreme disagreement over the value of the land.

"My father spent a great many weeks on reservations taking testimony. The court was much more leisurely than it is now."

The Sioux lost that round when the Court of Claims ruled in 1942 that the 1920 act of Congress, giving it jurisdiction to hear the Sioux case, had not done what it set out to do. After 20 years, the case was thrown out for technical reasons.

By 1946, Congress had created another mechanism -- streamlined -- for hearing Indian cases: the Indian Claims Commission. The Sioux sent their claim to the new agency. This time the process took four years to go against the Indians.

The Sioux went back to the Court of Claims on appeal and won a procedural victory. In 1958, the court returned the case once again to the Indian Claims Commission.

The commission started the case anew but was held up by the government. Under commission rules, the government was to respond to the Sioux within 60 days.

Instead, government lawyers sought writs from higher courts, moved for dismissals, moved for clarifications, moved for delays and, all that having been unsuccessful, finally responded to the Indians in June 1966 -- six years after the deadline.

"The pace of the litigation somewhat quickened" then, said another Sioux attorney, Arthur Lazurus, in his brief to the Supreme Court.

Last year, after another act of Congress and several more rulings, the Court of Claims ruled that the Indians deserved $17 millon for the land and $105 million in interest.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court. It would pay the $17 million, it said, but not the interest.

Attitudes among native Americans have changed in the 100-year life of the Black Hills dispute, says Lawrence, the Standing Rock tribal chairman. t

"We used to joke about it," he says, "about how long it took. But now a lot of people don't want the money. They want the land."

"My own feeling," Sonosky said, "is that while there's a lot of money involved here, there is no important legal principle at stake. If they (the Supreme Court) hold against us, Congress would just have to alter the law."