Stanley Looking Elk was not yet born when the Black Hills case started in 1922. It had been in the courts 24 years when the 17-year-old Looking Elk moved off the Pine Ridge Reservation to work in a nearby munitions depot.
Twenty-two years later, when Looking Elk moved back to Pine Ridge to manage the local moccasin factory, the case still had not been decided.
And then in June, 58 years after the Sioux first asked the courts to compensate them for the seizure of 7.3 million acres of mineral-laden, timber-rich lands, the Supreme Court ruled in the Indians' favor, ordering the government to pay them $105 million for the Black Hills.
The Supreme Court's decision, believed to be the largest award of its kind in the U.S. history, was hailed by a few Washington lawyers and others as a great victory for the Indians.
But Stanley Looking Elk, now chairman of his Oglala Sioux tribe, and several other leaders of the 60,000-member Sioux Nation, say, "No sale."
Last week, Looking Elk and the Oglala tribe, the largest of the eight tribes involved in the landmark case, disclaimed any participation in the Supreme Court proceedings. They asked a federal judge in Omaha, Neb., to block disbursement of the money while they press a separate suit demanding return of the Black Hills and $11 billion in damages.
For these Indians, most of whom, like Looking Elk, were not born when the original suit was filed, the Supreme Court ruling holds little meaning. It is as if the long struggle had been waged in a time capsule, drifting slowly through the years and through the courts with a will of its own, only to emerge and find its constituency long since dead or out of favor.
"You got to understand that in our area, the scene changes," said Norman G. Wilson, chairman of the Rosebud tribe. "This think has been rolling and rolling over the years. It got to be something we could never put our finger on. We never had control over it. That," Wilson said, "was in the hands of the lawyers in Washington."
In 1868, the Sioux signed a treaty with the government guaranteeing the Indians ownership of the vast area. But that was before gold was discovered in the hills, before Gen. George Armstrong Custer marched in with his 7th Cavalry to protect hordes of prospectors.
A year following Custer's "last stand" at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, an angered Congress abrogated the treaty and took the land away.
In 1920, a new Congress acted to allow the Sioux to fight for their claims in court. The resulting litigation, believed to be among the longest in U.S. history, has seen several court decisions delay settlement, as well as congressional acts sustaining hopes for one.
In 1978, Congress acted to permit a new review of the matter as a possible violation of the Indians' constitutional rights. The Supreme Court ruled their rights under the 5th Amendment had been violated and that their sacred land had been confiscated without "just compensation."
The Supreme Court made no mention of returning the land in its 70-page decision, and none of the lawyers in the case sought return of the Black Hills. They regard the idea of anyone trying as "frivolous" and "silly."
And many Indian leaders are unable to explain why, after all these years of pursuing the case, the decision to compensate them for the land, rather than giving it back, is greeted with such animosity. In some ways it is a mystery why the Sioux have waited until now to press their claim that the government took it illegally, that the Pah Sapa, as the hills are known, are rightfully theirs.
"It's hard to say why they didn't do it," said Mario Gonzales, the attorney bringing the Oglala suit. "It probably never occurred to the council."
But today's Sioux leaders are not the same ones who started the case 58 years ago, nor those of succeeding generations who have also since faded from memory while the court case dragged on. In some ways the new leadership's beliefs in the value of the hills as sacred religious grounds are as strong, or stronger, than those of their forefathers.
And in the complicated, tumultuous and sometimes physically violent world of Indian politics, strange things can happen.
For all their opposition to a monetary settlement for the hills, Sioux leaders recognize that opinion is divided among the tribes, as well as within them. "There's hardly any viewpoint you could say is a unanimous viewpoint," said Wayne Adkison, Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative manager on the Oglala's Pine Ridge reservation. "Most of the people here are aware that they would have created considerable discord if they had accepted the payment.
"The very old people," Adkison said, "might want some money. The younger, vigorous grouping might be thinking about future status of the tribe."
Some tribesmen concur with Washington attorney Marvin J. Sonosky, who, after 23 years on the case, believes "a small but articulate minority . . . are using this case as a method of keeping their own cause alive."
"A lot of these people never lived here until a few years ago," said a former member of the Oglala executive committee. "They were in the universities and felt the discrimination and were asking themselves things like, 'Who am I' and 'Where do I come from?' They've spent their whole lives looking for a cause. Most of the people out here couldn't care less. We know who we are and we still have to live here and make a living."
"I've been telling them there's no way they could get [the land] back," said Norman Hollow, chairman of the Sioux tribe at the Fort Peck reservation in northeastern Montana. "Some have very deep emotional feelings about the religious significance of the Black Hills. I've been telling them to go to Congress and ask for a portion of it."
Others say they are equally convinced that the movement for return of the hills is composed of no small minority, that, for better or worse, Indian leaders such as Stanley Looking Elk are more traditional than ever, and, at the same time, more sophisticated.
"What we had seen in the past was the younger people being more willing to forsake the land in favor of the money," said Suzan Harjo of the Native American Rights Fund. "What we've seen in more recent times is the younger people adopting the views of their elders. And I think that's what's happening at Pine Ridge."
What the new leaders also seem to have brought to the controversy, said Harjo, is a better understanding of the "white man's" ways, especially the courts. "A lot of the older people still don't understand that there is such a thing as a dollar-for-acre claim. They don't realize that one precludes the other. It would just not occur to them because their concepts are Indian concepts and the court simply is not understood."
"This," said one veteran Sioux observer of the Oglala suit, "is what happens when the tribe gets sophisticated enough to know that the course you're pursuing is not the right course."
Pine Ridge is the site of the 1973 clast at Wounded Knee between federal law enforcement officers and radical members of the American Indian Movement. One of the leaders of that uprising, Russell Means, still lives on the reservation. Of the fight for the Black Hills, Means has said, "The Pah Sapa is where our ancestors are buried. It's our birthplace, our graveyard and our church."
Though Means is said to be sitting out the court struggle for the Pah Sapa, some observers think Sioux politics have been instilled with some of the fire he displayed during the Wounded Knee incident.
"In the last five years, so many people have moved to a hard-line posture than any kind of solution that doesn't include land just won't be accepted," said Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux who teaches political science at the University of Arizona. "You'd be taking your life into your own hands if you went out on one of those reservations and preached just a cash settlement."
Besides its religious significance, the disputed area has considerable cash value. An estimated $1 billion in gold has been dug from the hills by such fortune-making companies as the Homestake Mining Co. The Black Hills are also rich in uranium and timber.
"From a financial standpoint," said Wilson, chairman of the Rosebud tribe, "the $105 million figure is just a drop in the bucket. It's a slap in their face."
Most tribes plan soon to hold council votes or general referendums on whether they will accept the money. A meeting of the Greater Sioux Nation in September is expected to take up the issue as well. A decision not to accept the funds would not bind the government, says officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but could cause a political problem.
The money has been set aside in interest-bearing accounts, said BIA official Robert Pennington. Under the law, the bureau has 180 days to develop a plan for disbursing it. Because of the Oglala suit, however, that action has been stopped until a federal judge decides on the effort to get the land back.