The bombs were dropped from 1942 to 1963, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe leaders hope the removal of unexploded ordnance from the Pine Ridge reservation will clear the way for tourists who want to visit and learn about Indian culture.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of removing the bombs, which the military dropped at what was then the Badlands Bombing Range.
"Cleaning it up is the priority," said the tribal president, Cecelia Fire Thunder.
The tribe envisions using the 534-square-mile parcel for campgrounds, a museum, and places where visitors can learn about Lakota history and culture. The goal is to train tribal workers as park rangers and have them tell the story of the Lakota people, Fire Thunder said.
Besides increasing tourism, the Oglala Sioux hope to allow family members to return to the land from which tribal members were uprooted when the bombing range was built.
The land was returned to the tribe in 1977, although the Air Force still controls about four square miles in the northern part of the range, which includes part of Badlands National Park.
Federal funding to clean the site started in 1995. The Corps of Engineers said roughly $20 million has been spent and $5 million is set for this year and next year.
Most of the wayward bombs are around various targets on the range. To give the pilots a clear target for their bombing missions, the military carved into the earth large circular berms intersected with two lines -- like the crosshairs on a gun scope.
Sometimes they got close. But sometimes they didn't.
Subcontractors, including some local Indians who are trained to search for the bombs, first go through and remove any surface metal. Workers then use high-tech equipment to detect the presence of anything under the ground.
Those spots are marked with plastic flags, but cattle often eat them along with the grass, said Brad Lasater, ordnance and explosive safety specialist with the Corps of Engineers. "This being a grazing area, they tend to get grazed," Lasater said. "The priority is finding and removing anything dangerous near houses, where curious children play."
He estimates up to 150 pieces of live ordnance have been removed from the bombing range since 1999. Much of it is the M38, a 100-pound practice bomb about 8 inches in diameter and 33 inches long.
"It's a sheet-metal stovepipe filled with sand with three pounds of black powder that gives a flash-bang when it hits the ground. And some of those didn't go off," Lasater said.
Emma Featherman-Sam, former coordinator of an office that communicated with tribal members about the cleanup, said there have been no cases of injuries from the bombs. But that's largely because many of the people whose families were displaced are still alive, she said. Children and young adults don't necessarily know where the range or the old bombs are, she said.
"That's why we're doing this," Lasater said. "So families can come up here and enjoy it and come back in one piece."