Rapid City Churches: Nearly 200 Acres Purchased “For Religious Purposes”

By Heather Dawn Thompson

In May 1948, Congress passed a bill authorizing the distribution of over 1,000 acres of the Rapid City Indian School lands (RCIS lands), including the sale of some of the acreage to churches for “religious purposes.” The day after Congress passed this Act on May 10–but before President Harry S Truman signed it into law on May 20–the Rapid City Journal ran an article entitled “Sioux Indian School Land Grants to City Approved: National Guard, Schools, City, Catholic Church, Other Religions Groups to Benefit.” The article indicated the plot currently belonging to the “Catholic Church,” and demarcated a “Religious Area” for other requests by churches of other denominations.

The original version of the legislation, introduced by Congressman Francis Case, authorized the transfer of the Indian Boarding School lands to churches for free. The Department of the Interior (DOI) raised concerns regarding separation of church and state, and the final version of the act was amended to permit purchase of the RCIS lands by “any church organization for religious purposes, upon receipt of the reasonable value of such lands.”

Sale of 13 Lots to 9 Churches. The sales to churches started within a year of passage of the 1948 Act. The Catholic Church was the first church to receive a land allocation under the Act, on July 11, 1949, followed by eight additional religious organizations. Within a decade, approximately 13 plots had been sold to 9 different churches. A total of 183 acres of RCIS land was sold for approximately $30,500.

Church Land Owned “In Fee.” Because the churches purchased their plots, and did not receive them for free like the City, School District, and National Guard had, their portions of the RCIS lands were received outright. That means that although the lands were to be used for “religious purposes,” their lands did not have a “reversion clause” whereby they were returned to the federal government when no longer being used for that purposes. The churches own their plots “in fee,” without restrictions.

Sales Made Below “Reasonable Value.” Two sales of RCIS lands to churches are controversial under the provisions of the 1948 Act. First was the statutory requirement that the land be sold at “reasonable value.” Three of the first four churches to receive allocations resold their lands, presumably at a profit, raising concern regarding the “reasonable value” of the sales prices to the churches.

In October 1954, the Secretary of Interior requested a legal opinion interpreting the phrase “reasonable value.” The attorneys for the DOI wrote a formal opinion on November 29, 1954, stating that sales to churches cannot be “donations” or be for a “nominal value,” but that the federal government needed to ensure the sales were made at “fair market value.” After this legal opinion was issued, 7 of the 10 pending church requests for RCIS lands were withdrawn.

For “Religious Purposes.” The second controversial component was the statutory requirement that the land be sold to church organizations for “religious purposes.” In total, 6 of the 9 churches sold parts or all of their Indian Boarding School lands, presumably for uses other than “religious purposes.”

Indeed, the Catholic Church, the Canyon Lake Methodist Church, and the Church of Latter-Day Saints appear to be the only three churches that kept all of their allocated RCIS lands.

The church resales were likely permissible under the 1948 law, as the churches owned the lands without restrictions on their deeds. But they did raise questions as to whether the statutory intent—that sales only be made to churches “for religious purposes”—was being met. Whether the churches acquired the RCIS lands in good faith or always had the intention of flipping the lands for a profit is unknown.

  • American Indian Mission - resold both of its RCIS lands allocations. One is now the housing development just off of Hillsview Drive south of Stevens High School. 
  • Black Hills Bible School - resold all of its allocation into what is now the entire Western Heights housing subdivision and the Pointe West Apartments by Stevens High School, and likely the John Witherspoon College.
  • Dakota Conference of Wesleyan Methodists - kept 60 acres of RCIS lands for its Cedar Canyon summer camp, but sold its other allocation for what is now the Hillview #2 housing subdivision south of Stevens High School. 
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church - resold all of its RCIS lands. Today this property comprises the Cedar Hills Subdivision #1 and the Cedar Ridge Townhouses. 
  • Presbyterian Church - kept a plot for the current Westminster Presbyterian Church north of Sioux San, but sold off the plots surrounding it for housing and offices. The Episcopal Church is also located here. 
  • Wesleyan Methodist Church of Sturgis - resold its allocation of RCIS lands. That area is now known as the Beckham housing subdivision. 

Native Community Concerns Regarding Church Sales: For generations, members of Rapid City’s Native American community raised concerns that local churches were selling RCIS lands at a profit and outside the intentions of the 1948 Act. On June 25, 1982, a resident named Eva Nichols wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She voiced concerns on behalf of a group of Native community members that churches that had received RCIS lands had “immediately s[old]such parcels of land and set up a realty business to make money for their churches.”

Current Land Value: It is difficult to trace exactly when and for what amounts each church sold their portions of the RCIS lands, as the lots sold were broken down into over 100 smaller parcels. 

We may never be able to provide an exact comparison of the fair market value of the RCIS lands in 1948 and today, but purchase prices, inflation conversions, and current property tax valuations offer some helpful insights.

Nine churches purchased about 183 undeveloped acres of land between 1949 and 1958 for approximately $30,000 (or approximately $300,000 in 2017 dollars). Of those nine churches, six eventually sold some or all of their plots of RCIS lands.

Looking at just the plots that were sold by those six churches, based upon recent tax assessments by Pennington County, the value of that land alone (not including improvements on the land) currently sits above $6 million.

In other words, based on what we know of the rough prices and conversion rates between 1948 and 2017, six churches across west Rapid City purchased parcels of the RCIS lands for about $300,000 (in 2017 dollars). That same land is now worth over $6 million. There have, of course, been a variety of intervening factors—such as developments to surrounding areas, landscaping, infrastructure, city and services growth, and fluctuations in the real estate market—that have changed the valuations of these lands over the last few decades. Nonetheless, the scale of difference—some $5.7 million—is substantial and likely echoes the concerns expressed by the Native American community over the years.

Ted Stephens III