The Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands: Where Did It All Go?

by Heather Dawn Thompson

The Original Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands. Today, the facility known as Sioux San IHS Hospital rests on a vista overlooking Rapid City. That campus rests on part of a 1,200-acre parcel of land that belonged to the Rapid City Indian Boarding School (hereafter “RCIS lands”). Altogether, the RCIS lands stretched from what is now Mountain View Road to Canyon Lake Park on the west side of Rapid City. In addition to Rapid Creek, it included two water sources, Big Springs and Cleghorn Springs. The land and water rights were purchased through congressional appropriations, in fulfillment of the federal government’s treaty obligations to provide education to Native Americans in perpetuity, in exchange for lands that would become much of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, North Dakota, and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River.

Recipients of the RCIS lands. Over the years, various non-Native residents of Rapid City approached Congress, asking for special legislation that would make most of the RCIS lands available to them, either through purchase or a direct land grant. They are outlined as follows:

  • (A) The Act of April 12, 1924 – Dairy Queen and Duhamels: This law allowed two individuals to purchase two lots, these lots where owned outright with no restrictions. In 1924, 3.46 acres were sold to Robert Jackson, who served as the physician for the Rapid City Indian School and had served as mayor from 1910 to 1912. Today, this land is a parking lot in Canyon Lake Park, located directly across the street from the Catholic Church off Jackson Boulevard. A second parcel of 0.55 acres was sold to William Rounds. In 1949, after another law, the Act of May 20, 1948, opened up much west Rapid City for development (discussed below), this land and dozens of lots surrounding it were sold by Pennington County to William Williamson and Helen Duhamel for $1. This land is now the parking lot for the Dairy Queen restaurant on Canyon Lake Road and in the vacant corner lot next door.
  • (B) The Act of June 6, 1932 – Camp Rapid: This law directed 84.4 acres of RCIS lands to be given to the National Guard in exchange for 38.9 acres of what was then Pennington County Poor Farm land, and is now part of Sioux Park. Today, the National Guard’s parcel houses Camp Rapid, and is owned without restrictions. 
  • (C) The Act of May 20, 1948 –West Rapid City: The Act of May 20, 1948 is the most comprehensive and covered the allocation of the remaining 1,200 acres in west Rapid City. 

Rapid City’s Westward Expansion. After World War II, Rapid City looked to expand westward. In October 1947, the City annexed five square miles of west Rapid City. In 1948, Rapid City, the local Chamber of Commerce, the National Guard, and the Catholic Church lobbied Congress to obtain the remaining 1,200 acres of the RCIS lands. The law was proposed in February and passed in May under the leadership of Mayor Fred Dusek, Congressman Francis Case, and Senators John Gurney and Harlan Bushfield.

The law allowed for land to 1) be granted for free to the City, the School District, or the National Guard; 2) to be sold to churches; or 3) to be used for “needy Indians.”

On May 11, 1948—after the bill passed the Senate but before it was signed into law on May 20—the Rapid City Journal published an article outlining the land recipients already allocated: the Catholic Church, the National Guard, the Rapid City School District, and the City of Rapid City for Sioux Park, as well as a plot of land reserved as the “Religious Area” for other churches. 

Recipients: City, School District, National Guard – Reversion Clause Lands. The 1948 Act allowed land to be granted for free to the following: the City for municipal purposes, the School District for educational purposes, and the National Guard. Because the lands were free, the law imposed a reversion clause, which required that they be returned to the Department of the Interior, via the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “when the land is no longer used for the purposes for which such lands were initially conveyed.” The following lands were granted with this reversion clause in place, each is followed by what was developed on the land:

Rapid City (207.10 acres)

  • Sioux Park, 1949

Rapid City School District (152.37 acres)  

  • Canyon Lake Elementary, 1948
  • West Middle School, 1952
  • Stevens High School, 1962
  • School Maintenance Facility, 1964

South Dakota National Guard (693 acres)

  • National Guard Training Grounds, 1950

A 90-acre section of the National Guard land was reverted and then re-granted for the construction of Stevens High School. There are sections of both the City and School District plots which have been re-conveyed for purposes other than municipal or educational use, likely in violation of the reversion clauses in their deeds. The occupants of these plots have already been informed about the potential deed violations. The land deal which resulted in building West Middle School is also likely subject to further scrutiny under the terms of the 1948 Act.

Recipients: Churches. The 1948 Act also allowed land to be sold at a “reasonable value” to churches for “religious purposes.” The churches which purchased plots were:

Churches (182.96 acres)

  • American Indian Mission
  • Black Hills Bible School
  • Canyon Lake Methodist Church of Rapid City
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
  • Dakota Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church
  • Diocese of Rapid City
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church
  • Synod of South Dakota of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
  • Western District of the Dakota Conference of the Methodist Church of the State of South Dakota

Each of these plots were purchased, and therefore owned without restrictions and without a reversion clause. As such, some of these churches resold these privately-owned lands. 

Recipients: “Needy Indians.” Finally, the 1948 Act allowed for portions of the RCIS lands to be either be used for, or exchanged for other acreages that could be used for, the benefit of “needy Indians.”

  • “Needy Indians” (0 acres)

Of the several kinds of people and institutions eligible for RCIS lands, only “needy Indians” never received any of them. This was not for lack of effort on the part of local Native Americans. There were many efforts by the Native community to obtain allocations and utilize these lands.  Over the years, local Native leaders submitted requests for a variety of initiatives that would have assisted members of the local Indian community. They asked for land to develop housing for families living along Rapid Creek; for the development of powwow and ceremonial grounds; and for an elderly living center, an Indian Community Center, and a Sioux Museum and Cultural Center.

By the 1970s, there were only two undeveloped plots left of the original, 1,200-acre RCIS lands that had not been granted or sold. The plots were transferred to the federal government’s office of the Indian Arts & Crafts Board to build a Sioux Museum. However, the federal government never provided funding to build it, the museum never came to fruition, and the collection was eventually transferred to the Journey Museum in the 1990s.

During the research for this series, it was discovered that one of those two remaining plots contains an unmarked cemetery of some of the children who died at the Rapid City Indian School and from tuberculosis at the Sioux Sanitarium. Those plots have recently been returned to the tribal community for protection of the graves.

Water Rights & the Cleghorn Fish Hatchery. Over the years, Congress authorized appropriations for the acquisition of water rights to accompany the RCIS lands. Two springs were purchased in 1906: the Big Spring and the Cleghorn Spring (from George and Alma Bennett and Lucinda Cleghorn). The water was utilized as drinking water by the Rapid City Indian School, and then as irrigation for the farm lands cultivated by the students. The Cleghorn Spring produces approximately 6 million gallons of water annually.

A portion of the water rights to both the Cleghorn and the Big Springs were reserved for the personal use of the Cleghorn and Bennett family and their descendants. However, the Cleghorn Springs Fish Hatchery was established 1928, but it is unclear what, if any, water rights accompanied the hatchery. Furthermore, a survey conducted on January 30, 1940, indicated that over 200 families in west Rapid City were using water from the springs.

The federal government declared the water rights and the spring houses and pipeline infrastructure “excess property” in 1959. It transferred the water rights to the State of South Dakota, and the water infrastructure property and pipelines to a non-profit named the “Cleghorn Springs Water User Association” for $750. 

Ted Stephens III