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An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a specialist in federal Indian law, Mario Gonzalez works out of his law office in Rapid City, S.D. He received the Native Lawyers of Canada’s prestigious Distinguished Aboriginal Lawyer Achievement Award in 1995, and in 1999 was co-author, with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, of “The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle for Indian Sovereignty (University of Illinois Press).” Tell us about your day-to-day work. It ranges from internal tribal matters — writing ordinances and closing loans, for example — to drafting federal legislation, including portions of the largest rural water project in North America. I also handle litigation, such as a current civil action against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The case, pending in U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., seeks to stop the transfer of Corps lands — originally Sioux treaty lands — to the state of South Dakota, thus removing federal protection from more than 1,100 cultural and historic sites. If the federal government no longer needs these lands, they should be returned to their rightful owners — the Sioux Nation. And I have private clients and other tribal clients, such as the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority. What were your most satisfying cases? Two come to mind. In 1979 I represented Anthony Whirlwind Horse, Pine Ridge’s Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent. If you recall, six years earlier the American Indian Movement had occupied Wounded Knee village, where more than 300 Sioux had been massacred in 1890. After the AIM occupation, there was chaos on the reservation, and many people were killed. By 1979, due in large part to Superintendent Whirlwind Horse’s leadership, life was getting back to normal. Then his brother, Elijah, was elected the tribe’s president, and the BIA decided to transfer the superintendent under federal civil service regulations. I argued that those regulations don’t apply to the Indian Service. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed, and the tribe was very happy. The next year, via a civil action filed in U.S. district court in Rapid City, S.D., I prevented the federal government from paying $102 million to the Oglala Sioux Tribe for the Black Hills. The payment would have extinguished the tribe’s title to the Black Hills, which the Sioux people consider sacred and have refused to sell. What do your tribal clients fear most? That they may soon not exist as tribal people in their homelands — that they’ll be legislated or adjudicated out of existence. To survive, we have to fight for what we believe in — and develop twenty-first-century reservation economies. A song transcribed in your book tells of capturing the enemy’s flag. What does this refer to? In several battles, Sioux bands captured the U.S. flag. The Sioux were, in fact, never conquered by the United States. After signing a peace treaty in 1868, the Sioux resided on their reservation. They were exercising treaty-protected hunting rights when they were attacked, by General George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud, and by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Sioux prevailed in both cases. Did you ever want to join a big firm? During the summer of 1971, before my senior year at the University of North Dakota School of Law, I had a wonderful internship at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Kampelman in Washington, D.C. But I never aspired to join such a firm. The lawyers I admired most were doing pro bono work and bettering the lives of others. As soon as I graduated, I headed back to Pine Ridge. In my work, I deal with tribal sovereignty, sacred sites protection, hunting rights, land claims, family law, and much more. I enjoy it, and you have to enjoy your work.

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