At Odds in the Black Hills
02/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
IN DANCES WITH WOLVES, KEVIN Costner played Lt. John Dunbar, an 1860s cavalryman in the Dakota Territory who discovers the beauty of the Native American way of life. The 1990 movie, which Costner directed and starred in, won seven Oscars, made more than $500 million and—with its sympathetic portrayal of Indians—won Costner what seemed to be the undying affection of the Lakota Sioux. One tribal member even adopted him into her family.
Now, though, a nasty little skirmish has broken out between Costner, 40, and some of his Lakota brethren. "He capitalized off the Indians, and now he is going to capitalize off our land," complains Sidney Keith, 75, a teacher of Lakota studies at Oglala-Lakota College Center in Rapid City, S.Dak. "He is so greedy that he cannot see things."
At issue is land in South Dakota's Black Hills, which the Lakota regard as sacred and have been trying to recover from the federal government since 1877. In Deadwood, S.Dak., the town where gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok was shot to death by Jack "Broken Nose" McCall, on 85 acres—once a car dump—Costner and his brother Dan, 45, are building a sprawling entertainment complex, which they hope to complete by May 1997. The $120 million resort, named the Dunbar after his Wolves character, will feature a 320-room lodge complete with casino, health spa, outdoor amphitheater and a vintage train carrying customers from the Rapid City airport 47 miles away. More disturbing to the Lakota, though, are the 585 prime scenic acres 12 miles away in the Black Hills that the Costners bought in late 1994 as part of a swap with the U.S. Forest Service for a 630-acre land parcel, adjoining their new resort, that the government owns. Land swaps between the Forest Service and private owners are common. This acreage would give the Costners room for an 18-hole golf course, plus access to the railway link.
Although the land-swap deal, awaiting public hearings, has not yet been sealed by the Forest Service, some Indians believe that Costner has received preferential treatment. "We've been rejected in trying to get any land swaps in the Hills," complains Mike Jandreau, 51, chairman of the Lower Brule Lakota Reservation. "Then the state puts in millions in aid to make it even more interesting for Costner. It's capitalism at its ripest and rankest." The Costners have in fact received $11 million in preexisting local and state grants and entitlements.
To other Lakota the real issue is Costner's disregard for the sanctity of Indian land. "These are religious lands. Is it proper to put a resort with gambling in the middle of a church?" says Mario Gonzalez, 50, a former Oglala Sioux tribal attorney who worked on legislation to recover the Black Hills. However, gambling has been legal in Deadwood since 1989.
Instead of turning his back on the Lakota, Costner "should help the people who helped make him famous," says Sidney Keith. Adds Myron Rock, 58, an Oglala Sioux who opposes the Dunbar: "The state will get money out of this. The county and city will, Costner will. What's left for the Indians? Nothing."
In Deadwood itself (pop. 2,000), a onetime gold-rush town where Costner already owns a thriving casino, the Midnight Star, there is little grumbling. Although one saloon-casino owner, Gary Keehn, calls Costner "The Guy Who Shows His Butt on the Big Screen," most people in town like the idea of the Dunbar. "The project would put Dead-wood on the map. It's economic development in the finest sense of the word," says Barbara Allen, 65, a retired office manager. Vince Coyle, publisher of the Lawrence County Centennial, adds, "Having an attraction on a world-class level can only help."
Costner also has many supporters among the Lakota. "I'm not too worried," says Mel Lone Hill, 45, vice president of the Oglala Tribe, who worked with Costner on Wolves. "Kevin understands our situation. He's a hell of a good man to work for." And Doris Leader Charge, 65, who translated part of the Wolves script into Lakota for Costner, agrees. "I trust him," she says simply.
After four years of painstaking negotiations, the Costners are particularly troubled by charges that they are insensitive to the spiritual significance of the Black Hills. "The fact that the Lakota consider it sacred is fine," says Dan Costner, "but that's their thing. We certainly haven't built on land that belongs to the Indians. We bought private land just like everybody else here. It was a car dump, and nobody was out yanking on it then."
The Costners are being criticized, Dan suspects, in order to draw public attention to the Lakota people's greater land dispute with the government—"and I can't help that," he says. "We believe that this resort is going to be a legacy and enhancement to this state. The Indians are a part of that too. And this really hurts."
As the debate in the Black Hills heats up, the Costners do not intend to give an inch. "You only change your course when you're wrong, and we're not wrong," says Dan. "One nice thing about Kevin and me is that we stay the course and stand on our record. I wonder how many of these people would stand on theirs."
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Deadwood, CANDY HAMILTON in Oglala and KRISTINA JOHNSON and ANNE-MARIE OTEY in Los Angeles