Close to 200 people gathered on the Pine Ridge Reservation on
the clear, cool morning of July 9 to attend the dedication ceremony
for the new veterans cemetery. The new Akicita Owicahe Lakota Freedom
Cemetery will enable Lakota families to practice cultural burial
traditions close to home. In the past, most veterans were buried
in Sturgis, near Bear Buttea two-hour drive from Pine Ridge.
Some families are considering reinterring their relatives back to
the reservation, which could cost up to copy,500, said Jennifer
Irving, assistant to the tribal president.
There are more than 4,000 veterans currently living in Pine
Ridge, and until now, there has only been one other tribal veterans
cemetery in South Dakota, located on the Rosebud Reservation, and
reserved for those tribal members. The new facility in Pine Ridge
is open to all veterans.
Eirik Heikes, landscape architect and project manager with FourFront
Design Inc., said the cemetery took three years from design to completion.
Heikes said he enjoyed the challenge of incorporating government
requirements with Lakota cultural intentions. Some features include
entrances that face east, and the medicine wheel and eagle feathers
are integrated in the design. "It was very wonderful work," he said.
"We also made the view part of the project, and we used indigenous
materials, like the stone from Crazy Horse Memorial. For the design,
Wilmer Mesteth, the spiritual leader of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,
made the sketches and I made them into the design," Heikes said.
Lack of water in the Badlands created construction challenges,
but all agree the cemetery was worth it. "The cemetery sits in the
middle of the reservation, and is very remote and peaceful. There
are rolling plains and hills, and there is a place to hitch horses.
It really is reflective of the culture," Irving said.
Built with a $6.5 million grant, the new cemetery is located
eight miles east of Kyle, South Dakota. It hosts a main building
for brief services, and a grave locator, making it easy for families
to find their loved ones. There are rooms for administration, technicians,
a separate room for color guards and military honors for veterans;
operation and maintenance equipment, and golf carts to transport
"It's a really nice administrative facility, and the last building
of that size to be built at a cemetery in Indian country. The state
grants for cemeteries are going to be downsized. We are very lucky
to get what we have," Joe Morrisette, director of the Oglala Sioux
Tribe Veterans Homeless Shelter, said.
Morrisette was pleased with the turn out at the dedication.
He credited Myron Poirier, Elizabeth "Jackie" Big Crow, Aaron Desersa
and Joe Rosalis with seeing the project through, and said, "They
came up with the idea, and applied for grants through the Veterans
Administration [Department of Veterans Affairs], and that's how
it got started, about six years ago. That was three administrations
ago, from Theresa Two Bulls to John Yellow Bird Steele and Bryan
"Veterans will be closer to home, and we have a good reception
area for families. It eventually will create some jobs," Morrisette
said. "When the project was first brought up there was a lot of
hesitancy. My hat's off to Myron and Jackie, they just kept at it,"
The cemetery will be developed over a 110-year plan on 120 acres
set aside by the tribe. The first phase is complete; 18 of the first
49 acres are ready for the first 10 years. "We have 360 crypts in
the ground right now, and we have an area where we have 40 burial
plots for cremation," Morrisette said. "Every 10 years we will open
up more burial ground."
Morrisette said he was honored that Oglala Sioux Tribe President
Bryan Brewer appointed him as coordinator of the dedication and
grand opening. "We had a lot of good comments at the dedication,"
Morrisette said. "It's beautiful where it's at, within our reservation
boundaries. We need something like that there."
Color guards and veteran's posts from Cheyenne River, Little
Eagle, Standing Rock Reservation, Rosebud and Wanblee on Pine Ridge
came for the dedication. Chuck Conroy, Oglala Sioux Tribe chair
of the veterans committee and Vietnam veteran, said the flag was
raised by female veterans, "which was probably a first for this