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Killdeer Mountain Battlefield site of conflicts, past and present

KILLDEER, N.D. — On July 28, 1864, Civil War General Alfred Sully and 2,200 troops staged an attack on a gathering of Native Americans — including Teton, Yanktonai, Lakota and Dakota bands — at Killdeer Mountain, regarded to this day as a sacred site for many Native American tribes.

While the historical significance of the site dates back a century and a half, recent events will become part of Killdeer Mountain’s history, as well.

Last fall, Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s plans for a power line through the battlefield area spurred opposition from tribes, the National Park Service, historians and the Killdeer Mountain Alliance, a group originally formed in 2012 to propose alternatives to drilling on state school lands in the mountains.

Meetings on the proposal brought out a controversy on the side. Landowners felt historians Tom Isern and Aaron Barth hadn’t been as open as they should’ve been about a planned study into the true boundaries of the battlefield. The National Park Service has agreed to fund the study.

Meanwhile, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem also ruffled the feathers of private landowners with his extraordinary places proposal late last year, which originally would have applied stricter consideration to drilling permit applications within a two-mile “buffer zone” around 18 special places, including the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site. Much of the land affected was privately owned, and landowners came out against the policy, saying they had the right to develop their minerals.

The state Industrial Commission, which regulates oil drilling, narrowed the policy so drilling permit applications for private land weren’t subject to a public comment process.

Frustration for some boiled over in June of this year, when the landowner of Medicine Hole, a site significant to Native Americans, closed it to the public. Brian Benz included the Killdeer Mountain Alliance, Isern and Stenehjem in his list of people whose disrespectful “actions, comments, activities and beliefs” led him to close the site.

“In the past, the General Public acted and/or believed as though they had the right to access Medicine Hole and the top of Killdeer Mountains,” Benz and neighbor Craig Dvirnak wrote. “The general public presumed, but never had, this right; it was only because of the gracious generosity of the private landowners that the public enjoyed this privilege for so many years.”

Despite recent distractions, the 150th anniversary and commemorating events could bring attention back to the reasons the land is so significant in the first place.

“It’s an unfortunate time for all of these things because on one hand this is a commemoration of something that was a very big deal, a big part of where we live and a big part of our nation’s history, and you know, I’m told that some people are coming from quite a distance,” said Rob Sand, a member of the Killdeer Mountain Alliance.