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One of three towers moving off Medicine Butte, sacred to Native Americans

KELO-TV, South Dakota Public Broadcasting and AT&T Wireless each have towers on Medicine Butte near Reliance. KELO's tower will soon be removed. (Jessica Giard/For The Daily Republic)1 / 2
The view from atop Medicine Butte near Reliance. (Jessica Giard/For The Daily Republic)2 / 2

By Jessica Giard

For the Daily Republic

RELIANCE — Looking from the top of Medicine Butte in central South Dakota, the boundaries of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation blur into rolling hills that spread east and north toward the Missouri River, and buttes that rise to the west and south.

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Medicine Butte is a special place for American Indians, say members of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. But, at 2,100 feet, it’s also one of the highest points in the middle of the state along Interstate 90, making it an ideal location for communications towers.

Soon, the butte will have one less tower on its horizon.

“We chose to do this because it is the right thing to do,” said Jay Huizenga, station manager at KELO television in Sioux Falls. “There’s no reason for us to be there if we can find somewhere else.”

The Reliance-based KPLO tower that broadcasts KELO television will be removed starting in December. The new tower is eight miles southwest of the butte and began operating earlier this month.

The relocation of the tower resulted from a process involving the Federal Communications Commission, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and KELO television. An ice storm that took down the original tower on the butte in January 2010 opened the door for the tribe to address the cultural significance of Medicine Butte.

Michael Jandreau, tribal chairman, said Medicine Butte is part of a series of buttes that has significance to all the Lakota tribes.

In February 2010, Jandreau wrote the FCC and asked it to find another site for KELO’s tower. The FCC approved KELO to build a temporary tower in March 2010 at the existing site, but the plan was to move the tower eventually.

“It was our intent to do everything we could to not go back to Medicine Butte,” Huizenga said.

In December 2010, the FCC facilitated a meeting between KELO and the tribe in Lower Brule. Lower Brule’s elder advisory committee and elder guests from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe shared stories of the landmark’s meaning to the Lakota people. The butte sits just outside the southern boundary of the reservation, but within the historic boundaries, according to Jandreau’s February 2010 letter.

“We had this invaluable meeting which really changed my interest in where the tower was,” Huizenga said. The meeting participants also visited the butte.

Afterward, the question was: Does the tower really need to be on Medicine Butte?

“Generally, the answer was no,” Huizenga said.

That jump-started a two-year process of finding a new site for the KELO tower and working through a maze of state and federal regulations. The rules spell out how to work through the tensions that exist between development and cultural, environmental and historic preservation.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Huizenga said.

Regardless of whether the tower stayed at Medicine Butte or was moved, a newly built tower would go through the same process.

New tower construction needs to abide by a string of acronym-related rules, primarily led by NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, which walks applicants through a review of environmental, historical and cultural concerns for proposed sites. Those rules, however, did not exist in 1957 when KELO built the Medicine Butte tower to extend its reach to the middle of the state, a fact Jandreau noted in his February 2010 letter to the FCC.

Two other major towers stand on the east end of Medicine Butte. The easternmost and tallest tower, at 1,200 feet, serves South Dakota Public Broadcasting television and radio and was built in 1970. The third tower is operated by AT&T Wireless.

The AT&T-owned tower is under review by the FCC for compliance. A spokesperson with the FCC confirmed the tribe asked for a review of the AT&T tower.

Julie Andersen, executive director at SDPB, said the tribe has had no contact with SDPB regarding its tower, though she is aware of Medicine Butte’s significance to the tribe and the moving of the KELO broadcast tower.

“We’ve had a pretty good relationship with the tribe,” said Andersen. “We haven’t had an issue and I don’t foresee there being an issue.”

She said moving the tower would be cost prohibitive for SDPB.

Chairman Jandreau said the tribe would welcome conversation if the opportunity ever arises to remove the remaining towers off the butte. But he said the tribe is not making a concerted effort to have the remaining towers relocated. The tribe does not own any part of the butte.

“It’s not a war or anything else on modern technology or events,” he said. “We have to respect the ownership patterns that exist there.”

He noted that when the KPLO tower was built in 1957, elders predicted the tower would fall.

“We didn’t go create the ice storm,” Jandreau said. “We utilized the federal law.”

Huizenga said the process of relocating the KELO tower went smoothly while working with the tribe, a point supported by spokespeople with the tribe and with the FCC. He also said moving the tower cost more than it would have to keep it at Medicine Butte. The new tower is taller, plus the supporting infrastructure had to be built new, unlike at the Medicine Butte site.

Once KELO’s tower and the on-site building are permanently removed, KELO plans to work with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe to restore the land.

“It’s our intent to reclaim the land and get it as close to its original context as possible,” Huizenga said.

More information: Medicine Butte timeline