Right now the 27-year-old is completing her third year as a seasonal park ranger in the interpretative division stationed at the White River Visitor Center on the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Tribe’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I talked to Sunny when I went to the visitor center as part of a delegation of volunteers with Re-member, an independent, nonprofit organization that works with the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge. The volunteers are spending a week building bunk beds and outhouses for Lakota families, and installing insulation skirting around their trailer homes.
“The tribal park service, which is the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, has never since its beginning had a female Lakota full time law enforcement park ranger,” Clifford said. It would be awesome to become the first one. But I don’t see it happening. (The tribal government) needs additional funding, which they don’t have,” Clifford said.
But if anyone has a record of “firsts,” it is Clifford. She is the first generation of her family and “the first and only” of her eight siblings to have received a college degree. Clifford graduated from the Oglala Lakota College here on Pine Ridge Reservation. Oglala Lakota College was one of the first tribally controlled colleges in the United States, according to its website. “The concept of a tribally controlled college is that it be sanctioned by an Indian tribe, governed by a Board of Trustees made up of tribal members; and meets the needs of reservation people in their pursuit of higher education. In 2011, OLC was recognized as a Beating the Odds institution by a report of the HCM Strategist, funded by the Bill and Belinda Gates Foundation. This recognition was given for being a Tribal college that produces a high number of Bachelor and Master’s Degree graduates.”
Clifford is also an activist and appeared in Indian Country Today Media Network a few months ago when she launched a Change.org petition seeking to improve the quality of women’s lives by making Plan B available—and affordable—throughout Indian country.
Meanwhile, while she’s formulating a strategy to achieve the goal of becoming the first tribal law enforcement park ranger, Clifford provides information about the Badlands National Park to visitors at the White River center. The park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota government. “In 1978 it was Badlands National Monument and the federal government added 133,000 acres to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to become Badlands Nation Park, which agreement from the tribe, of course, and the tribe receives half the gate fees for the north unit because we don’t have entrance fees down here (in the south unite),” Clifford said.
Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. The Badlands Wilderness Area covers 64,000 acres and is the site of the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America. The Stronghold Unit is co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and includes sites of 1890s Ghost Dances. Badlands National Park contains the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, dating 23 to 35 million years old.
The park averages around 100 visitors a day. Most people travel there from the Black Hills, Clifford said but people from all over the world visit the unique landscape of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires. The park consists of 244,000 acres.
The land has always belonged to the Lakota Oyate, the Lakota people. During World War II the U.S. government confiscated the land to establish an aerial gunnery range for bombing practice. The residents of the area were ordered off their lands. Their story is told in Hear Us: Voices of Oglala Lakota Women for Badlands National Park (seen below). The Lakota call the area “the land of changing earth.”