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Native Sun News: Indians be dammed -- Missouri River revisited
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Filed Under: Environment | National
More on: books, missouri river, native sun news, south dakota
The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Author and historian Michael Lawson

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Sioux tribes finally are being recognized as stakeholders owed benefits for relocation forced by the 1944 Flood Control Act.

But just compensation would be hard to deliver to families of tribal members who lost their homes, land and water as a result of dam-building on the Missouri River, historian Michael Lawson said May 8.

“The evidence indicates that since 1980, the Sioux tribes have gradually been able to share more of the benefits of the Pick-Sloan program, have gained further monetary compensation from Congress for their considerable losses and have been officially recognized as stakeholders whose viewpoints must be considered by the Corps of Engineers in its present and future management of the Missouri River system,” said the author of “Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux.”

However, he noted, “It still remains impossible for most tribal members to imagine a time when the benefits of the Pick-Sloan Plan will ever exceed the costs extracted from their families, their communities and their culture for the development of the dam projects.”

“Dammed Indians Revisited” is the 2012 One-Book Program choice of the South Dakota Center for the Book. The program encourages everyone statewide to read and discuss the same book during the course of the year, providing a Humanities Council study guide and scholars to facilitate.

Lawson’s presentation of the book evoked intense responses from participants at the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee during the 17th quarterly meeting of the advisory body to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 70-member stakeholder group met in Rapid City to make recommendations May 8-10 on management, habitat conservation, endangered species and ecosystem recovery.

“Because our tribes have been living on the river historically, I feel we’re in that category of endangered species because of loss of our land and habitat,” said Yankton Sioux Tribe committee member Lana Gravatt.

“How do we become a part of this working group in a way that it’s proving to be doing something significant enough for our leaders to come to the table?” she asked.

Beginning 68 years ago, the Corps of Engineers built five dams on the Missouri’s main-stem, pursuant to the Pick-Sloan Plan. They destroyed more than 550 square miles of tribal land in North and South Dakota and Nebraska and dislocated more than 900 Indian families, Lawson found.

The plan, approved by the U.S. Congress as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944, channeled the Missouri’s surging current for domestic and irrigation water supplies, electricity generation, flood control, navigation and recreation.

It developed the largest reservoir system in North America. The mighty dams constructed under Pick-Sloan caused more damage to Native American lands and resources than any other public works project in the U.S., according to Lawson.

The Flood Control Act did not provide for the protection of the priority Indian water rights established by the U.S Supreme Court in the Winters decision of 1907.

Neither did the statute specifically authorize the Corps to take tribal lands, despite the fact that treaty provisions as well as legal precedents established by the Supreme Court required specific and unambiguous congressional authorization for the condemnation of tribal lands, Lawson noted.

“Although it should have been obvious to everyone that the Pick-Sloan dams on the Missouri were going to negatively impact the Indian reservations along the river, none of the tribes were consulted prior to the enactment of the legislation,” Lawson said. Neither the secretary of the Interior nor what was then the Office of Indian Affairs (now the BIA) offered any objections.

Research for Lawson’s previous book “Dammed Indians” provided the factual basis for congressional legislation between 1996 and 2002 that established tribal recovery trust funds totaling over $385 million in compensation for reservation infrastructure lost to federal dam projects.

Of the five funds established, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe received the largest, more than $290 million in 2000, and the Santee Sioux Tribe received the smallest, $4.7 million in 2002. The accrued income from these trust funds will eventually total billions of dollars, Lawson said at the MRRIC meeting.

In order to bring together federal, tribal, state and other stakeholder representatives from throughout the 10-state Missouri River basin, the 2007 Water Resources Development Act authorized MRRIC to provide guidance on the basin’s management.

Affectionately known as “Mr. Ric,” the committee is a collaborative forum staffed by RESOLVE, a Washington, D.C., dispute resolution firm under a contract with the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution.

Most of the damage from the Missouri River impoundment was sustained by the seven Sioux reservations that are the focus of Lawson’s books.

Dams on the Missouri’s main-stem in South Dakota and Nebraska inundated more than 203,000 acres of Sioux land. Approximately 600 families were uprooted and forced to move from rich, sheltered bottomlands to empty prairies.

Their best homesites, their finest pastures, croplands and hay meadows and most of their valuable timber, wildlife and vegetation were flooded, Lawson said.

Relocation of Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal headquarters on the Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations seriously disrupted governmental, educational and medical services and facilities, dismantling the largest Indian communities on these reservations and shattering families.

The Oahe Project reduced the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations. Fort Randall Dam affected the Yankton and Rosebud reservations. Both the Fort Randall and Big Bend projects negatively impacted the Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations. The Gavins Point Dam project encroached on the Santee reservation.

Of all these, Cheyenne River sustained the most damage, losing more than 104,000 acres, and Santee the least, losing just less than 600 acres.

The most devastating affects suffered by a single reservation were those experienced by the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation) at the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. There, tribal life was almost totally destroyed by the Garrison Dam.

Meanwhile, the Fort Peck Dam in Montana was incorporated into the Pick-Sloan Plan. Built in the 1930s, it remains the largest dam in the U.S. It harmed the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes on the Fort Peck Reservation.

Tribes adversely affected by tributary projects include the Crow in Montana, who were impacted by the Yellowstone Dam on the Big Horn River, and the Shoshone and Arapaho of Wyoming, whose timber and grazing lands were taken for the Boysen Dam on the Wind River.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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