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North Dakota tribe recovers ancestral lands taken by Army Corps






Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. Photo by North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department

After a decades-long quest, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation is finally reclaiming a piece of its homeland.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the federal government flooded 156,000 acres of the tribe's reservation in North Dakota. More than 300 families -- more than 80 percent of the membership at the time -- were forced out of their homes to make way for the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. The upheaval contributed to language and cultural loss as well as a decline in health because a community hospital was closed and wasn't replaced until 2011.

"We will sign this contract with a heavy heart," George Gillette, the tribe's chairman said at an emotional ceremony in 1948 in Washington, D.C., where he can be seen crying in a photo published by the Associated Press. "With a few scratches of the pen, we will sell the best part of our reservation. Right now the future doesn't look too good to us."

Nearly 70 years later, the tribe's current leader is seeing a better future. The Obama administration has agreed to return nearly 25,000 acres around Lake Sakakawea, which represents only a portion of the lost land, to its rightful owner.

“The return of these lands is an important step toward mending a historic injustice,” Chairman Mark Fox said on Tuesday. “Half of our adult men were fighting for their country and their homes in World War II when the federal government began making plans to take our lands for the Garrison Dam."

"The flood caused by the dam displaced 90 percent of our people from their homes," Fox added. "It literally destroyed our heartland."

The long-overdue announcement came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It completes a process that began in 2004 under the Fort Berthold Mineral Restoration Act, which authorizes the return of "surplus lands" to the tribe. Formal hearings took place in 2006 but a decision was never reached.

"Our people have been fighting to have the surplus lands returned to the Nation for years," Fox said. "I am grateful that this goal has been accomplished, and the hard work of so many of our leaders has finally paid off.”

Despite the tribe's seemingly-simple request, officials in North Dakota opposed the transfer of the land during the administration of then-governor John Hoeven (R), who is now a U.S. Senator. He continues to express concerns.

"We have been very clear that access agreements should be in place before any transfer occurs. In fact, the last time the Corps took public comments and held public meetings in North Dakota regarding the transfer was a decade ago," Hoeven said in a press release earlier this month after receiving word of the decision.

Some tribal members opposed a transfer too. They argued that the lands should be returned to individual Indians rather than the tribal government.

"These were not lands lost by the tribe. These were individual homes and farms taken from individuals," Roger Birdbear, an advocate for landowners on the reservation, wrote in Indian Country Today in July 2014. "Should these lands be deemed excess, claims to which are dubious at best, they should go to the original landowners or their heirs."

With the return of the land, which is now held in trust, the tribe also regains ownership of the mineral rights. Existing leases will continue but future agreements will be negotiated with the tribe's involvement, the Obama administration said.

"We believe this transfer provides strong protections for existing land uses, whether it’s housing, recreational, or the Corps’ continued mission at Lake Sakakawea, while also ensuring there is recognition of the Tribes’ sovereign authority to manage these lands going forward," said Larry Roberts, the de facto leader of the BIA.

"The Army Corps worked very hard to see this through,” said Jo-Ellen Darcy, who is the outgoing Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. “The tribes will now have all of the associated economic, environmental and cultural benefits that come with trust land for generations to come.”

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North Dakota tribe awaits return of land around Lake Sakakawea (04/26)
Roger Birdbear: Return land at lake to individual Indian owners (7/15)
Editorial: Return land at lake to original owners in North Dakota (6/19)
Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation seeks return of lake land (09/10)
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