Stew Magnuson: Missouri River floods reminder of tribal sacrifice

The following column by Stew Magnuson originally appeared in the Native Sun News.

I remember as a boy in Omaha standing on the banks of the Missouri River with my father as we fished and thinking how vast it looked.

But that was the late 1960s, and what I was looking at was actually a once mighty river that had been transformed by the Army Corps of Engineers into a long drainage ditch.

As floodwaters rise all over the prairies this summer, the Missouri has been in the news a lot. I wonder how many reading the headlines know the history of this great river and how it got to be the way we see it today.

The Plains tribes have had a long relationship with the nation’s second longest river.

The mouths of its many tributaries such as the Platte, White, and Bad were where nations such as the Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsu would set up their villages so they could be found easily. If you were a Lakota band, and wanted some corn to supplement your buffalo meat diet, all you had to do was follow the tributary until reaching the Missouri. There would mostly likely be one of the river-dwelling peoples there willing to make a trade.

The Missouri became the first highway into the heart of the Great Plains. Fur traders came, flooding the lands with European goods, transforming the economy, and creating jealousies and rivalries among the tribes who vied to be the middlemen. The Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsu, who lived in strategically placed chokepoints on the river, saw their position as the plains’ middlemen erode. The white man also brought diseases such as small pox that nearly destroyed their societies.

Two years ago, I visited the park in Fort Pierre, S.D., where Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery stopped and had its first encounter with the Sioux. It did not go well between the U.S. government’s representatives and the Brule Lakota who were camped there.

The situation was so tense between the tribe and the expedition that it nearly came to a skirmish. If cooler heads had not prevailed on both sides, the story of Lewis and Clark may have ended right there. It was a harbinger of things to come between the federal government and the Lakotas.

Around this time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was given the mission to keep the Missouri River open for navigation. A new technology in the form of the steamboat was making its way to the river. The corps’ first mission was to remove dead trees from the river channel — a futile task one would think.

As the 1800s progressed, the Missouri truly became a superhighway, as steamboats filled with immigrants, manufactured goods and soldiers made their way from St. Louis. The Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations are where they are today because chiefs Red Cloud and Spotted Tail refused repeatedly to remain at an agency next to lands on the Missouri. It was a miserable area, by then stripped of trees and wildlife and infested by all sorts of “bad men” who traded whiskey. The United States wanted the Oglala and Brule close to the river where it could deliver treaty goods more easily. The two chiefs wanted no part of the Missouri, and left there in the late 1880s.

Omaha and Kansas City grew over the decades, and the barge replaced the steamboat. For some 50 years the mighty river did what it is doing this year, jumped it banks and flooded the cities along with the lucrative farmlands that took advantage of the rich soil along its banks. Drive near the Missouri today in the spring and you can see just how rich this soil is. It’s coal black, and looks rich enough to eat.

The Army Corps of Engineers still had a mission to keep the river open. Preserving wildlife, fish habitat or the cultures of the Native peoples who lived there was never on its agenda.

The people of these two cities, along with others such as Pierre and Bismarck, and the nearby farmers built on the flood plains, and flood plains are subject to periodic — yes you guessed it — floods.

When the white folks began howling for action in the 1940s, the U.S. government’s answer was to destroy the river by creating a series of upstream dams — the Oahe, Garrison and Gavins Point.

The column is too short to recount how the Three Affiliated Tribes (Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsu) and the Lakotas still living along the Missouri were treated when the government decided it wanted to flood the Missouri river valleys and create the lakes we see today in place of the river. I reviewed two books last year -- Dammed Indians Revisited by Michael L. Lawson and Coyote Warrior by Paul VanDevelder -- that go into depth on this manmade tragedy. I would recommend reading them for more details.

But we all know how the story ended. The Garrison Dam destroyed the way of the life of peoples who had lived there for thousands of years.

Today, travelers can stop at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center near Washburn, N.D. in a spot between the two dams and see what the Missouri once looked like. It is wide, beautiful and meandering, just like it once was.

This all happened only a decade before the Civil Rights and Environmental Movements gained momentum. If the Feds had tried to railroad the Lakotas and Three Affiliated Tribes in the 1970s, the story might have turned out differently. Maybe.

I know we are not going to turn back the clock and free this great river and let it wander where it wants. I know those dams aren’t going to go away.

But this year’s flood should serve as a reminder to the downstream farmers that their rich soil got that way from thousands of years of springs floods depositing nutrients carried from the mountains.

The residents of the big cities, from Bismarck, N.D., to Kansas City, who reside or do business on the flood plains — or built their summer cabins on the Missouri’s banks — should be reminded that they enjoyed years of being high and dry through the sacrifice of Native Americans who had no power to stop dams that took away just about everything they had.

Stew Magnuson (stewmag@yahoo.com ) is the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns, which is now in paperback.

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