Environment | National

Native Sun News: Indians be dammed -- Missouri River revisited

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.


RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– The relocation of the White Swan community on the Yankton Sioux Reservation is a poignant case in the book Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux, which was published by the South Dakota State Historical Society in 2010, with a foreword by the state’s former lawmaker and presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern.

Presenting the book in Rapid City, author and historian Michael Lawson said the best information he was able to collect about how the Sioux used the Missouri River and its shoreline bottomlands prior to dam construction under the 1944 Flood Control Act came from the extensive interviews he conducted in 1998 with elders and other former residents of the village of White Swan on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

“The transformation that took place specifically at White Swan as a result of dam construction was dramatic,” Lawson told an audience of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC), during the 17th quarterly meeting of the advisory body to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service May 8-10.

The site that the Corps of Engineers selected for the Fort Randall Dam was partially located on the Yankton Reservation, upstream from White Swan.

A traditional, self-sustaining community, White Swan was completely inundated in the early 1950s by the reservoir the dam created.

Unlike other tribal communities impacted by the dams, White Swan was completely dissolved and its residents dispersed to whatever other area offered housing or land, including inland communities on Yankton and other reservations.

When Lawson talked with the former residents of White Swan, he was struck by their description of how old-fashioned the village was, resembling rural communities of the 1800s, more than those of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Interviewees told him most families lived in small log cabins or unpainted frame houses, some with dirt floors. A few lived in tents year-round, while others did so at least part of the year. None of the homes had electricity or indoor plumbing. And only a few homes had water wells. Perhaps three or four families had motorized vehicles, while most people got around on foot, on horseback or in horse-drawn farm wagons.

“For the most part, these people coexisted in harmony and cooperated in a number of economic and social activities,” he said. They maintained small farms and gardens and raised livestock, sharing their labor, natural resources, and improvements in what was truly a subsistence economy.

According to Lawson, the residents of White Swan were almost totally dependent on the Missouri and its tributary creeks for their water supply. Water was hauled from the river in wooden barrels and distributed to most of various small farms in a similar manner.

Residents believed that the Missouri’s rapid current and sands purified the water and none could recall anyone getting sick from drinking river water, he said.

In winter, some individuals cut blocks of ice from frozen creeks the river and hauled them home. These ice blocks were stored in cellars, covered with sawdust, the used to keep food chilled during warm weather.

Unlike many of the other Sioux tribes along the Missouri, the Yankton Sioux fished for subsistence and fish had been a staple of their diet historically.

Fish were an abundant food source, and tribal members used pole lines, set lines, and nets to catch primarily catfish and northern pike. They also harvested fish left trapped on land after the river receded from high water or a flood. Community fish fries were common and popular social events, as one family might catch up to one hundred fish and share the bounty with others. Fish not consumed immediately were dried and stored for later use.

Driftwood from the river was the preferred source of fuel at White Swan, because it was thought to burn better than dead and down timber from the bottomlands and cut wood. The people of White Swan, as well as most of the residents of the Yankton Reservation, took advantage of the natural resources of the fertile and timbered bottomlands along the Missouri and its tributary creeks.

They gathered dead and down timber from the bottoms and cut and stacked green willow and cottonwood trees during the summer, allowing the wood to dry until winter. Families cooperated in gathering, cutting, and storing wood. Those who had horse-drawn wagons hauled timber from the bottom lands and distributed it throughout the reservation.

A generous supply of wild fruit, vegetables, herbs, and other useful plants grew in the bottomlands. The gathering and preserving of these resources was a traditional part of the culture of the Yankton Sioux. Tribal members from all over the reservation came to the White Swan area to gather these resources. The edible plants that grew in the bottomlands added variety and bulk to their diets. These plants were eaten raw, dried and stored for winter, made into soups, sauces, syrups, and jellies, or mixed with other foods to add flavoring.

The Yankton people also gathered a variety of wild plants for medicinal and ceremonial use. The community still had a few traditional medicine people, or healers, who were knowledgeable about herbal cures, but did not often divulge their secrets, Lawson said. Yet even the average family knew about herbs, roots, or leaves that could help to remedy common ailments. Teas made from leaves of various plants, for example, relieved colds and respiratory problems.

“Informants on other reservations told me that buffalo berries were used in female puberty rites and that chokecherries were used to cure diarrhea and other ailments,” he said.

A form of wild pea called a “mouse bean” was regarded in frontier days as one of the most palatable wild vegetables on the Plains. This food source acquired its name because field mice collected and stored these so-called beans in their nests, from which tribal members gathered them. According to tradition, the Sioux always replaced the beans they took with an equal amount corn or other grain. Soup made from mouse beans was considered a delicacy.

The wooded bottomlands also served as a shelter and feeding ground for many kinds of wildlife and game birds. The hunting and trapping of this game provided the Yankton Sioux with an important source of food, income, and recreation. Some of the older men made their living trapping beaver, muskrat, skunk, otter, and mink. They sold the pelts in town and ate the beaver and muskrat meat.

White Swan families raised a variety of farm animals. Some families let their livestock take shelter in the bottomlands, while others maintained barns and other outbuildings. Surplus meat, milk, and eggs were sold in nearby towns or traded for commodities that could not be grown or harvested on the reservation. People butchered their livestock and stored the meat as best they could, Lawson said.

Families planted and harvested a variety of crops using antiquated horse-drawn machinery. In addition, they maintained large home gardens. They supplemented what they raised with food resources obtained from the bottomlands.

Lawson noted that he was not able to glean much information about how the White Swan residents may have used the Missouri for recreational purposes. However, the information I collected from residents of the other Sioux reservations impacted by the Pick-Sloan dams indicated that swimming, boating, and sport fishing in the river were as a rule, not common activities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered the Yankton Reservation as early as 1945 to conduct land surveys and engineering studies to develop access roads and other project infrastructure without prior consultation with or consent from either the Secretary of the Interior or the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

The Corps exercised the right of eminent domain to seize the reservation parcels needed for the project through condemnation proceedings in U.S. District Court. It succeeded in gaining declarations of taking from the Court, despite the fact that treaty provisions and prior legal precedents had established that tribal lands could not be condemned without specific and unambiguous authorization from Congress. The Flood Control Act of 1944, which approved implementation of the Pick-Sloan Plan, had not provided such authorization.

As the White Swan community was completely destroyed and its residents were forced to relocate to wherever they could find housing. The majority of people moved to the inland communities of Lake Andes and Marty.

Many moved into a Lake Andes motel that had gone bankrupt. Several leased or purchased one or two-room tract houses that came to be called “the Lake Andes shacks.” In one of these, 14 family members occupied a two-room house.

“Two of the most troubling stories that came out of my research on White Swan involve tribal families who did not leave their homes in a timely manner,” Lawson said.

“The first involved a family of seven who lived in a four-room house. The family had received no payment from the condemnation proceedings because they leased the property from the tribe and they otherwise lacked the wherewithal to relocate.

“In a letter to Congressman Francis Case, the father stated that a Corps official came to the house and advised him that if he did not move the structure by 9 a.m. the next morning the Army would burn it down. He wrote further, ‘They came at four o’clock in the evening, so it was burned’.”

Lawson recalled, “Another family waited too long to salvage their house and only managed to retain the possessions they could fit into a car. The removal also took place too late for the Army to do anything with the house, so it had to be abandoned. As the reservoir began to fill, the swirling waters quickly separated the house from its foundation and from higher ground the family watched as their home floated away. They eventually moved in with relatives on the Rosebud reservation.”

Most distasteful to the Yankton Sioux, who strongly believed that the dead should remain undisturbed, was the necessity of moving two cemeteries and a number of isolated burials, Lawson noted.

A total of 509 graves were relocated, most from the St. Philips Episcopal Cemetery. These were moved, along with the church itself, to the town of Lake Andes.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Join the Conversation