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.

The hospital at the former Cheyenne River Agency, prior to the purposeful flooding of prime reservation land by the U.S. government, beginning in 1948. PHOTO COURTESY/SOUTH DAKOTA ORAL HISTORY CENTER.

Part 3 | PART 2 | PART 1 RAPID CITY , SOUTH DAKOTA –– Lost land and possessions were far from the only issues raised by the relocation of Native American communities under the 1944 Flood Control Act, according to the book “Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux,” which is this year’s recommended reading by the South Dakota Humanities Council.

“Relocation disorganized the social, economic, political and religious life of well-integrated tribal communities and had a serious effect on the entire reservation population,” author and historian Michael Lawson said during the book’s presentation at a Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee meeting in Rapid City on May 8.

“The disruption, chaos and uncertainty generated by this experience made it a most painful one for all tribal members involved,” he said.

So shortsighted was the Army Corps of Engineers’ planning on the Crow Creek Reservation, according to Lawson, that families forced to move by the construction of the Fort Randall Dam were relocated within the projected area of the Big Bend Reservoir.

“Consequently, when time came to open the second dam, these unfortunate tribal families were compelled to move once again,” he noted.

Removal of churches, community centers, cemeteries and shrines on all but the Rosebud and Santee Sioux reservations impaired social and religious life.

Loss not only of primary fuel, food and water resources but also of prime grazing land effectively destroyed the economic base of the five tribes that lost the most land.

“The thought of having to give up their ancestral land, to which they were so closely wedded, caused severe psychological stress. The result was extreme confusion and hardship for tribal members,” said Lawson.

What was called Cheyenne Agency, the main population center on the Cheyenne River Reservation, was relocated 60 miles inland to the prairie town of Eagle Butte. The new high school constructed there consolidated the Eagle Butte public school district with the old Cheyenne Agency boarding school.

The school opened in September 1959, but the dormitories had not yet been completed. Thus, many tribal students were required to stay in the dorms at the old Cheyenne Agency site and were bused from one location to the other.

Each school day, more than 500 Sioux children received sack lunches in the morning at the old agency, then rode the 120-mile round trip to Eagle Butte and back.

“The Sioux Falls Argus Leader called this ‘the biggest sack-lunch program in South Dakota,’ but it might very well also have been one of the earliest and longest public school busing programs in America,” Lawson said.

“The individual Sioux tribes sought in vain a generous federal settlement for their damages and for the violation of treaties and statutes that guaranteed the perpetual integrity of their land,” he said.

They tried to gain for themselves the benefits promised by the Pick-Sloan program, including direct hydropower and irrigation projects.

“They also sought government assistance to help them overcome the hardships placed on them and to permit them to escape at last a vicious cycle of poverty and determine their own future,” Lawson added.

“However, at nearly every turn, an economy-minded government, which too often proved insensitive to their needs, frustrated their efforts.”

The development of the Pick-Sloan Plan to implement the dam-building project was a compromise between the separate water resources programs designed by Col. Lewis A. Pick of the Army Corps of Engineers and William Glenn Sloan of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.

The Pick Plan was primarily concerned with the development of flood control measures to protect the lower Missouri Valley. The Sloan Plan was preoccupied with water storage facilities to increase irrigation in the upper Missouri Basin.

“Although these seemingly conflicting plans were proposed by two powerful federal agencies traditionally at odds, a remarkable conciliation of the two plans was rather quickly achieved at a conference in Omaha in October 1944 and rather hastily approved by Congress two months later as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944,” Lawson observed.

The compromise was partly a result of an urgent demand for federal action in the wake of disastrous Missouri River floods of 1942 and 1943. It also was an attempt to head off growing support for an alternative plan to develop a Missouri Valley Authority – an independent public corporation patterned after the highly successful Tennessee Valley Authority, according to Lawson. The Sioux tribes’ overriding interest in the matter was lost in the scuffle until later.

Finally, recognizing its obligation to see that the Sioux tribes received just compensation, Congress in 1950 authorized the Department of the Interior and the Corps of Engineers to negotiate separate settlement contracts with the respective tribal representatives. Each of these agencies was required to prepare a detailed analysis of damages.

In most cases, the tribes also hired private appraisers to assess damage values. In the event that a satisfactory settlement agreement could not be reached in the field, Congress was to arbitrate a final settlement. However, this arrangement did not apply to the Rosebud Sioux, whose land was taken by the corps solely through condemnation proceedings, or the Santee Sioux Tribe, who reached a mutual agreement with the corps and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Negotiations with the separate tribes were carried on over a period of 14 years, from 1948 to 1962.

Although the tribes eventually received a total of more than $34 million in compensation, “this was far less than half of the amount they considered to be the fair market value of their damages,” Lawson said.

What’s more, the Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule and Santee tribes were forced to relocate their affected members before receiving a settlement, and the Standing Rock tribe received funds only at the last possible moment, he noted.

Lawson will present the book in Sioux Falls at the South Dakota Festival of Books to be held in late September. Proceeds of book sales in the state’s “One Book” program go to the South Dakota Historical Society.

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

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