LOWER BRULE, S.D. - Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the media were ousted from a four-day conference designed to provide an exchange of information about tribal cultural resources and other issues surrounding preservation of tribal areas including burial sites.
The conference, which started April 30, included officials from the National Advisory Council On Historic Preservation and the National Trust For Historic Preservation, and an assortment of tribal leaders, historic preservationists and lineal descendents of those buried along the banks of the Missouri River.
Last year, tribes in the region filed two court actions to protect and preserve the remains along the Missouri River. The Yankton Sioux Tribe was the first to file a lawsuit to protect remains at White Swan more than a year ago. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed the second lawsuit last fall against the corps intended to keep fluctuating water levels at Lake Oahe from further disturbing cultural and historical sites important to the tribe.
Standing Rock settled the lawsuit in late April with an agreement that the corps would place rock along the shoreline to protect the burial sites and prevent further erosion. The Yankton Sioux suit remains unresolved.
Tribal members returned to the negotiating table to talk to the corps about preserving burial sites exposed because of a seasonal drop in water levels and dry conditions.
Regional tribal preservationists walked away from the negotiating table for months because they said they felt corps officials ignored pleas to assist finding a long-term solution to protect the sites. Negotiations resumed last fall and Yankton Sioux tribal members agreed to place rock along the shoreline as a temporary measure, but snow storms prevented crews with heavy equipment from accessing the site because of soft ground along river banks.
The corps raised the water level as officials said they would under an early December deadline and even the temporary solution wasn't executed.
Preservationists from the region including tribal members from the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota, whose relatives' burial sites stretch along the banks of the Missouri, came here to exchange ideas on how best to protect them.
Corps officials, who have often been bashed for the agency's failure to listen and work with the tribes, came and were turned away at the door. The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe's Director of Public Relations Scott Jones announced before the entire group that he had prevented corps officials from attending the gathering. He said, "Tribes had the right to meet with federal agencies" without the interference of other agencies.
Jones went on to say his reason for failing to include the media at the meeting was that it would allow for a more open discussion among tribal elders who wanted to tell their stories to the federal preservation agency which had chastised the corps last year for failure to preserve the grave sites.
The burial sites were to be moved as part of the Pick Sloan Dam Project more than 40 years ago, but as remains began to surface in the 1950s it was apparent the subcontractors hired by the corps had failed to move graves in a series of cemeteries along the shoreline.
The lawsuits were filed in hopes of protecting those Yankton Sioux Tribal members buried along the shores of Lake Francis and descendants of Chief Mad Bear, laid to rest near Wakpala.
The continuing issues brought descendants from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes to South Dakota in an effort to protect older burials sites.
Jones announced the presence of Indian Country Today at the conference Tuesday, saying he made a "departure from protocol," allowing any member of the media to attend the conference, and that the paper would be allowed to stay through the remainder of the conference. Jones later rescinded that agreement, saying the conference was a closed meeting and those present were there by "invitation only."
He went on to say tribal elders were uncomfortable about sharing in front of the media and the intent was to allow the elders and preservationists an unencumbered exchange.
In his decree, he turned away not only a representative of ICT, but a tribal member with ties as a lineal descendent of those who lived along the banks of the Missouri River, whose great-grandmother's relatives lived along one of the communities flooded by the dam project.
"When we're ready to talk, we will call the corps," he said, indicating their presence would be a distraction now.
Don Klima, director of planning and review for the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., said this was a first for his agency - to be involved in a meeting that was closed to media and the public.
Klima said unless specific information about the location of vulnerable burial sites was released during the course of the discussion, the gatherings should have been open to the public including the corps whose representatives from the Big Bend Dam attended to better understand the issue. He said a majority of the conference should have been open.
Maggie Oldham, a public affairs specialist for the corps, said corps representatives, who had given the group a tour of the Big Bend Dam, left without a challenge.
"They left out of respect for the tribal members," Oldham said.