Echoes of Oak Flat: 4 Pick Sloan Dams That Submerged Native Lands
The Oak Flat land grab is just one of many acts of the federal government that has seized Indian land or despoiled it. Dams, mines, railroads, timber roads—the reasons may vary but the results are sadly familiar.
In 1946, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the first of four Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act dams that ultimately submerged nearly 700 miles of tribal lands in the Missouri Valley from Yankton, South Dakota, to Williston, North Dakota.
Until the enactment of the Pick-Sloan plan, devised to reduce flooding and improve irrigation and travel, Indian Law and the Fort Laramie Treaty protected the rights of tribal nations to their land and water. However, once the plan was accepted by Congress, The Corps condemned the land and seized it througheminent domain.
Tribal citizens were forced from their homes in the bottomlands—the forested, naturally flooded habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals. The new dams created reservoirs, but no plans for those who were displaced by them. Medicine and food plants that had always sustained the Plains lifestyles were submerged, and loss of access to water and fishing devastated traditional lifestyles. The remaining reservation lands were primarily the less fertile prairies. In the introduction to Dammed Indians Revisited, Vine DeLoria called the Pick-Sloan Plan “without doubt, the single most destructive act ever perpetrated on any tribe by the United States.”
In Flooding The Missouri Valley: The Politics Of Dam Site Selection And Design, author Robert Kelley Schneiders explained that tribal lands were selected for damming to avoid building near established businesses and white communities, though a few were also affected. Expensive real estate would have increased the cost of the dams and tribal lands were considered inferior and underutilized, and therefore less expensive. Natives were considered easier to relocate than town and city residents who had purchased land, built homes, farms and businesses.
Construction lasted from 1946 until 1966. An article on the Daily Kos, described how the dams built at Oahe, Fort Randall, and Big Bend affected 23 reservations and forced the relocation of nearly 1,000 Native families.
Fort Randall Dam
The Fort Randall dam totally submerged the community of White Swan. Some resistant families refused to leave their homes until the water started flooding their land.
Ellsworth Chytka, now almost 80 years old, was a longtime spokesman for the Yankton Sioux Tribe. He described to ICMN the effects of the dam on White Swan, a town and Yankton cemetery along the river.
Recalling his family’s history, he said: “When they first started construction, there was a big burial mountain there, and they were putting in big steel tracts. It was just pushing them bones up right at the face of the dam. People were standing there crying. They never did consent for the dams to be built, but the government forced it.”
In 1990, lower water levels exposed ancestral remains that had been raised and scattered by the flooding caused by the dam. “There was pipes, beads, arrowheads and other stuff laying around. We tried to tell the Army Corps of Engineers that was a spiritual area, but they would not let us use the word spiritual. Over and over they would say, ‘No, it’s just a cemetery.’ Well, the government said they were going to take all the remains to the Episcopal church, and some down to Marty, South Dakota.”
Chytka said the court retained an Oklahoma company to move the remains. “But they didn’t,” he said. “I would hear them talking about, ‘Wow, you should see what we found today.’ They pilfered the graves. They never moved them. They lied to us.”
“They were literally destroying culture. Each one of them dams was put on Native land, and all of the tribes had land,” he said.
In 2000, The Corps allowed the water to remain low long enough for the Yankton Sioux Tribe to recover and rebury their ancestors’ remains.
In the May 1999 Congressional Record, Senator Thomas Daschle petitioned congress to provide funding to the Yankton and Santee nations for the flooding and erosion of more than 4,000 acres.
The Garrison Dam took 152,360 acres from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish and forced the relocation of 325 families—94 percent of their farmland was lost. The government refused to pay the market value of $21,981,000 and instead offered the tribes a settlement of $12,605,625, about $144 an acre.
Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota 0073-097
The Garrison Dam nearing completion in the early 1950s.
The devastating aftereffects of the Garrison Dam are still being felt, and include a wave of diabetes. The affliction had been extremely rare among people of The Tribes until their way of life was changed and they were forced to rely on government commodities due to the loss of farmland. For an in depth look at the situation see the ICMN article below.
“The Garrison Dam could have been built at an alternate site, north of the reservation, but it wasn’t,” said Biron Baker, a tribal member who was interviewed in the 2006 film, Waterbuster. “We lost the 156,000 acres of fertile bottomland, rich with our history, our traditions and culture. It’s all gone. And I cannot imagine not having a sense of loss and anger over that.”
Big Bend Dam
Big Bend Dam in South Dakota took more than 121,026 acres of Crow Creek and Lower Brule’s land best suited for irrigation.
A 1997 Senate Report stated the Fort Randall and Big Bend Dams washed away 22,000 acres of bottomland resources affecting traditional tribal lifestyle and economy.
According to Native American Netroots, the Oahe Dam destroyed more Native land than any other public works project in America by flooding 90 percent of the timber and bottomland of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Nations.
In 2000, the Standing Rock Sioux joined suit with the Yankton Sioux’s NAGPRA filings when falling water levels behind the Oahe exposed remains and cemeteries. “We are doing this to protect our rights under federal law, and to defend the rights of the lineal descendants,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Charles W. Murphy told Indian Country Today at the time. No other people in the United States are subject to having the government conduct its affairs in such a manner as to unearth the remains of their relatives. It should not happen to the descendants of one of our chiefs.”
The Sum of the Devastation
According to Flooding The Missouri Valley:
The Pick-Sloan dams are among the largest in the world.
The reservoir created by the Oahe Dam stretches 250 miles.
All of the Missouri Valley bottomlands in the Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River Sioux, Standing Rock, and Fort Berthold reservations were submerged.
How much land? According to “Dammed Indians Revisited” The dams “flooded more than 203,000 acres of Sioux land on the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Crow Creek, Rosebud, and Yankton reservations in North and South Dakota and the Santee reservation in Nebraska.
The Yankton, Rosebud, and Santee reservations lost a total of 353,313 acres for reservoir water storage.
The towns of Fort Thompson (Crow Creek Reservation), Lower Brule (Lower Brule Reservation), Cheyenne River Agency (Cheyenne River Reservation), and nine towns on the Fort Berthold Reservation were flooded.
Approximately 3,538 Natives were forced to relocate from the valley lands to the uplands or to off-reservation towns. Additionally, another 6,900 Indians were affected in varying degrees of severity.
Glimmer of Hope?
“Now, nearly 70 years after Pick-Sloan, efforts to restore some of the Missouri River ecosystems form and function are underway—this time, with representatives of tribal nations with a voice at the table,” wrote Lorraine Jessep in ICMN.
“Members of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee (MRRIC) met during the first week of May in Overland Park, Kansas. Authorized by Congress and established in 2008, MRRIC is a basin-wide collaborative forum to develop a shared vision and comprehensive plan for Missouri River recovery. It consists of Missouri River basin tribes, states and federal agencies, stakeholders and local government.”
With natural flora and fauna suffering the consequences of having the natural landscape altered, the MRRIC is trying to undo some of the damage to the environment. While the land cannot be returned unless dams are removed, as stewards of the land the tribal nations are in the best position to help improve the surrounding areas.
This story was originally published September 11, 2015.