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Grave sites bring tribes back to the bargaining table

LAKE ANDES, S.D. - Tribal leaders from three states, seeking to protect exposed remains and burial sites along the Missouri River, resumed negotiations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers here at mid-month, in a two-day session.

Members of the Yankton, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes called on corps officials to safeguard ancestral remains while representatives of the Ponca Tribe from Nebraska want to determine if some of their ancestors were buried there.

Remains, long believed to have been removed before construction of the main-stem dams on the Missouri, resurfaced this year as water levels in the lakes dropped.

"Removal and repatriation would be best for the corps and the tribe," Col. Mark Tillotson, the corps' Omaha District commander, said Oct. 17. But the corps has agreed that no more human remains will be removed from the White Swan burial site.

Yankton Sioux tribal leaders are standing by wishes of tribal elders who don't want the graves relocated. They want them covered permanently, using an earthen berm, rip rap or a dike to protect them and has chosen an engineering firm to study if this would prevent shoreline erosion.

Tillotson said he lacks authority or appropriations to do that.

Tribal leaders insisted the issue isn't about money and charged that a lot of money has been made from the hydroelectric power generated by the dams.

In the early 1950s, federal officials condemned the land for the Pick-Sloan Dam Project and promised to relocate the graves as the dams were constructed. Yet, exposed remains have been surfacing since the 1960s and it was later discovered that some contractors the corps hired moved only dirt, leaving remains behind to be flooded as the dams were filled.

Tribal leaders said they approach the negotiations with skepticism and want a long-term solution to the final resting place for remains exposed as water levels drop. This year the problem was aggravated by dry conditions that caused lower than average water levels.

Negotiations stalled, but the mid-October meetings brought the agency and the tribes back to the table and they will meet again Nov. 6 to consider the problems associated with the remains and other demands, including reclaiming land along Lake Francis and restoring what was a tribal community, which is on the table.

The corps has been meeting with the tribes to comply with a court order which prohibits the corps from raising water levels until exposed remains can be reburied. A letter from a federal preservation agency chastised the corps for its failure to protect the sites.

The issue stretches well upstream where remains are surfacing along the banks at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. The issue is further complicated by the involvement of other tribes whose relatives were buried all along the river.

Since the exposed remains have become common knowledge, there are fears people will rob the burial sites or animals might carry away the scattered fragments which sit along the banks.

"You have to understand that you have people laying in those sites and people's belongings out there that are available to hunters, scavenging animals. When I said collect what is on the surface, that is what I mean. The problem with repatriating the remains is we have to go through a whole process and that takes time," said Ellsworth Chyka, who headed up the Yankton Sioux negotiating team.

"We just can't take the remains and remove them. They have sacred objects buried with them. When we bury somebody, they take all their earthly possession with them," Francis Hart said.

While corps officials tried to confine the issue to exposed remains on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, Hart reminded them that descendants included tribal members from as far away as Canada. Even as the meeting continued, more remains were being exposed.

"We went out last night," Hart said. "A coffin and more remains were showing."

"This is the territory of the great Sioux Nation. I want something done. Standing Rock is waiting. You are going to deal with us also," said Alma Mince, a Standing Rock Sioux elder. "We are going to leave them there and the tribe is going to bear the cost of watching over them."

The most recent Standing Rock discovery was at the former Mad Bear Cemetery No. 2, a short distance north and across the Missouri River from Mobridge. The last burial in the cemetery was in 1945. Descendants of Chief Mad Bear were buried there.

Mince said the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has committed $130,000 in casino funds to pay expenses of tribal members guarding its sites for the year. She encouraged other tribes to contribute some casino profits to fund protection of grave sites while waiting for a way to prevent remains from resurfacing.

Mince indicated the tribe might be on its way to filing a lawsuit against the corps. She told tribal leaders to present the corps with a bill for the services rendered in protection of the grave sites.

"We have our tipis down there every day and we're documenting every site."

Tribal leaders want the federal government to invest in protecting the remains by funding patrols and eventually some method for keeping them covered and safe from erosion. For now, corps officials said money isn't available to build dikes or place rock over the sites and that the tribes will have to lobby their congressional delegations to secure funds.

"Removal and repatriation would be best for the corps and the tribe," Col. Mark Tillotson, the corps' Omaha district commander said Oct. 17.

"We're trying to do the same thing for every site - protect the remains. It may be different on the Standing Rock than down here" He said the view is that they are separate issues because of "a different foundation and separate conditions. We're trying to protect the remains in whatever way we can.

"We looked at the dike issue because of the soil, the shelf that drops off. From the engineering point of view, absolutely it can be done. I don't have the authority or appropriations to do that. That is a possible long-term solution. I think there are other cheaper ways. It is something we considered and something I can't do," Tillotson said.

"It isn't about money and it isn't about cost. These are relatives. The word cheaper shouldn't apply. You have made a lot of money off that hydroelectric power. Why can't some of it be used to take care of what you have disturbed," Chytka said.

"If you can build these dams with millions of dollars, you can honor our request to protect the sacred sites," Hart said.

"We're willing to go to court and to Congress to help you get the money," he said.

Tillotson told tribal leaders it would be illegal for him to lobby for funds to build dikes where the burial sites are located, but suggested they could lobby their congressional delegation.

Only the short-term solution is on the table. Yankton Sioux tribal officials want tribal people to take care of the remains and not the corps, but they want assistance from the corps in covering the grave sites.

In addition, the Yankton Sioux demanded heightened protection for the grave sites.

"Because of the trust factor we are going to put our own warriors down there to guard the site," Hart said.

"What is in that position paper is what we want. Let us remember to do what our ancestors want - cover them. We want you to do what it takes," said Elizabeth Marcellais, the lone Yankton Sioux elder to speak at the meeting.

The issue could become divisive because some tribal members want remains examined to document living descendants.

Robin Bear of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska said the Ponca Tribe may have ancestors in the burial sites at the same location.

"We want someone to go back and find out how far back these bodies go. The Poncas are advised as to what is going on here and were taking a vested interest," Bear said.

Even so, the overwhelming majority of the tribal leaders said their elders don't want the remains exhumed or moved.

"I don't think you need to move any remains," said Sebastian "Bronco" LeBeau, cultural preservation officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. "I think you need to cover them up.

"Money is not an issue. Legally, you have to protect the site, no matter what the cost."

"My best engineering advice for what you have proposed and what I'm about to propose is not the best engineering solution," Tillotson said. "I fear it is not going to prevent undo suffering and pain in the future.

"What you want to do is conduct the ceremonies, go out and rebury the remains at the exact location or away from the edge. I would ask you to go as far from the edge as possible. I would ask you to go as deep as we can," Tillotson said.

Some South Dakota recreation areas close to the remains may become an issue because of the fear that boaters and hunters might raid the grave sites. The Yankton Sioux Tribe wants the White Swan Recreation area closed until work on the grave sites is completed.

The small recreation area in south eastern South Dakota is largely unsupervised and allows easy access for boaters to Lake Francis Case.

Hart said the fragments of bone and the graves have resurfaced so tribal members will be again going to the site to watch over them.