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In Missouri River Recovery Discussions, Tribes Have Their Say

Bob Walters, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said his people are still feeling the devastation from the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944.

The act authorized construction of thousands of dams and levees across the U.S. and established the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. The legislation resulted in the forced relocation of tribal people of the Missouri River basin and the massive loss of tribal lands.

Now, nearly 70 years after Pick-Sloan, efforts to restore some of the Missouri River ecosystem’s form and function are underway—this time, with representatives of tribal nations with a voice at the table.

Walters and 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.

“There’s just so much that’s been lost,” said Walters, who noted Pick-Sloan was passed without tribal consultation. “It’s important to my tribe that we’re at the table.”

The Missouri River is the longest river in the United States, traveling more than 2,300 miles from Three Forks, Montana to the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Among the concerns of Missouri River basin tribes are the loss of wildlife, medicinal plants, berries and trees. Reproduction of cottonwoods, once the dominant flood plain tree, has largely ceased, and 51 of 67 native fish species are now rare or decreasing.

But the most important natural resource, according to Walters, is people. “To me, there should be an endangered indigenous peoples act.”

Walters and Tony Provost, representing the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, were present at a meeting of a subcommittee working to increase tribal participation in restoration discussions.

Tribal members of MRRIC are not currently reimbursed for their travel expenses to meetings. Provost and other members of the subcommittee say this is the biggest obstacle to tribal participation in MRRIC.

John Thorson, chairman of MRRIC, said the committee is in the process of trying to secure funding for travel reimbursement to encourage tribal participation. Meetings are held throughout the basin, including Denver, St. Louis, and Sheridan, Wyoming.

According to the MRRIC website, 18 out of 28 basin tribes are currently participating in MRRIC, including the Prairie Band Potawatomi of Kansas, Spirit Lake and Yankton Sioux Tribes, and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “We would like to see them all participate,” said Thorson.

Russell L. Kaldenberg, an at large MRRIC member and historic preservation specialist with ASM Affiliates, said participation in MRRIC gives tribes the opportunity to remain vigilant. “The federal government changes every two years.” He noted that Pick-Sloan was pushed through in 1944 during World War II, a time when many tribal members were serving in the U.S. military. “Who was watching?”

Catherine J. Warren, Native American Consultation Specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the Corps is in the process of gathering tribal input and knowledge of ecosystems. Warren, a member of the Chickasaw, said that since the tribal information gathered will be public information, the Corps is taking caution to collect the information with sensitivity to the tribe’s wishes.

“We have a lot to learn from the tribes,” said Carol Hale, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Traditional knowledge has been missing from the equation for a long time. It’s a voice we need to hear.”
MRRRIC’s next meeting will be July 26-28 in Great Falls, Montana.