LAKE OAHE, S.D. - Centuries ago, the inhabitants of central North and South
Dakota buried their relatives on riverbanks, near their low-lying villages
and the river that sustained life.
Now, however, intense drought conditions in the region are causing those
ancestors' remains, possessions and tools to resurface.
Extreme drought has left the Missouri River and its reservoirs at
dangerously low water levels. Each inch they lower means more of the
ancient inhabitants' remains become exposed.
Ancient villages that for some 40 years have been hidden are rising from
their watery graves. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, hydropower dams
along the upper Missouri River flooded vast amounts of land to create
reservoirs to prevent flooding and provide hydroelectric power. Ancient
villages and prime bottom land were flooded, and some towns had to be moved
to higher ground.
Today, arrowheads, pottery shards and personal items that were buried with
the ancestors are surfacing and becoming prime targets for looters.
Historic sites are found at all levels of the river banks. More artifacts
show up each spring as runoff and spring rains erode the riverbanks.
"We have people out there who are collectors and don't know it is illegal
to pick things off the beach on [U.S. Army Corps or Engineers] and tribal
lands," said Albert LeBeau, archaeologist for the Cheyenne River Sioux
Tribe. The Cheyenne River Reservation is located on the western shores of
Lake Oahe on the Missouri River.
"Some people bring artifacts to us and there are full-blown looters out
there for money. They are collecting and selling on eBay and at swap
meets," LeBeau said.
Tribes affected by the drought include the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Three Affiliated Tribes at Fort Berthold
in North Dakota.
The Cheyenne River Sioux and the Corps patrol the shorelines to educate and
deter potential looters. "When you pick up an artifact and take it, it is
not right, it is not yours; leave it there. Take a picture if you want,"
With the drought at its worst stage in decades and predicted to worsen,
protecting cultural property and funerary objects could become difficult.
Federal laws prevail on Corps and tribal land, but for the most part
artifacts seem to be fair game on state or private lands: South Dakota does
not have any laws in effect that properly protect against the looting of
Discussions between the tribes and the Corps over the protection of
cultural property along the river are still underway. An agreement between
all parties involved that would set guidelines for enforcement and
protection is close to approval.
The Cheyenne River Sioux will hire three people with boats to patrol the
reservation's shoreline - a justified expense, LeBeau said.
"It's worth it to protect the resources. We are out there, so we are
noticeable to thwart any looting activities and to educate. Part of what we
do is an education component," he said.
The village sites are definitely ancient and probably belong to the
Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa tribes now located in North Dakota on the
Missouri River. The Lakota moved through the region later, and some of the
human remains could be Lakota.
LeBeau said when any items are found, tribes that may have a claim are
notified. Most of the time, if the remains are not human, the items are
left alone. It is a traditional belief that any artifacts are to remain
where they are found and that human remains should be reburied in a
Presently some reservoirs are two feet above their low-est-ever levels, and
with dry weather forecasted for the summer the levels could reach more than
two feet below what they are now. This offers looters hunting grounds that
have not been seen for at least four decades.
"It is uncharted ground that these guys now have access to," said Tim
Mentz, tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux.
The looters, he said, know the value of what they are finding and are
picking up everything they can - the older, the more valuable.
What the looters might not know is that the FBI can be called into service
and arrest them and, if convicted, they could face jail time and up to a
$10,000 fine for each offense. Visibility on eBay has brought about some
prosecutions in the past.
LeBeau asked people who find human remains to contact local authorities so
they can notify the tribes.
"We don't want human remains out there for everyone to look at or take and
put ... on a shelf. They are our ancestors; we share stewardship to take
care of them and the river as respectful as we can," LeBeau said.
On Standing Rock, the northernmost reaches of Lake Oahe, the water level is
at the old high-flood mark prior to the addition of the earthen dams: the
lake is now reduced to just a river. What presents problems for protecting
cultural sites also presents water shortages for much of the population on