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New bridge for Fort Berthold

NEW TOWN, N.D. - The rickety, narrow bridge that crosses Lake Sakakawea here will be replaced by a new culturally sensitive span to be completed in time for the peak of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration.

The new bridge will be more than a means to cross the lake, it will be a symbol bridging cooperation between the tribal, state and local governments. The $43 million bridge will be financed by federal and state governments, said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

"This was a very important and historic day. To me the bridge is a symbol between culture and a gateway for tourism. Now it's a safe bridge to take 30 million tourists across the river for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.

"They spent six months here. An elder told me, remember this, if it wasn't for our people there would be no celebrating. Our tribes took them in for six months of the winter," Hall said.

The groundbreaking April 17 for the new Four Bears Bridge is one step in a long battle by the tribes to get the federal government to fulfill its promise made more than 50 year ago. In 1948, the federal government promised to provide infrastructure, hospital, fire and water for Fort Berthold. When Garrison dam caused the river to flood, the tribes lost 156,000 acres of rich bottom land.

Hall said a picture that hangs in tribal offices is a reminder to the council people and tribal members of the commitments made to the tribes. The picture is of the 1948 signing of the flood control act, a forced signing Hall said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said during the ceremony that the bridge would become a symbol of a promise kept. Dorgan stunned tribal members when he announced that funding of $35 million would be included in the transportation appropriations bill.

Acquiring funding for the new bridge was not easy, Hall said. "If I had listened to all the people that talked negative about the bridge, saying it wouldn't get funded ... but I'm glad I didn't listen to them. One person told me to keep the faith and Sen. (Kent) Conrad (D-N.D.) was key on keeping the faith."

Hall, master of ceremonies, raised the question of a new name for the bridge which had been named for one of the great leader of the tribes, Four Bears. He asked the state, federal government and tribal members to consider Sakakawea as a new name.

"What better contribution for our tribe to name this bridge Sakakawea. She's really an enigma, she was truly courageous. People know she's important, but don't know why. The bridge will help tell the truth, I know the outside world is fascinated by Indian people," Hall said.

The Hidatsa tribe, part of the Three Affiliated Tribes, considers Sakakawea to be Hidatsa. The Shoshone claim her as one of theirs, and the story goes she was captured by the Hidatsa where she lived for many years. Hall said the Hidatsa claim she was captured by the Shoshone and later returned to her family.

The new bridge will be designed with the culture of the Three Affiliated Tribes in mind. A preliminary concept should be completed by December 2001, with final design approval by December 2002. Construction of the project, which will become the longest bridge in the deepest waters in North Dakota, will begin in the spring of 2003 with completion scheduled for late fall the following year.

A committee of tribal members will be formed to consider design concepts in keeping with the cultural values of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

The old bridge, just 22 feet wide, has been used since the early 1950s. The middle section of the old bridge spanned the Missouri River at Elbowoods, a Fort Berthold community now underwater.

There is some discussion about leaving the old bridge in place, mostly for sentimental reasons.

Funding for the bridge that will ease traffic flow to and from the reservation was a hard and long-fought battle. Before the Pick Sloan Act that created the many power dams along the Missouri, the residents of Fort Berthold lived in a mostly self-sufficient manner, Hall said.

There was plenty of fuel, water for drinking, livestock grazed on the bottom lands with a rich soil that also provided food from gardens.

"People didn't have diabetes. The 156,000 acres was our economic engine. It was forced removal. We gave up the bottom land where medicines and cemeteries were.

"Finally the bridge is the symbol that the federal government is slowly showing their responsibility," he said.