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Senate committee reconsiders compensation for river flooding

WASHINGTON - Tribal leaders and U.S. senators agree that tribes of the upper Missouri River did not receive fair compensation for lands taken as a result of flooding from a flood control project. The waters of five reservoirs, created by five earthen dams on the Missouri River, covered the best portions of their homelands.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D.-N.D. and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has opened new hearings to discover what could more fairly compensate the seven tribes for the loss of land.

As part of the 1944 Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act, the five earthen dams were constructed, creating huge reservoirs that inundated thousands of acres of land formerly occupied by members of seven reservations.

For many people of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, Elbow Woods was the center of their homeland; it is now underwater. People were displaced, the food supply destroyed, a hospital and school were covered with water - and the people who moved to higher ground could only watch as the waters of Lake Sakakewea took over.

New Town, N.D., is now the home of the MHA Nation. White Swan, a village on the Yankton Reservation in the southern part of South Dakota, was a vibrant traditional community that supplied food for the Yankton people. It is now underwater. The people were separated.

Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation was buried in muddy water; the new Fort Thompson is now located on higher ground.

In all cases, tribal leaders, elders and U.S. senators agree it was more than the loss of land - a way of life was taken. The tribes were forced into a settlement that was less than half of what they should have received, according to Sen. Kent Conrad, D.-N.D. Conrad authored the original bill that awarded compensation to the tribes in 1992.

''I never thought at the time that the final numbers represented fair compensation. I believed it was the best we could get at the time,'' Conrad said.

Two estimates were used in 1992: one from the General Accounting Office, and another from a joint tribal committee called JTAC which, Conrad said, offered a more fair compensation estimate.

''There was a dramatic difference in the two methodologies and I always believe the more appropriate methodology was done by Secretary Hodel,'' Conrad said. Donald Hodel, who was secretary of the Interior at the time, served as chairman of the JTAC committee.

For example, the GAO estimated that the top end of the compensation package for the Three Affiliated Tribes, known now as the MHA Nation, should be $149 million. The Hodel committee estimated that figure at $411.8 million. The tribes received $140 million.

The MHA Nation lost more land than any of the tribes who reside along the Missouri River, with 150,000 acres inundated by Lake Sakakewea.

''These were our prime bottom lands, they provided us with fertile soil for agriculture; we were self-sufficient. We were forced to move to higher land which was used for grazing and now we were forced to live there. We were steamrolled into signing away our land,'' said Marcus Wells Jr., chairman of the MHA Nation.

In 1946, then Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman George Gillette went to Washington, D.C., to sign the agreement that allowed the government to flood the tribal lands. Wells said Gillette had tears in his eyes when he signed the agreement.

''Gillette said, 'With a few scratches of the pen, we will sell the best part of our reservation,''' Dorgan said.

The new compensation hearings will exclude the Lower Brule and Crow Creek tribes. The two tribes support a bill that is active that would compensate them for their losses. The two tribes say this settlement is final and that they don't want it to be slowed down by new hearings.

The issue has never been properly addressed, Dorgan said, so it was time to find out what would be fair compensation.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lost 56,000 acres and were given $12 million for the loss, Chairman Ron His Horse is Thunder said. Many people didn't want to give up their land, but received the money anyway, he said.

His Horse Is Thunder said the tribe estimates that a fair compensation would be in the area of $611 million. He said excess land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should also be given to the tribe, which includes some 19,000 acres.

The Santee Sioux Tribe has sediment filling private water wells because of a higher water table caused by Lake Sharpe behind Gavins Point Dam. It will cost $8,000 per well to drill deeper, said tribal Chairman Roger Trudell.

He also said the lake has created a waterfowl hunting paradise, which does not add to the tribe's economy. Hunters travel across reservation roads, which the tribe has to pay to repair.

All of the tribal chairmen present at a senate hearing said any compensation funds would be used to subsidize the lack of federal funding for programs, rebuild infrastructure, provide scholarships and improve health care.