RAPID CITY, S.D. - A coalition of nations gathered resources, flags, people and political clout to support the Yankton Sioux Tribe in its battle to save burial sites from construction, while two tribal members faced contempt of court charges for preventing bulldozers from destroying any more human remains.
A gathering of nations, hosted by the Tribal Cultural Resources Committee of the Mni Sose Water Rights Coalition, was attended by officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who heard nothing but criticism shrouded in anger that has built up over years of inconsiderate mishandling of cultural and spiritual concerns by the tribes in the Great Plains.
The Corps of Engineers is responsible for enforcing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act at a recreation area that was just donated to the state of South Dakota, but tribal officials charge the agency with violations of NAGPRA over remains that were unearthed, removed and eventually returned.
And it's not just the Yankton Sioux tribe. Nations up and down the Missouri River into North Dakota have complaints about how the Corps of Engineers manages cultural aspects of the river and the tribes have asked for years for written guidelines on the proper protocol for cultural and funerary discoveries. Each day another tribe or two join the coalition and the American Indian Movement will set up camp at North Point as well.
After years of inaction the tribes formed a task force and wrote their own Programmatic Agreement, now in draft form. It was presented at the gathering in Rapid City on May 15 for further discussion.
Members of this coalition stand ready to stop any further construction at North Point on the Yankton Reservation and vow to maintain an encampment for as long as necessary in order to get the message across that burial sites are sacred and no disturbance is allowed.
A court hearing before U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol ended with a continuation date to discuss the treatment of burial sites on the recreation area. The two charged with contempt of an earlier court ruling also have to wait for the continuation.
"They have every right to protect their rights, and they need to be heard at the highest level," said Pemina Yellow Bird of the Three Affiliated Tribes. The Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes that make up the Three Affiliated Tribes have substantiated by oral history that some of their ancestors are buried in the area along the Missouri River where North Point lies.
"You have been told from the get-go there were burial sites there. These people have been patient, not because they love the Corps, it's because they love their relatives," Yellow Bird said.
Georgeie Reynolds, newly appointed tribal liaison for the Corps of Engineers in Washington attended the gathering of the coalition of nations that make up Mni Sose. She and other members of the Corps were pummeled with criticism for past actions and inactions by the Corps, especially by the Omaha District.
"I have no respect for the Corps," said Ellsworth Chytka, spokesperson for the Yankton Sioux Tribe cultural negotiating team.
"What do we do, we respect our dead. We pick up a skull gently and they use a bulldozer. I was crying and I asked them to leave and they showed contempt for me.
"My grandmother said this land was sacred and told me to watch over it. You can quit your job if you want, but we can't. Our job is to protect this land. It's all about money for you. It's a pristine area and you now destroy it.
"You built your dam and many of our grandpas and grandmas are buried in that dam," Chytka said.
Faith Spotted Eagle, member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe Cultural Negotiating Team said the anger rises each day.
Spotted Eagle was cited for contempt of court for blocking a bulldozer at the burial site on May 13.
Frank Sanchez was also cited for contempt. He said he would denounce his citizenship in the U.S. because the treaties with the federal government were not met and the rights kept in the treaties, hunting, fishing and cultural rights were not honored. "This is not rage, it's survival," Sanchez said with emotion.
The Corps was accused of intentional adversarial relations with the tribes in the Great Plains area, mostly from the individuals that work the district. Reynolds was given a litany of grievances from improper consultation procedures to impertinence from staff members.
Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, said it was the sovereign right of his people to protect their ancestors and that it will always be done. The fact that Reynolds was present was a plus for the tribes and Hall especially praised her for attending the meeting.
"The tribes need the authority to protect the cultural sites. When do we quit litigating and consult and negotiate?" Hall asked.
But all is not so optimistic with a new liaison. Harvey Whitewoman from the Oglala Sioux Tribe warned Reynolds to be watchful.
"If you get too close to the tribes you may end up in Siberia. So you can see our frustration," Whitewoman said.
The encouragement for Reynolds to make an effort to understand the situation came from many tribes. She was held near captive as the tribes counseled her on future dealings with cultural issues.
It's all about listening
One of the messages to the Corps was a familiar and very frequent complaint that comes from Indian country to any federal agency - consultation.
Numerous references to unacceptable consultation practices or no consultation at all indicated that people would not be sitting around tables in an attempt to stop construction at a burial site; mismanagement of the Missouri River by the Corps, or years of delay of a master manual on management of the river. And also negotiations over the Programmatic Agreement (PA) on cultural sites would not end up with closed door drafting of the PA by the tribes.
"Consultation with the Corps is a farce," Whitewoman said. "We can relate our history and oral traditions but they are never respected.
"Veterans were fighting for this country on foreign soil while the country they were fighting for was violating their rights. We are senior owners of the vast resource (Missouri River), but we are denied its use," he said.
Whitewoman made direct reference to the development of the hydro-power dams on the Missouri River, created for flood and power generation by the Pick-Sloan Act of 1947. The power generated puts millions of dollars into federal hands, while, Whitewoman said, "our people go hungry.
"We hold the trust in reverence. We will continue to fight and struggle, we are born with it," Whitewoman said.
Chytka told Reynolds that the Lakota are the first in line to have things taken away from them and the last in line for any benefits. He said it was difficult for people from the Yankton tribe to come to meetings where the Corps can pay the bills for its delegation and when the Yankton people don't show up they are said to not be interested.
He also chastised an Omaha District cultural liaison, Larry Janis, whom he said calls him and if even it's a short conversation the Corps calls it consultation.
Hall reminded Reynolds that the Corps has a legal obligation to the tribes and asked what happens if the Corps doesn't consult in good faith.
Reynolds said if there is an impasse the advisory council would take up the issue and the problem would be kicked up to a higher level. She said the council would work with all parties.
"My impression is that the tribes were not vocal enough, they were not on the radar screen. You now brought this to our attention and we are catching up," Reynolds said.
Power from the dams is trickling to the tribes after many years of negotiating. Power was promised in the beginning with the first dam on line in 1957.
The Omaha District argues that the Pine Ridge and Rosebud tribes can not benefit from the river because the reservations are not adjacent to the Missouri. Whitewoman reminded the Corps that all tribes lived along the river at one time. "They made the problems and they won't address them, but when the state speaks they jump. When we speak they don't listen.
"Clean out the Omaha District or they will backstab you. They tried to stop this meeting," Whitewoman said to Reynolds.
Reynolds said her job was to return to Washington and send the message from the tribal leaders "up the line. I act as a go-between and I try to make friends with people. I will take back what you said today.
"We are a big bureaucracy and there are a lot of people at headquarters that are not aware of the trust responsibility. I have to tell one person at a time," Reynolds said. She added that the Corps responds to outside pressure.
A new agreement
"If we had a Programmatic Agreement in place, North Point would not have happened," Yellow Bird said. She is on the task force that is writing a PA for the tribes to present to the Corps for approval.
The PA draft was distributed to the tribes, not to the public or the Corps of Engineers. The draft proposal is in a final revision and Yellow Bird said the Corps put a deadline of May 27 on it, to that she said it would be impossible.
She added that the Omaha District of the Corps opposed the PA draft because it contained provisions that allowed for co-management of the cultural resources and sacred sites along with co-management of the river.
"Tribes that take over education and health care contracts do much better than the feds. Tribes have a right to co-manage," Hall said.
"The Programmatic Agreement will tell how to manage cultural sites? In 30 years the Corps contributed $1.9 million to protect the cultural sites when the dams along the Missouri provide $170 million per year in income to the federal government. To me that's shameful," Yellow Bird said.
To see why the PA is so important to the tribes, Reynolds was invited to make a trip up the river to view the erosion that occurs when water is raised and lowered and to see how cultural and burial sites are exposed.
North Dakota and the Corps have a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that sets a protocol when sacred sites are uncovered or proposed construction is planned for a possible sacred area. Yellow Bird said that MOA has worked for the tribes and the Corps since 1993.
What was also proposed was an agreement between tribal and BIA law enforcement and federal authorities to arrest and prosecute looters of cultural sites. The law prohibits the selling of objects that were looted from sacred and cultural sites, but law enforcement is hamstrung because of lack of agreements that allow for arrests by BIA and tribal police of non-Indian violators in some areas.
Agreements have been worked out by the Lower Brule and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes.
"Tribes that do this have stopped some looting. The Game Fish and Parks gives people a slap on the wrist and a little fine. A public education program is also needed," Yellow Bird said.
One problem with the Corps, Yellow Bird said, was that without discussing the issue with the tribes the Corps decided that only eight tribes could sign the PA. She said that was not acceptable because all the tribes in the region were considered Missouri River Tribes and they would not have a legal standing in court if there were problems.
The PA will have tribal approval in a few weeks, after which time the Corps will be presented with the final draft.