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Winter's blast impairs tribal efforts to cover exposed remains

FORT RANDALL, S.D. - Weeks after the Yankton Sioux Tribe and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed on a short-term solution to cover the graves sites at a former White Swan cemetery along the Missouri River in south central South Dakota, the deadline for covering the graves expired.

The corps moved ahead with its plan to increase the water levels at Lake Francis Case where remains and former grave sites had surfaced when the water levels dropped earlier this year.

The corps and the tribe agreed in November that remains would be covered with a fabric, rocks and soil to temporarily protect them before the scheduled rise of the lake on Dec. 7.

However, tribal officials were unable to reach the site to do the necessary work because of snow storms which plagued the area.

The remains surfaced in a 300,000-square-foot area that had been the site of the St. Phillips Episcopal Church cemetery. When Fort Randall Dam was built nearly five decades ago, the corps relocated the White Swan area cemetery and agreed to remove the remains before flooding the area. The remains have been surfacing since the 1960s.

Tribal officials and a group of descendants met with the corps nearly a month ago to resolve a dispute about short-term and long-term solutions for the preservation of grave and ancestral burial sites along the shoreline. The corps agreed to allow the Yankton Sioux Tribe to cover exposed graves and fragments of bone scattered along the shoreline before raising the water levels on Dec.7.

The Yankton Sioux filed a lawsuit in federal court last year and a judge ordered the corps to keep water levels low until the exposed remains could be moved and reburied. When more remains surfaced this year, the tribe sought to cover them without having to move them.

The tribe hasn't started placing rock over the sites which was part of its agreement because of poor weather conditions, said Yankton Sioux Tribal Planner Sam Weddell.

Snow storms impaired the efforts, he said. A soft shoreline from melting snow made it virtually impossible for the tribe to use heavy equipment in the area.

Weddell said he doubted the tribe would return to court for an extension on an injunction preventing the corps from raising the levels this year.

The tribe and the corps still must work out a long-term solution to protect the burial sites. Tribal leaders who want the remains left in the same place suggested covering the area with concrete or creating a wall to keep the area from being hit by waves. Corps officials estimate it could cost $3 million to $9 million for such a project.

The corps has hired a consulting engineer to evaluate possible engineering solutions for preserving the remains.

A similar lawsuit was filed last month by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over remains exposed near Wakpala and another federal judge issued a restraining order to stop the corps from lowering water levels.