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Yankton and Santee Tribes closer to land-loss compensation

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? After more than 40 years of awaiting compensation for land taken by federal hydroelectric dam projects, the last two Missouri River tribes in the case are nearer to hopes of compensation.

Legislation providing that funds be awarded to the Yankton Sioux and Santee Sioux Tribes has passed through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. A companion bill was introduced in the House, but details need work, said Robert Cournoyer, vice chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

These two tribes are among the poorest in the nation with high unemployment rates and few jobs. They are located in low population areas so casinos provide little more than employment for a few tribal members. Cournoyer said the Yankton tribe has between 70 and 80 percent unemployment and this award will help to create economic development.

"It was exciting when the legislation came out of committee ? to have legislation work for us," Cournoyer said.

Both tribes have had their troubles with litigation pushed by the states of South Dakota and Nebraska that help to drain funds from the tribal coffers.

The equitable compensation will place funds in the Federal Treasury so that the two tribes can draw down interest or use the interest as leverage for loans to improve the infrastructure and economic development on each reservation.

"As a result of the construction of these dams, more than 3,259 acres of land owned by the Yankton Sioux Tribe were flooded or subsequently lost to erosion. Also, approximately 600 acres of land located near the Santee village and 400 acres on the Niobrara Island of the Santee Reservation were flooded," said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Co-authors of the Senate bill are Senators Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Chuck Hagel, R- Neb.

The total amount of the compensation will be $23,023,743 for the Yankton Sioux Tribe and $4,789,010 for the Santee Sioux Tribe.

This bill failed to get out of committee two years ago, but with the persistence of Daschle and Johnson it finally prevailed, Cournoyer said.

"It's good to have someone like Daschle on your side," he said.

"This will help back businesses and create jobs for our people. Not everyone wants to leave the reservation. We can help create small businesses," Cournoyer said.

The tribal Business Council will develop a new plan for the distribution of the funds. A plan was worked on two years ago, but will undergo revisions, Cournoyer said. Education and economic development will head the funding list, and health care and social programs are included.

In 1944 a flood control act led to the construction of Fort Randall Dam and Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River. A plan for flood control and hydroelectric power ? the Pick-Sloan Plan ? provided for the two dams. As a result shore land from North Dakota down the river to Yankton, S.D., was flooded.

"I am pleased that this bill finally made it out of committee. I think this bill is a good start to resolving some of the issues surrounding compensation for the Yankton Sioux Tribe and the Santee Sioux Tribe," Sen. Johnson said.

The Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule and Crow Creek Sioux Tribes previously were awarded compensation for prime land they lost.

During the past few years, tribal officials argued before Senate hearings that the land was top quality for production of crops and wildlife. Villages and towns were covered with water and had to be moved and some landowners were expected to find housing and a new location on their own, legislative documents state.

The town of White Swan, one of the four major settlement areas on the Yankton reservation, was moved and its previous location is now under water. On the Three Tribes Affiliated Reservation, New Town, N.D. replaced a village that was flooded. Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation was moved to higher ground and only a remnant of Old Fort Thompson remains.

"We cannot, of course, reclaim the productive lands lost to those projects which are now covered with water and return them to the tribes," Daschle said.

"We can, however, help replace the forsaken economic potential of those lands by providing resources to improve the infrastructure on the reservations. This approach, in turn, will enhance opportunities for economic development that will benefit all members of the tribe."

The interest from the trust fund deposit will be available to the tribes on the first day of the 11th year following enactment of the legislation. The interest money will be distributed by the Secretary of the Interior according to the Tribes' wishes.

Before any money is received, the tribes must develop a plan for the distribution of the interest to promote economic and infrastructure development, education, health, recreational and social welfare plans of the tribes and members.

The funds cannot be used for per capita distribution to tribal members. Should the funds be used for health and social services, it will not affect the allocation of each tribe from the federal government for the same services.

The Santee Sioux Tribe has been fighting with the state of Nebraska and the federal government over a casino that was opened more than six years ago. Federal authorities confiscated tribal funds and froze bank accounts held by the tribe as payment for fines imposed by the federal courts for operating what the government ruled was an illegal Class III or Las Vegas type casino.

The small casino was opened in a former caf? and employed 23 people on the reservation, most of whom were on welfare or assistance, tribal officials said.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe has a casino that has been affected by competition and has suffered from reduced revenues the past few years. It employed more than 500 people two years ago and has reduced the labor force to 300.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe most recently battled with the state of South Dakota over reservation boundaries. The state claimed that the boundary of the reservation was disestablished according to Presidential orders and Congressional action in the late 19th century. Litigation that carried the case to the Supreme Court has been ongoing for nearly eight years.

The Supreme Court ruled in one case in favor of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, but refused to hear another case involving the boundary issue.

The Santee Sioux Tribe changed its casino to a Class II operation and moved to a larger location. The revenue from the new casino is estimated to be 30 percent of the original casino, casino management said, and the federal government continues to demand payment of fines of more than $3 million accumulated over the past few years. Tribal officials refuse to pay the fines and have asked for a reprieve to no avail.