Dave Kolpack
Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. — The northern border of the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in northeastern North Dakota includes a large swath of Devils Lake, the state's largest natural body of water that began to expand greatly during a wet cycle that began in the 1990s.

State transportation officials on numerous occasions have raised roads in areas that were swallowed up by the lake and each time moved signs that marked major ports of entry to tribal land. In the years since, while serving as housing director, vice chairman and now chairman of the tribe, Doug Yankton has tried unsuccessfully to have the tribe's boundaries remapped and restored as dictated by treaty.

With help from the state Department of Transportation, the signs are back in their rightful place, along with a message from the chairman about tribal sovereignty.

“It was important for me to show our people, especially the younger generation, to research and learn and know about your history of your people, your culture, your agreements that have been put in place,” Yankton said. “And you cannot let it be diminished.”

Replacing the signs was no small gesture, especially from the perspective of Native people who have seen centuries-old treaties broken by the U.S. government. When the signs were moved in the mid-1990s following the first and second phases of construction to replace roads that had gone underwater, tribal members held a protest march to voice their concerns about the reservation borders.

Yankton and the tribe finally got their wish after Bill Panos, the state transportation director who was appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum, visited the reservation and took a four-hour tour with Yankton that stretched to all ends of the reservation.

“He really took an interest to hear me, to listen to me,” Yankton said. “This is my third or fourth director that I have reached out to. Those didn’t go anywhere because they either changed positions or retired.”

The chairman also showed Panos boundary stipulations of an 1867 treaty with the government, which reads: “Beginning at the most easterly point of Devil’s Lake; thence along the waters of said lake to the most westerly point of the same; thence on a direct line to the nearest point on the Cheyenne River; thence down said river to a point opposite the lower end of Aspen Island, and thence on a direct line to the place of beginning.”

In the midst of their investigation, Yankton and Panos discovered that with the exception of the northern border sign, the others were in the wrong place to begin with based on coordinates relayed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. State transportation officials have since mapped out the correct locations. Yankton said it is more about principle than property and doesn't know how much land was improperly marked either way.

Panos said the process actually began with a bill in the last legislative session that gave the Transportation Department resources to work with tribal nations. He said the signage replacement is one of several transportation and infrastructure projects planned not only for Spirit Lake but other reservations.

“It's not only been a great process and a great outcome, but a learning experience for me as an individual, as the director of the department and for our department to learn not only about our signage and how important it is on a tribal nation area," Yankton said. “It's also about the tribes themselves, about the history and what's important to them in a variety of areas.”

Although the signs are now in their proper locale, there remains one minor glitch. The new markers still refer to the community as the Spirit Lake Nation, when the official name in the national register is Spirit Lake Tribe. But Yankton isn't getting going to let that get in the way of a positive development.

“We can work on that,” he said.

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