River of sorrows: Sioux protest misuse of ancestral lands

Published in Preservation magazine in 2004. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

our young Yankton Sioux men recently spent months in a tepee in a remote, snowy South Dakota valley overlooking the Missouri River. They gave up the comforts of modern life to protect a Yankton burial ground from looters. Another Sioux group, drawn from several reservations, spent a year camped on an island in the middle of the Missouri to protest a transfer of land from the federal government to the state of South Dakota—a move that has implications for many similar sites. With the stakes high, the Sioux are escalating symbolic and legal resistance to what they perceive to be increased government and public degradation and plunder of their ancestral grounds along the Missouri.

The vulnerability of historic burial grounds and other sacred places is an emotional issue. “If you tell this story and don’t include the pain, it’s just a story,” warns Yankton tribal member Sharon Drappeau. “To us, there’s no stronger connection than knowing where our families are buried. Our ancestors connect us to the land and the water.”

The 19th- and 20th-century Yankton gravesites are located in what was once the village of White Swan, one of several riverside hamlets on 200,000 acres seized from seven Sioux reservations during the 1950s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took the land to build six giant, highly profitable hydroelectric dams on the Missouri in four states. The corps promised to move graves to higher ground before inundating the villages. From the beginning, say tribal members, there were doubts that the graves had been moved, and after the altered flow of water quickly eroded the sandy riverbanks, bones and artifacts began to surface.

More recently, the bones of Sioux ancestors appeared in quantity, first at White Swan, then up and down the Missouri. In December 1999, Yankton tribal member Ellsworth Chytka spotted skulls, entire skeletons, and coffin parts on the riverbank. “I’ll never forget a baby’s skeleton and a brass coffin plate inscribed ‘Our Little Darling,’” says Chytka. “Do you think that little girl would have wanted to be on [some plunderer’s] mantel?”

In August 2000, people from the Standing Rock reservation found the remains of 109 bodies scattered over two miles of eroded shoreline. All of them came from graves the corps was supposed to have moved. Tribal members notified the corps. According to witnesses, responding corps  archaeologists war whooped and kicked a skull as elders prepared to rebury their forebears. These were “isolated incidents” that were “misinterpreted,” says Maggie Oldham, a public affairs officer for the corps. Standing Rock and Yankton sued the corps to better protect the burial grounds; both suits are still active.

The National Trust has criticized the corps for failing to inventory and maintain the historic sites as required by federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The corps, a powerful agency with a $4 billion annual budget, has repeatedly held that it doesn’t have the resources to comply with the law. “We do our best with what we have,” says Chip Smith, the Army deputy assistant secretary for civil works.

“Remains are a common sight along the river,” reports Peter Capossela, attorney for the Crow Creek Sioux. Local chambers of commerce and sporting outfitters run tours to collect artifacts, even setting up docks for easy access to choice spots.

Still, “even after all the destruction, the Missouri Trench [several hundred miles north to south across South Dakota] is the most pristine archaeological region in North America,” says archaeologist Todd Kapler of Cultural Heritage Consultants in Sioux City, Iowa. “The sparse population has kept it that way.” The Yankton Sioux hired Kapler to assess White Swan, where he documented recent human remains and coffin parts; projectile points, knife fragments, and scrapers dating back centuries; and an ax that might be 4,000 years old.

Several years ago, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and South Dakota Gov. William Janklow (R) offered the Sioux a difficult choice. Tucked into a giant federal spending bill was the Water Resources Development Act of 1999, also known as Title VI. Four reservations—Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, and Standing Rock—could repossess stretches of shoreline taken for dam building. In return, the four tribes would let more than 90,000 acres of the corps-held Sioux country—with thousands of village sites, burial grounds, and sacred places—pass to the state for use as recreation areas subject to some federal preservation laws. The land transfers were to begin Jan. 1.

Some tribal members question the good faith of state and federal officers who would enforce preservation laws on the transferred land. In March 2000, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report, “Native Americans in South Dakota,” which documented an array of enforcement issues, including confusing jurisdiction questions, police misconduct, racial profiling, and uninvestigated murders of Indians. In a radio address, Gov. Janklow called the report “garbage” while offering that he had not read it.

Lower Brule and Cheyenne River accepted the Title VI deal, but Crow Creek and Standing Rock rejected it and were joined in their objections by the Oglalas of Pine Ridge, the Sicangu of Rosebud, and the Ihanktonwan of the Yankton reservation. “All of the Sioux tribes consider the Missouri the lifeblood of the earth,” says Yankton member Chytka. “We camped together along it. It’s inaccurate to think of our communities as living separately and only on the reservations we have today. The government is trying to divide and conquer with this plan.”

Several tribes recently filed suits in federal district court that are holding up the Title VI land transfers. The suits allege the abrogation of Sioux treaties and argue that if land transferred from the corps to the states is passed along again to third parties, such as private developers, it would lose all federal preservation protection.

Meanwhile, millions of history buffs are massing on the horizon to celebrate the Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial. Cindy Tryon, Lewis and Clark tourism manager for South Dakota, anticipates many visitors to the Missouri, which the explorers used to traverse the region. “The kickoff is in 2003, but 2004 will be the first big year in South Dakota,” she says. “We’ll have reenactments, boat races, tepee stays, and much more. We’ll probably see the effects until 2010.”

Unfortunately, says Tryon, the Corps of Engineers is reporting low river levels year-round because of long-term drought. “That’ll open up certain areas, and people will go in and do some looting,” she speculates. “The tribes are trying to figure out how to watch over the areas. We’re trying to figure out how signage and brochures can address the problem.”

The scales of justice may tip in favor of the tribes and assist their efforts to safeguard their heritage. Or not. In any case, from the vantage of the bluffs overlooking White Swan, it’s clear that the tribes have no intention of letting it go. “We’re Sioux,” says Chytka. “We never give up.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph c. Joseph Zummo.

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