None of the tribes were consulted about the project during the planning stages. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which supervises Indian land held in trust by the Department of the Interior, raised no objections. This was especially galling for the Three Affiliated Tribes. They had been at peace with the U.S. government and nearby white colonists since the late 1820s, working their farms and growing squash, corn, and beans as they had for perhaps a millennium. Now they felt betrayed. Lisa Jones wrote about their reaction:
The Indians fought back. But as the news from the government the tribes had trusted for nearly 150 years went from bad to worse, the people of Fort Berthold were stunned, then angry. When now-General Pick appeared at an Elbowoods hearing in 1946, a rancher with a third-grade education and a full-feathered war bonnet named Thomas Spotted Wolf stood up and stuck his finger into the general’s face. “You have come to destroy us!” he shouted, according to his grandson, Jim Bear. “If you look around in our town, we build schools, churches.… We’re becoming civilized! We’re becoming acculturated! Isn’t that what you white people wanted us to do? So we’re doing that! And now you’ll flood our homeland?”
The next year, tribal councilman Mark Mahto told the House Appropriations Committee: “The quickest and most merciful way to exterminate the three tribes is by mass execution, like they did to the Jews in Germany,” recounted VanDevelder in his book, “Everything will be lost if Garrison is built. We will lose our homes, our communities, our economy, our resources.”
Sure enough, the Three Affiliated Tribes gave up 156,000 acres, the most fertile part of their lands, and their clinic. Three hundred families totaling 1,700 people—80 percent of the tribe’s population at the time—were forcibly relocated.
The Army Corps of Engineers handled negotiations. Tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, including the Yankton Treaty of 1858, were completely ignored. So too was the Winters Doctrine, a Supreme Court ruling that Indians have inherent rights to water resources on their lands. Philleo Nash, who had advised President Roosevelt and President Truman to integrate the armed forces and later served as BIA Commissioner under JFK and LBJ, would later say that the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program "caused more damage to Indian land than any other public works project in America."
The amount of money offered to owners of individual Indian land allotments was significantly less than the amount offered to non-Indian land owners. Likewise, as the dam projects began in a time when federal termination of tribes and reservations was in full swing, government compensation for damages caused by the taking of communally owned tribal land was well below its market value. Land at North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people was condemned and bought for $33 an acre.
Today, the earthen Garrison Dam holds back the water of Lake Sakakawea, the second-largest manmade lake by area in the nation. The turbines on the dam are capable of generating some 583 megawatts of electricity, though they average just half that.
As for the clinic, the government vowed when the agreement was signed that it would be replaced. Fifty years after the Garrison Dam was completed, however, that still hadn’t happened. In 2003, Congress got an earful from tribal leaders and finally agreed to build a new clinic. Then-Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), a co-sponsor of the bill to fund the $20 million facility, called the dam a "bitter chapter of history that forever changed" the tribe. The clinic was completed in 2012, more than 60 years after it had been promised.
Today most of the people of Three Affiliated Tribes are no longer farmers. With the addition of a casino 25 years ago, unemployment that was 80 percent fell to about 30 percent. And more recently, oil was discovered on the reservation, which is now dotted with drilling rigs.
Twenty-five years after the last dam was completed, the General Accounting Office undertook the first of four reports on providing better compensation to the tribes, which you can see here: 1991, 1998, 2006, and 2007.
Today, the seven tribes whose land was taken have an on-reservation population of about 32,000, with another 20,000 enrolled members living elsewhere.
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