American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Dams, Fishing Rights, and Hydroelectric Power

Hydroelectric development projects involve a wide range of interconnected environmental manipulations. While constructed mainly out of public concern for flood control, dams may entail many associated changes, including waterway modification and navigation improvement, riverbank stabilization, and soil conservation. Given paramount federal authorization through major congressional and executive-level policies, these projects often involve comprehensive development plans, vast endeavors that include hydroelectric power generation, the development of recreational mixed-use areas, and irrigation projects. As they involve Native people, these projects have ultimately proven a crucible of transitioning political trends concerning land, resource, and development issues; Indian civil rights generally; and tribal self-determination and the evolution of their communities' relationship with the federal government through its subagencies. The following case studies demonstrate how Native people are consistently burdened with water, land, and resource conflicts and how, although they are called on to make significant sacrifice toward their resolution, they are frequently denied an equitable share of the benefits that such endeavors promise.

One public works project is notorious for its subversion of Indian land rights and callous treatment of the involved Indian communities: the Missouri River Basin Development Program, commonly known as the Pick-Sloan Plan after, respectively, General Lewis A. Pick of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and William G. Sloan of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation. These rival designers were forced to merge radically different engineering plans to ensure the project's political success. The plan relied on the perceived relative ease of "resettlement" of the populations along the upper Missouri valley, rather than the lower basin, apparently because the upper valley had far more Indian communities and lands, and the lower valley had sizable non-Indian towns. The project, initially authorized in 1944, called for 107 dams, with the largest-scale dams located close to the Sioux reservations in the upper Missouri, the Dakotas, and northern Nebraska. The project would flood over 200,000 acres of Sioux territory and require the removal of over 550 Indian families (Lawson, 1994, 29). Agitated by historical animosities between the Sioux and the U.S. Army, here in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers, who held dominating control throughout the project, the stage was set for arguably the most severe confrontation between Plains Indians and the United States since Wounded Knee.

In successive stages involving the communities of the Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, the Sioux of Crow Creek and Lower Brulé, the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux, and the Yankton Sioux, the Corps moved forward with its standard procedure of condemning the needed land through federal district courts. Under the assumption of eminent domain and with authority over compensation values, there was no consultation with tribal authorities prior to commencement of the construction on the first of the projects segments. These actions stood in clear violation of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty (and the 1858 Yankton Treaty in the case of the Yankton Sioux) and, because the Corps is a division of the federal government, in clear conflict with the federal obligation as trustee of American Indian lands. Congress had earlier debated the merits of breaking Indian treaties for public works projects: In 1936 it first considered breaking the Canandaigua Treaty with the Seneca nation to build Kinzua Dam upstream from Pittsburgh. Though it decided then that the merits of the project did not warrant this action, with the Pick-Sloan era behind it, it would change its mind in the late 1950s and force the resettlement of Allegheny Senecas from towns inundated when the dam was eventually built. But by 1944, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as the administrator of trust obligations, was weakened by its burdensome bureaucracy and was clearly overshadowed in its task of representing the involved Indian communities amid the larger federal agencies.

The Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold were the most devastated community, by virtue of being the first to be annexed by the project. The plan's call for over 150,000 acres of their land to be deluged under the reservoir that Fort Garrison Dam would create would flood one-fourth of their land base—the most valued river bottomlands (Lawson, 1994, 59). Concentrated near the river lands, 80 percent of these traditionally agricultural people were forced to resettle, losing over 90 percent of their best farmlands. The Sioux of Crow Creek lost over 9,000 acres of valuable river bottomland, one-third of which was rich forestland; a third of their community was slated for resettlement (Lawson, 1994, 47). At Lower Brule, fully half of the primary community was displaced. One-third of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux were also forced to relocate when the massive reservoir of the Oahe Dam flooded over 160,000 acres of their lands, including 90 percent of timberlands prized as traditional hunting areas (Lawson, 1994, 50). The social and cultural costs were even more exacting: In addition to the loss of remaining traditional foods and medicines supportive of cultural identity, the Sioux suffered the ignobility of having their ancestors' graves exhumed to be moved along with other community sites, including agency service sites and hospitals, to remote locations dislocated from the reservation population. Critically, federal agencies failed to acknowledge a legal precedent for Indian preferential rights to water access, established by court precedent in 1907 (Winters v. United States, 1907), a principle thereafter known as the Winters doctrine. Only retroactively did Congress consider the violations of Indian land rights. Not until 1950, when all the communities were already heavily impacted by their respective dislocations, were administrative means proposed in Congress to negotiate final settlements with tribal representation. The affected tribes were extraordinarily diplomatic in offering alternatives to the plan that might ameliorate the effects on their communities; still, they struggled well into the second decade of the project to achieve a level of compensation that could remotely be labeled as adequate, and some issues have never been resolved.

Earlier dam projects initiated under New Deal policies of the mid-1930s also resulted in the cultural trauma of dislocation, primarily as they affected traditional fisheries of Native people. The impact of these projects was in many cases difficult to determine in the immediate aftermath of reservoir creation, and their long-term damage has proven the subject of another protracted era of dispute and negotiation among Indian tribes, the United States, and its agents. The Indians of the Columbia River basin had long been known as Salmon People, and their reliance on access to river fishing sites was both a cultural necessity and a right that they did not relinquish to the United States when these tribes signed treaties in the mid-1850s. The tribes of the Yakama, Warm Springs, and Umatilla Reservations lived under the assumption that their access to fishing sites (and thus the basis of their economy and spirituality) was a permanent right they would enjoy forever, as their treaties stated. When the Army Corps of Engineers began to build dams on the Columbia in the 1930s, such as the enormous Bonneville Dam, Grand Coulee, and later Dalles Dam, it created a new era of Indian rights struggles due to the numerous traditional fishing sites that were inundated by the new dams and uncertainties over the impact on the sensitive cycles of upstream migration through which the salmon population regenerates itself. Though the Columbia River dams proceeded without any consent from the tribes who frequented the river for fishing, it was irrefutable that Indians retained rights in their treaties to fish in the "usual and accustomed places." Due to the Indian Reorganization Act's principles of promoting economic self-determination, the Corps was obligated to make a pledge by 1939 (over two years after the dam waters rose) that it would undertake to replace the lost traditional sites with new ones it would develop in consultation with the tribes—"in-lieu sites" amounting to 400 acres of access. State and commercial fisheries, representatives, pursuing their supposed vested interests, delayed the replacement process measurably. In the end, the Corps provided only about 10 percent of the 400 acres it promised (Ulrich, 1999, 137).

All these issues came to a dramatic climax after the significant federal circuit court ruling in 1974 of Judge George Boldt, which reaffirmed treaty fishing rights and arbitrated a rule that Indians were entitled to 50 percent of the catch. The result was the pressure required to bring state and non-Indian fishery representatives to the table to negotiate such contentious issues as catch limits, season terms, and enforcement of fishing regulations by tribal authorities rather than agencies. These trends led to a template for the current model in the region, that of intertribal fisheries coalitions such as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which aided the resolution of differing tribal resource management practices and continued to bring pressure to bear on the completion of the original pledge of 400 acres of access, which after over sixty years is still in process.

More recent trends in hydroelectric development involving Native people and lands have brought increasing attention to bear on the environmental impact of such projects. In Quebec, the Cree, Inuit, and Innu (Naskapi) have struggled since the 1970s to reduce the impact of the largest hydroelectric endeavor to be proposed in North America. In no way conceivable as a single dam project, the James Bay Development Corporation and Hydro-Quebec began, in the early 1970s, a two-phase manipulation of the entire James Bay region to serve the presumed energy interests of Canada and the United States. Impact testing since the first phase of the project has already shown that some of their concerns for the ecosystem were critically correct: The reservoir creation and the reduction of flow around the bay have created toxic conditions resulting from mercury conversion and PCB concentration; Native people have been told not to eat fish from many of their former traditional subsistence areas. Since 1990, the second phase of the project has seen a more coalition-based opposition, between Native people and environmental groups, resulting in increasing reluctance of American utilities to accept the energy product produced under such conditions.

Christopher Lindsay Turner


Further Reading
Bilharz, Joy A. 1998. Allegeheny Senecas and the Kinzua Dam: Forced Relocation Through Two Generations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Grinde, Donald A., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1995. Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Native Lands and Peoples. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.; Lawson, Michael L. 1994. Dammed Indians: The Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux, 1944–1980. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Richardson, Boyce. 1991. Strangers Devour the Land. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.; Ulrich, Roberta. 1999. Empty Nets: Indians, Dams, and the Columbia River. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.
 

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