A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The historic islands, landmarks, Indian villages and agencies, trading posts, Lewis and Clark camp sites, forts, steam boat landings, individual home sites, churches, cemeteries, individual graves, and towns close to the river above the Fort Randall Dam have all disappeared.  They are now only a distant memory in our mind, a faded picture, or the printed word in a newspaper or book.

With the inundation of these sites, priceless and irreplaceable features have been lost forever.  That is what makes the study of history, especially local history, so very important today.  Every island, trading post, fort, creek, and community has a story to tell.

With four of the Missouri River dams in South Dakota, it is natural that we in South Dakota lost the most.  The inundation of such a vast stretch of the river valley caused tremendous changes in the lifestyles of those who lived in or near the valley.

Farmers and ranchers had to relocate their families and reestablish agriculture enterprises in other areas.  White Swan was one of several communities in South Dakota which had to be relocated because of the rising water.

While it was the practice of the government to relocate communities flooded by the Pick-Sloan project to higher ground, the community of White Swan was not relocated or reestablished on higher ground.  The White Swan families were simply dispersed to some other location and the community was never replaced.

None of the Yankton Sioux received any compensation or assistance for their relocation costs at the time their property was taken from them.  They were simply dispersed to wherever they could find housing or land.

It was not until 1952 that Congress mandated that landowners affected by military eminent-domain taking be provided financial assistance. Congress authorized up to 25 percent of the appraised value of their property to cover moving costs. This law was beneficial to those affected by land taken for future Pick-Sloan projects.  It was of no help to the Yankton Sioux because it did not apply retroactively.  They got nothing!

Tribal members were not allowed to salvage improvements and timber on their land.  Confusion reigned supreme as the water began to rise above the dam.  Many families at White Swan believed that corps personnel would assist them in their moving, as it had done earlier at Fort Berthold in North Dakota.

Moving their homes and other improvements on their property proved to be unaffordable in terms of both cost and time for many of the tribal community.  Those who were forced to relocate received little or no assistance in finding a comparable home

The majority of the White Swan residents moved to Lake Andes or Marty.  Most of the new locations to which tribal members moved lacked the water and timber resources of their former home.  Everyone faced a higher cost of living because of the need to purchase water and fuel.

Those who were forced to relocate had to switch from a subsistence to a cash economy. The majority of families considered that they were much worse off after they had moved to their new location.

Their lifestyle was completely disrupted and changed.  Previously they appreciated the agricultural pursuits and the privacy of their allotment.  At their new location, most now felt crowded and without even a garden spot. Even in the 1940s and early 1950s, they lived for the most part as they had in the past. They had become accustomed to this way of life.

The authors of an article which appeared in the September 24, 1987 issue of the South Dakota State Historical Society magazine wrote:  “The federal construction agencies and the states gave virtually no consideration to the people whose farms and ranches, homes and communities were in the sacrifice area.”

“According to the original Bureau of Reclamation project report,” they continued, “some land and improvements in river bottoms will be flooded, but, with few exceptions, reservoirs will cover lands of little or no agricultural value.”  The area to be permanently flooded was, in the opinion of the agency’s planners, “. . . insignificant compared with the area to be benefited.”

“We lost more than our homes,” one long-time resident of White Swan in his sixties said in 1998.  “We lost our way of living, a part of our culture.  That is something we will never get back.”

In the final environmental impact statement entitled “Title VI Land Transfer to the State of South Dakota,” the Omaha District of the Corps of Engineers in November of 2001 wrote:  “Two generations have been born and raised within historical traumas related to construction and management of the dams along the Missouri.  The ongoing emotional strain and distress from previous losses of traditional lifestyles, living conditions, subsistence economies and intimacy with the land and resources along the river have taken a bitter toll upon Native American populations.”

Ellsworth Chytka, a spokesperson for the Yankton Sioux Tribe at a Congressional Hearing in Rapid City on September 14, 2002, said:  “I have no anger for what happened.  I have hurt.”



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on May 12, 2021

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