With the construction of the six Corp of Engineers dams on the upper Missouri River, there were what some referred to as “nonmonetary costs.” These were social in nature, long-term, and some quite unforeseen. With four of the six dams in the state, the burden for the citizens of South Dakota was astronomical.
Since early in our history as a nation, the treatment of Indian human remains is an ugly stain on our past. Throughout much of the past, curiosity and the profit motive, coupled with federal disregard for differing cultural perspectives, has led to mass destruction and looting of Indian burial sites throughout much of our former years.
American common law protects the sanctity of the dead by resisting disinterment except under the most compelling circumstances. These protections were generally not applied to Indian burial grounds.
In 1868, destruction of Indian burial sites became federal policy pursuant to a Surgeon General’s Order directing Army personnel to procure Native American remains for the Army Medical Museum. This appalling course of action was continued by Congress when it passed the Antiquities Act of 1906. It allowed thousands of Indian remains to be classified as “archeological resources” and exhumed as federal property.
Through much of the twentieth century, it was common for the federal government to treat Native American remains as archeological specimens, property, and exhibits.
Finally, on November 23, 1990, President George Bush signed into law important human rights legislation: the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This legislation culminated decades of struggle by Native American tribal governments and people to protect against grave desecration. It also provided for the repatriation of thousands of dead relatives or ancestors and the retrieval of stolen or improperly acquired religious and cultural property.
In many ways, this was historic legislation for Native Americans. It represented a fundamental change in basic social attitudes toward the Native American by the museum and scientific communities as well as the public at large
In all ages, mankind has protected the sanctity of the dead. Respect for the dead is a mark of humanity and is as old as religion itself. British Prime Minister William Gladstone in the late 1800s wrote: “Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”
Those living in the White Swan community in the 1940s were concerned about the loss of their culture and way of life; however, there were other issues and concerns which also troubled them. Most offensive to them was the need to move two cemeteries and a large number of isolated burials. They believed the dead should remain undisturbed.
Surveys of the lake behind the Fort Randall Dam had identified at least 520 cultural and historical sites. Of these, there are 9 Euro-American and Native American cemeteries and 37 known individual burials. In addition there were reported 88 dugout or depression sites and 112 isolated locations which in all probability were graves. Other than those buried in the cemeteries, the location and number of those buried elsewhere is unknown.
With the flooding of the river, the White Swan community was especially concerned that St. Francis Church and St. Phillips Church, along with their cemeteries would have to be relocated. This involved the relocation of at least 509 known grave sites.
In accordance with Army regulations, it was the responsibility of the District Engineer to contract with private firms for the identification, relocation, and reburial of these remains. However, the Corps did not do an adequate job of supervising the work. Because the Corps did not attempt to maintain good communications with the Tribe regarding its construction plans, it was not made aware of other isolated burials until it accidentally excavated two of them and the remains were dumped into the dam embankment.
The poor job of identifying and relocating the bodies has resulted in skeletal remains and caskets to periodically be unearthed by the cutting action of the Fort Randall reservoir. Over the years, the Corps has had a long relationship with the Native Americans. Some of these interactions have been positive; however, many have been acrimonious and one-sided, often to the detriment of the Indians on whose lands Corps projects reside.
Dave Vader, the Tribal Liaison Officer at the Corps office in Omaha tells of coming to his office one morning and finding a box on his desk.
“I found a box of the remains of seventeen individuals on my desk one day,” he wrote in a Corps publication, “. . . . the Corps had them scattered all over the country . . . . They were on shelves in boxes. The tribes were trying to get their relatives back for burial . . . . One of the distinctions between the Native Americans and the Euros . . . . is that most (Euros) are hard-pressed to name (their) grandmother’s maiden name. Not so in Indian Country. They not only know grandparents names; they know the cousins of their grandparents; they know the parents of their grandparents — these are relatives, they are real. And those remains were real people to them who were in boxes, being studied, with white dots on their heads and black numbers, cataloged. And it was just so emotional. That affected me.”
We can only imagine what his private thoughts were as he sat alone in the office early that morning.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on May 19, 2021