Yankton Sioux Fight to Protect Ancestors’ Remains

By ADAM RITSCHER

Native Americans have been on the receiving end of an oppressive relationship with the United States since the day this country was founded.

Of late a series of confrontations has taken place between the government and Native Americans over Native rights and the racist policies of the U.S. government. Among them is one that is taking place on the shores of the Missouri River in South Dakota.

The struggle is over skeletal remains that were unearthed in December after the Army Corps of Engineers lowered the water level of a reservoir. The Corps of Engineers insists that it needs to let water back into the reservoir, covering the remains before they can be removed and reburied, in order to reduce the water level in reservoirs upstream to prevent possible flooding from melting snow this spring.

The Western Area Power Administration, the company that runs the hydroelectric dams on the Missouri River, has been especially vocal about the need to raise the water level before the remains can be removed, fearing property damage if upstream reservoirs are not able to absorb spring runoff.

Members of the Yankton Sioux nation have protested, however, demanding time to rebury their ancestors’ remains according to their customs. The site has been a burial site for the nation since at least as far back as 1838, and possibly hundreds of years before that.

To prevent the flooding of the remains, the Yankton Sioux filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, but Judge Lawrence Piersol ruled that the water level could be raised, providing the Army did so in a “culturally sensitive way.”

The real tragedy is that the Army claimed 40 years ago, before they built the dam and reservoir, that they had removed all of the Native American remains and reburied them in a nearby cemetery.

This was seen to be a lie when bones were found sticking out of the ground after the water level had been lowered. Now it has been revealed by court documents that only some of the estimated 438 graves were relocated before the Fort Randall Dam was built.

“Even though the Corps had a contract to remove all bodies and told people that they were moved, obviously they were not because human remains, including complete skulls, are there lying in the sand,” said tribal spokeswoman Tessa Lehto.

To the hundreds of Sioux whose ancestors are buried along the reservoir, this revelation of the Army’s treachery is emotionally devastating. Faith Spotted Eagle, who has ancestors buried along the lake, said, “The Corps of Engineers seems to believe that if people are poor enough and have no political leverage, it’s OK to destroy the remains of their relatives.”

This situation is similar to other disputes taking place across the country between Native Americans trying to protect sacred sites and federal and state governments fighting on behalf of capitalist property rights and big business.

A lengthy and dramatic battle has been taking place in Minnesota between the Dakota nation and its supporters, who are trying to protect a site they claim is sacred, and the state, which is trying to reroute Highway 55 over the disputed land.

In Blaine, Wash., the Lummi nation has filed for $30 million dollars in damages for the unearthing of over 40 skeletal remains during the construction of a waste-water treatment plant on a sacred site.

These disputes get to the heart of the issue of Native American sovereignty. It’s important for working people to be on guard against big business’s attempts to divide us in order to dispossess Native Americans of what little land and dignity has been left to them. We need to rally in defense of Native American democratic rights, and send a clear message to the ruling class that solidarity is more powerful than racism!