An island becomes a protest ground

  • Val Hoeppner/Argus Leader

PIERRE, S.D. - Thunderheads had been building over South Dakota's capital city, and by dusk, most locals, on the lookout for a tornado, took cover. But a dozen or so Sioux Indian activists, camped in tepees and nylon tents on La Framboise Island in the middle of the Missouri River, didn't go anywhere. They've been "sitting in" for five months.

These tribal members had staked their camp in March to protest a federal land deal that will give South Dakota some 91,000 acres of Missouri River shoreline. Protesters say treaties written more than 100 years ago gave this land to the Sioux tribes, not South Dakota. Until their voices are heard, the island protesters vow to stay put.

"Our struggle will be here, along the Missouri River, in front of the state capitol," says Robert Quiver, a student at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

People here still remember Wounded Knee, and so to help diffuse any tension on the island, tribal elders and the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center asked for help from the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Peacemaker members travel to areas of conflict around the world; in Israel, for example, they place themselves between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters.

Setting things right

The lands in question have been managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for decades. Before flooding bottomland beneath three reservoirs in the 1940s and 1950s, the Corps hastily condemned, then bought out, private and tribally owned land for its projects. Questions over the fairness of those federal land acquisitions still linger.

Now, 50 years later, though hundreds of miles of Missouri River shoreline are still owned by the Corps of Engineers, the land is no longer essential for the operation of the dams.

Last year, Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle tried to set things right. He sponsored a bill that forces the Army Corps to return 132,000 acres of shoreline lands to the state of South Dakota and two Sioux tribes. The state will get 91,000 acres, the tribes 41,000.

The bill passed as a legislative rider on the last-minute omnibus budget bill, and the tribes and state plan to take over the Corps of Engineers' boat ramps and campgrounds. They hope to lure more anglers to the Missouri River reservoirs in South Dakota - Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case.

But tribal activists who opposed the legislation say the bill failed to go far enough; now that ownership is in transition, protesters say, the federal government ought to give the 91,000 acres destined for state ownership to seven South Dakota Sioux tribes, not to South Dakota.

The tribal activists base their land claims on the Laramie Treaty of 1868, a document that, like many treaties, has been all but ignored.

The activists haven't found a sympathetic ear in either Sen. Daschle or South Dakota Gov. William Janklow, the architects of the legislation. Both point out that in addition to returning 33,300 acres to the Cheyenne River Sioux and 8,800 acres to the Lower Brule Sioux, the legislation also provides a $108 million trust fund to be shared among the tribes and the state to restore wildlife habitat. Neither Daschle nor Janklow has any plans to resolve the dispute.

Jesse Taken Alive, a Standing Rock Sioux Tribe council member, says his tribe didn't participate because it couldn't support a bill that gave former treaty lands to the state.

For the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, however, the chance to regain land taken from its reservation was reason enough to sign on to the deal.

"We've always felt that land should come back to us," says the tribe's Scott Jones.

Just this spring, the eroding waters of the Missouri River uncovered seven sacred burial sites. "The ancient burial sites are just being washed away," says Jones, who believes the tribe can now act to protect these sites.

The Corps of Engineers will complete an environmental impact study before the land transfer begins. A draft will be released no sooner than the fall of 2000.

Eric Whitney works for the High Plains News Service in Billings, Mont. Assistant Editor Dustin Solberg contributed to this report.

You can contact ...

* U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kevin Quinn, public affairs, 402/221-3917;

* Seven Fires Camp, Mailboxes Etc., Box 197, 519 Sioux Ave., Pierre, SD 57501;

* South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, 605/882-2822;

* Sen. Tom Daschle, 202/224-7575;

* Gov. William Janklow, 605/773-3212.

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