Human remains uncovered and grave protection act violated
LAKE ANDES, S.D. ? Angry Yankton Sioux tribal members, gathered at this projected state campground along the Missouri River on June 4, vowing a vigil to prevent further desecration of an ancestral burial ground.
A digging crew at the North Point State Recreation Area in mid-May uncovered the remains of a woman and two children as well as funerary objects, but state officials moved the items and waited a week before notifying the Yankton Sioux.
Heaping insult on the indignation, the incident came just months after the failure of a legal challenge to the federal law that placed the site in the hands of the South Dakota state government. Attorneys for the Crow Creek Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribes sought an injunction in federal court on the grounds that the transfer would weaken federal protection of cultural sites. After temporarily blocking the transfer, a U.S. District Judge in Washington, D.C. allowed it to go forward on the grounds that the federal law on Native gravesites would remain in full effect.
Yet tribal officials now say their worst fears have been borne out.
"The Yankton Sioux Tribe is in objection to what is happening at North Point because we feel that the Corps of Engineers and the state of South Dakota have violated several federal laws and it must stop," said Robert Cournoyer, vice chairman of the tribe.
When workers unearthed human remains at the site, said tribal members, they violated the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) by failing to stop excavation and by removing human remains without any tribal input.
The partial remains of the three bodies were sent to the state Archaeological Lab in Rapid City hundreds of miles away for security reasons, said officials of the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Accounts differ on the date the remains were found; the state claims May 14, the corps says May 17. After determining the remains were Indian, they notified the regional tribes in a May 24 letter. The state removed bone fragments, pieces of leather, hundreds of glass beads, a tin cup, iron nail and wood.
The incident took place as the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee held on June 4 an oversight hearing concerning federal protection of sacred lands. At the same time, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Native burial sites in the upper Missouri River basin on its 2002 list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.
U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D., facing a tight race for re-election that could determine party control of the Senate, immediately issued a press release saying he had intervened with the corps to protect North Point. The corps followed with its own announcement that work had stopped at the site. It warned that violators of NAGPRA "are subject to significant penalties for disturbing burial sites and human remains, and collecting artifacts without authorization."
Robert Mercer, press secretary for Republican Gov. William Janklow, said in a statement that the corps originally thought the remains were not native and that the site fit no known cultural pattern. "Further determination by the state and the corps changed that opinion on May 23," he said.
"The corps archaeologist saw the site and gave directions for a 50-yard radius around the site. A week later we recovered everything that was exposed," said Jon Corey, State Park Supervisor. Corey added that had he known the site was a burial ground, he would not have allowed any work in the area.
But Yankton Sioux who have gathered in the sun and the dust at the site since June 3 say they have always known burial sites abounded in the area. Ellsworth Chytka, Yankton tribal member, said he told the corps earlier that the many ridges in the area were typical sites where the Yankton and Dakota tribes would bury their dead. He said many burial sites would be found in there.
Chytka said he went to the site June 3 and found a portion of a vertebra, a leg bone and other fragments in a pile of dirt. When his group arrived at the site the next morning a front-end loader had already exposed two skulls. Also exposed were funerary objects such as glass beads, pottery shards, pipestone and an eagle claw. He spoke with the workers who then voluntarily ceased the operations.
Dick Adamson, owner of Adamson Construction, said he wished his crew had been told of the site before. He said he would have stopped work because they support the tribe's side of the issue.
Chytka said all of the piles of dirt from the original site can now be considered NAGPRA sites. "It all needs to be searched and returned. They are using human remains as backfill and campers will sleep on them," Chytka said.
Corps of Engineers archaeologist Richard Harnois, after surveying the site told tribal officials it was definitely a burial site, much larger than first thought and that the entire area probably contained more burial remains, said Faith Spotted Eagle, director of the tribe's Braveheart Society.
She added that the tribal General Council would determine what will be done with the site. The general attitude is to recover the site and cordon it off so no more damage occurs.
Galen Drapeau Jr, Yankton Sioux medicine man, said he cried at the site. He suggested the state give the area to the tribe so it can be properly preserved and used as a prayer site.
The corps claims that it is responsible for any cultural and sacred sites in the area, but the state of South Dakota owns the property. It is on the edge of the Yankton Reservation and was corps land until transferred to the state by the controversial Mitigation Act.
Land above Fort Randall Dam, a hydropower dams on the Missouri River, was flooded nearly 50 years ago when the dam was completed and lakes were formed. Excess shoreline and land adjacent to the river managed by the Corps of Engineers was to be transferred back to the tribes and the state of South Dakota. The state planned to reclaim some areas for recreation purposes and build resorts along the river. The Lower Brule and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes also received land in the transfer.
In spite of state claims to the contrary, construction at the North Point site was still underway on June 4 when tribal members gathered. They were determined to disrupt state plans to remove all human remains and artifacts from the site.
An Indian-owned construction firm, Crazy Hawk Masonry, stopped work on nearby shower buildings out of respect.
"When the Native Americans asked us to get off the site we had no problem. If we had known about this site we wouldn't have done this," said Lloyd Hyde, site supervisor for the company.
Richard Sully, Yankton Tribal member and an elected member of the Business and Commerce Committee said he was interested in seeing that NAGPRA was followed.
"I recommend a thorough investigation to determine the possibility of more burials in area. If there is one there may be more," Sully said.
"It is federal and state responsibility combined. The corps is responsible for cultural resources and human remains," said Tom Curran, operations manager for the Fort Randall Project.
A corps spokesman said that a cultural survey completed in September 2000, and that an archaeologist performed an historical data search and a walk-through of the area. The corps plans to further consult with tribal members about oral history that might reveal sacred and cultural sites in the area.
Maria Pearson, Yankton tribal member and an initiator of NAGPRA asked state and federal officials to be more courteous to the wishes of the tribe. "Those are my relatives," she told Harnois. "Please cover the remains, you'll sleep better."
The Yankton Sioux Tribe is already in litigation against the corps over remains found at a gravesite at White Swan, an area near to the North Point site that was also flooded with the completion of Fort Randall Dam. When the water level lowered last spring, caskets and remains were exposed. The corps was to have moved the cemetery in the 1950s to prevent such an occurrence.
"The dams have caused the destruction of thousands of sacred sites, but our sites are not an agency priority," said Pemina Yellowbird, of the Three Affiliated Tribes.