Stop the Lake Sakakawea Land Grab

Roger Birdbear

In 1947, construction on the Garrison Dam began. A part of the Missouri River Basin Project, the dam would result in the creation of Lake Sakakawea and the taking of communities, farms, and businesses through eminent domain. Approximately 80 percent of the tribal members lived in soon to be flooded areas, and were forced to relocate. This area represented 25 percent of the reservation, and provided the most fertile farming areas. 

The acquisition of the land was questionable at best; the US government offered $5,105,652 for land independently appraised at $21,981,000. After lengthy opposition, eventually the House and the Senate compromised at $7,500,000 to cover all relocation and reconstruction costs. However, former landowners were unable to maintain grazing and pasture rights, fishing and hunting rights, or mineral rights.

The relocation uprooted homes and businesses, families and farms. Worried about having promised lands taken once again, ten members of tribal leadership traveled to Washington DC to try and stop the development. The wheels were already in motion though, and construction on the dam was progressing even before the negotiations for compensation were finished.

The injustice from this action remains today; the Three Affiliated Tribes still struggle with unemployment and poor living conditions caused by the lost farms and businesses. Even as recent at 2010, government documents reveal that those relocated have still not been adequately repaid. Through continuous efforts, something promised in the Taking Act of 1949, the Elbowoods Memorial Health Center was finally opened in 2011.

I bring this up because another land grab attempt is underway, but not from where you would expect. The leadership of the Three Affiliated Tribes is pushing for 50,000 acres around Lake Sakakawea, determined by the elevation lines 1,854 feet. 

Instead of a review initiated by the federal government, Tex Hall and other Tribal Leadership have been encouraging the US Army Corps of Engineers to deem this land excess to its needs under the Flood Control Act of 1944, and give it to the tribe. These actions are clearly in the interests of the few, not for common good.

Giving these lands to the tribe would also give them the mineral rights. This money would go to line already mismanaged accounts and do little to help those living on the reservation.

To give these lands to the Three Affiliated Tribes would compound injustice. These were not lands lost by the tribe. These were individual homes and farms taken from individuals. Should these lands be deemed excess, claims to which are dubious at best, they should go to the original landowners or their heirs.

Roger Birdbear is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes. He also practices law, working with mineral rights leases, landowner representation, tort litigation, and criminal defense. His office is in New Town, North Dakota.

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