Author: Dams Continue To Impact Tribes

Due to maintenance at the Gavins Point Dam power plant, the discharges at the dam were diverted Tuesday entirely through the spillway gates. For a video, visit

SPRINGFIELD — The Missouri River dams have forever changed lives for generations, particularly tribes whose land was flooded during the dams’ construction, an author and historian said Tuesday.

Michael Lawson, now a Virginia-based consultant, spoke during the 20th annual meeting of the Missouri Sedimentation Action Coalition (MSAC). He noted how tribes were forced from their homelands because of the dam flooding, at times with little warning.

“This was involuntary resettlement,” he said, adding many tribal members have never recovered from the federal actions.

Lawson has worked for the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institute and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He has written two “Dammed Indians” books on the Pick-Sloan Plan — which authorized the dams — and its impact on the Sioux tribes in the Dakotas and Nebraska.

Those tribes include the Yankton Sioux in Charles Mix County and the Santee Sioux in Knox County, Nebraska.

Lawson has researched the congressional establishment of trust funds totaling $385.8 million for five Sioux tribes. With accrued interest, the trust funds will eventually total billions of dollars for reservation resources and resources lost to the Pick-Sloan projects.

He referred to the Pick-Sloan Plan as a “shotgun wedding” that merged two different plans, resulting in a document formed in one day. Congress quickly passed Pick-Sloan to head off a proposed Missouri Valley Authority (MVA) in 1943-44. The MVA would have operated similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority serving the South.

The Pick-Sloan Plan was passed as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944 with only minimal public debate, Lawson said. The legislation didn’t address many important items, he said.

“It didn’t pay attention to sedimentation, bank erosion and the desecration of (Native American) cultural sites,” he noted.

Pick-Sloan provided an engineering plan but neglected social and environmental issues, resettlement expenses and population impacts, he added. “They overestimated the construction costs and underestimate the cost for moving people,” he said.

Pick-Sloan has resulted in some of the largest dams in the world, as well as four of the 10 largest reservoirs in the world, Lawson said. However, the initial concern was avoiding the flooding of Bismarck, Pierre, Yankton and Sioux City while overlooking the impact on Native American land and resources, he added

“The 1944 statute failed to specifically address the taking of reservation lands, and the 1944 statute failed to recognize the tribes’ priority water rights,” the historian said.

The White Swan community, northeast of the Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown, was inundated by water, he said. White Swan contained a number of important Yankton Sioux cultural and burial sites.


“The (tribal members) were merely dispersed to where they could find new residences, and their village was not ever restored,” he said. “There has been a long grassroots effort on the Yankton Sioux’s part to reconstitute the White Swan community.”

However, the return of White Swan hasn’t occurred yet, Lawson said.

“Its residents had to scramble to find housing because their homes were under water,” he said. “The majority of them moved to Lake Andes or Marty. Many moved to a Lake Andes hotel that went bankrupt.”

In some cases, more than a dozen people resided in one- or two-bedroom homes, he said.

The flooding arising from the dam construction also covered land used for food and fuel. In addition, the land provided for medical and ceremonial purposes, and bottom land was lost for livestock grazing.

“They abruptly went from a subsistence existence (providing for their needs) to a cash economy and forced to find new ways to make a living,” Lawson said.

Many Yankton Sioux tribal members didn’t know about construction plans until earth-moving equipment arrived on site, he said. They were given only hours to gather their possessions and leave their homes. In contrast, the Santee Sioux received more notice and lost less land to flooding, he said.

Native Americans couldn’t move anywhere similar to their former homes, resulting in a psychological loss as well, he said. The federal government didn’t have adequate administration structures in place, he added.

“The Sioux tribes were not well informed beforehand,” Lawson said. “Their treaty rights said their land wouldn’t get taken without their consent. The construction was initiated without tribal consultations. They began construction on the reservation programs before the opening of formal negotiations.”

In addition, the federal government often provided its own appraisals for destroyed property, and condemnation proceedings were held in federal court, he added. Some tribal members moved into better housing upon relocating, but many, if not most, were living in poverty with homes that had no electricity, running water or plumbing, he said.


Lawson credited the federal government with better communication today when dealing with stakeholders. “The (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers over time has become more sensitive to the issues. Now, it has taken a number of steps to get input from all the stakeholders,” he said.

Also, the cultural and political environment has changed greatly in recent years, Lawson said. Today, tribes band together and use legal means to battle what they consider unfair federal action. In addition, Native American and environmental groups have joined together to protest pipelines and other activities, he said.

In 2002, Congress provided additional compensation through bipartisan efforts of the South Dakota and Nebraska delegations, he said. Congress established a recovery trust fund of $23.2 million for the Yankton Sioux and $4.8 million for the Santee Sioux.

The tribes aren’t the only ones who have faced challenges because of the dams, Lawson said. “North Dakota and South Dakota made the biggest sacrifices and now face the biggest problems,” he said.

Flood control and navigation benefits the lower basin states. Most of the hydropower benefits accrue to Nebraska, Minnesota and Canada. Irrigation didn’t materialized as envisioned from the dams.

On the other hand, South Dakota has gained the most from recreation, whose benefit far outweighs expectations. Lewis and Clark Lake near Yankton has generated the greatest tourism benefits, and the dams have also provided water supplies.

Overall, Lawson doesn’t believe the Pick-Sloan plan would win approval today because of economic conditions, environmental concerns and widespread organized protests by tribes and environmental groups. The federal government has also enacted a number of laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, along with the protection of archaeological and cultural sites, he said.

“Pick-Sloan has created a managerial nightmare for the Corps of Engineers,” he said. “I don’t know how you can do it to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders.”


Lawson’s presentation has been recorded by MSAC and can be found on YouTube. To contact Lawson, email To learn more about MSAC, visit

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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