LAKE ANDES, S.D. – Alphonse Leroy said he would protect the sacred burial sites of his ancestors with his life.
On a rainy afternoon along the Missouri River on the Yankton Reservation, Leroy said his people were pushed too much and a planned camping waste dump on an area where his ancestors were buried went too far and he was willing “to die” to protect that sacred site.
He sat wrapped in a black plastic trash bag while a fire warmed the air inside the tipi to ward off the chill of the wind and rain. Leroy was serious and emotional when he said very simply he wanted people to stop.
No construction was taking place because of the muddy conditions on April 30, but the area was pocked with little flags where surveyors mapped out the location of the waste deposit station.
“I want to take care of the earth, the plants and ants, the water and air and over there are our relatives,” he said as he gestured eastward toward an area known by Yankton elders to contain human remains.
Members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe had reached the end of their patience with the state of South Dakota Game Fish and Parks and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the expansion of a recreation area located along the Missouri River on what the tribal elders assert is a sacred burial site.
Recent meetings between the state, the Corps and tribal representatives brought about a temporary solution – return all remains to the original site and replace all dirt that was removed from that site. The dirt was removed to act as back fill for the construction areas.
“After five meetings we worked through issues that were acceptable to all,” said Larry Janis, cultural director for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Because the members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe were concerned that human remains were still in the dirt removed from the original site, the state Game Fish and Parks made the decision to return the dirt from both fill sites.
“This is not required by the court order nor is there any evidence of human remains in (the area), but in an effort to work with the Yankton Sioux Tribe and accommodate their concerns, we are taking this action,” stated Doug Hofer, director of the division of parks and recreation.
But the encampment of tribal families will stay in place to protect the sacred site of their ancestors, tribal officials said.
In March excavation overturned human remains and funerary objects, and a court order stopped the construction for a time, but U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Piersol ruled the state could move forward on part of the construction, but had to secure the area from where the remains were removed. Two locations where dirt was placed were to be used by campers. One was found to have some funerary objects and particles of human remains, the other not. But Yankton members said the site was not properly tested.
“Once the fill material is removed construction will begin and there will be a buffer zone of 100 feet surrounding the (original) site,” Janis said.
He said ceremonies will take place after the remains and artifacts were returned.
The area, North Point, on the north side of Fort Randall Dam, is referred to as East White Swan by the Yankton tribal members. White Swan was a
community that was flooded with the completion of Fort Randall Dam and is under Lake Francis Case. Two years ago low water levels on the Missouri River and on the lake uncovered grave sites at White Swan. Many of the graves were moved, and court action was required to stop filling the lake until the graves were moved.
At the time elders told the Corps of Engineers and the state that North Point also was used as a burial site and many locations up and down the river will reveal the remains of many American Indians of various tribes, they said.
Linsy Nelson, a tribal member at the stand-off site said the state can legally continue construction, but he agreed that a higher moral and
spiritual law prevailed. “This didn’t start with this dig right now. It started in 1947 when human remains were pushed into the face of this dam. There has been one thing bad after another, the whites have to understand.
“We did everything we were asked to do and they took the land away and gave it to the state. Our ancestors are in this land. I’m not one to break the law; I’m just making a statement. We are tired of being oppressed,” Nelson said.
He made the point that in the Act that began the creation of the hydro power dams along the Missouri River in 1947, it was made clear that when the Corps of Engineers no longer needed the land above the flood line it would be returned to the tribes along the river.
Legislation that would pay for the land taken from the tribes by the flooding came in the form of Just Compensation payments to the tribes. The Yankton Sioux Tribe is the last of the Missouri River Tribes to receive that payment, which is held in a trust account and the tribe can use the interest.
“They try to give us money for the taken land. The money is here today and gone tomorrow. The land will be here forever. We are selling rights to the river when we take the money. That is not the solution, the solution is to give us access to the river and the land,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he understood the need to have waste dump station for RVs and campers and for a fish cleaning facility, but he questioned why it had to be located at an area that contained human remains.
“This land and dirt came from a burial site,” he said.
And those camped at the site say they will be there as long as it takes. Most are ready to be arrested when they try to stop equipment from further construction.
Six families will take over duties of guarding the sacred area, with a different family each day. Tribes from throughout the region have been contacted and many are willing to send people to help. Historically, there could be members of many tribes buried in or near the site.
Evidence for more sacred sites
More sacred sites are likely to be located in the area because that part of the river was shallow and allowed people, wildlife and bison to cross. Pawnee, Kiowa, Arickara, Ponca, Lakota and other tribes have moved through and lived in this area.
Faith Spotted Eagle, tribal member, said that when people died their bodies were dried on scaffolds on high ground and then buried at that spot. Many of the bluffs along the river contain the remains of many people.
For many tribal members it is difficult to trust the state and Corps of Engineers Archaeologists. When the first remains were found, the state claimed bones and artifacts were removed because it was not clear if the remains were American Indian or non-Indian. Claims that pipestone fragments from a pipe were discovered were later to be found untrue.
Ellsworth Chytka, leader of the negotiating team for the tribe, said he and others saw a full pipe and full remains at the state’s archaeological laboratory. The remains were removed and that is against the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Chytka said.
Spotted Eagle said that by claiming not to know which culture the remains belonged to gave the state an out for removing them. The site that was uncovered contained leg bones and many artifacts that are said to be funerary objects. Dirt moved to the location of the waste dump site also contained some remains, and at another site no fragments were found. Tribal attorneys in court claimed the search for fragments was inadequate.
Based on that testimony Judge Piersol allowed the construction to continue, but ordered the dirt placed at one site to be returned to the original burial site.
“I have a grandmother and a grandfather buried underwater, just over that hill,” Nelson said.
Learn to respect
“On CNN, President Bush said the United States honors all their commitments and treaties – I can’t believe he would say something like that. But then our Senators and Congressmen … it all goes back onto the state offices, they hear all this and they act like that. They say, well that’s okay we don’t have to honor this or honor that.
“But then when we do something like make a stand, then they look at us … what are those Indians doing now, what are they up to again, what’s bothering them, just like we are doing something just to be doing something.
“They have no respect the have no understanding how hurt we feel when they dig up our ancestors remains. It just doesn’t register,” Sharon Drappeau, member of the Tribe Repatriation Committee, said.
In contrast the soldier’s cemetery across the river from North Point is well manicured with a white picket fence and white grave markers. Spotted Eagle said, however, that she was told by historic preservation official that the remains of the soldiers were exhumed and reburied in Washington.
“Of course they have no stock in oral history. So when we’ve told them time and again that certain places are burial sites, they don’t listen, otherwise they wouldn’t have done it here,” Spotted Eagle said.
“And yet they are aghast when somebody steals flowers off their cemetery graves or vandalizes their cemetery,” Drappeau said.
The Yankton Sioux Tribe has formed the organization Ihantowan Oceti Defenders of All Things Sacred and will maintain a vigil at the sacred site at North Point. They are also accepting donations. For more information, call (605) 487-7980.