Meetings about the future of the Missouri River usually center around such topics as irrigation, fish and wildlife, flood control and hydropower.
On Friday, U.S. Corps of Engineer officials were asked to consider what a dwindling number of people see as a wrongdoing that marks the history of the development of the mainstem dam system that currently exists on the river in South Dakota.
The injustice, according to this group of Native Americans, includes taking of private property, scattering of families, and inadequate reparations in return from the federal government.
This group is dwindling because of time. Many of the people who were unfairly treated by the government, according to Ronald Neiss, chairman of the Land Use & Environment Commission of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, waited until the end of their lifetimes, without success, for adequate compensation.
"They are now in the Spirit World," he said.
"I lived in the White Swan community with my grandparents and my mother and my stepfather when the Pick-Sloan plan was formed," said Patricia Hopkins Buechler, a 74-year-old member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who now lives in Pickstown.
She gave input at a public meeting held by Corps of Engineer officials in the Native American Cultural Center on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
Buechler is Neiss' mother. "My grandparents had owned their own land there (at White Swan) for a long time – it wasn't Indian land; it was their own, personal land," she said.
Today, that property is covered by the 107-mile-long Lake Francis Case, the Missouri River reservoir created when Fort Randall Dam was completed in 1956.
Buechler remembers how her grandparents raised huge gardens, canned their produce, and lived off the land. "We children had to help with the canning, she told Corps representatives at Friday's meeting. "We knew how to work and enjoy it, and we worked all of our lives because our grandparents and our mother taught us great values.
"And then when this Pick-Sloan thing came along, they (government officials) told us that we had to move, that the property was probably going to be condemned. I think that's how they got the property, but I don't know for sure. I was a child," she said. "I didn't really understand what was going on."
The building of the dam and the creation of Lake Francis Case had long-lasting repercussions on Buechler's family.
"My uncle came and got my grandma and grandpa, and they lived with him for awhile," she told Corps officials. "My mom, my stepfather, and my brothers and I moved to Chamberlain, where my mom and stepfather got jobs, and my brothers and I continued our schooling at Ft. Thompson."
Buechler's grandparents and other family members missed living in the White Swan area so badly that they returned, to raise gardens and farm on a limited basis. "Eventually, they were told that the area absolutely was going to be flooded, and they had to leave," she said. When that happened, her grandparents had to move again to live with another relative in Rosebud.
"Families were just scattered," Buechler said. "We eventually all got back together before my grandpa and grandma died. My grandparents were not paid for their land until years after the fact. So, they just lived, which they didn't like, with one of their kids for a time before moving in with another child."
"It's really ironic to be forced from a place that was an ideal existence for you," Neiss said. "It was perfect as life could be for those times. I'm here to speak for my elder uncles, my mom's brothers … since I was a child, I've heard about the White Swan community from my relatives. How they were driven out. How they were forcibly relocated. They felt like they were lost. They were separated, and they did not want to leave."
Neiss personally asked the representatives of the Corps of Engineers to travel to the Yankton Sioux Reservation, and meet with the small, but grass-roots group of people who have ties to White Swan.
"Coming this far (to Vermillion), when it is as hot as it is today, is a hardship for them," he said.
Before the creation of Lake Francis Case, Indians and non-Indians peacefully lived and farmed along the Missouri, he said. "There was no racism; there were no ill-feelings."
"We all went to school together," Buechler said, "and there were Irish, there were Bohemians, there were Indians – and everybody got along. People would get together at night, kids would play together, and I didn't even know that I was an Indian, that I was different from those people. There was none of that."
There is a history, Neiss said, when studying what is paid to property owners for easements and rights-of-way, of white landowners receiving much higher payment amounts than Native Americans.
"These are some of the allegations that have been surfacing in the White Swan community," he said. "I would ask that you research this in a truthful way. We are very distrustful of people sometimes, when it comes to federal agencies. And we know there are good federal agencies. But if there was unfair compensation, then reparations need to be made. That needs to be corrected."
Corps of Engineer officials are in the midst of conducting the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS). It is a broad-based, Congressionally authorized effort to review the project purposes established by the Flood Control Act of 1944. The study will analyze several purposes in view of the current basin values and priorities to determine if changes to the existing purposes and existing federal water resource infrastructure may be warranted.
Due to the relationship tribes have with the Missouri River, and their status as independent sovereign nations, Friday's meeting in Vermillion was being held specifically to collect tribal input for the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study.
The public scoping and tribal-focused meetings include:
• Information exhibits and materials about the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study.
• One-on-one opportunities for individuals to ask questions, discuss the study and describe what they feel are important river issues with Corps representatives.
• Opportunities to make comments in various ways – through a computer terminal, comment form, stenographer station, or during a speaker's comment segment. The online submission of comments can be can be made any time through Sept. 20.
Buechler is hoping that the meetings will lead to one outcome in particular.
"I would hope that they would apologize to us for the injustices that have been done to us. We had to live like a scattered-out family for a lot of years," she said. "I think we should be compensated for having to leave our homes."
This particular problem shouldn't be confused, she added, with issues involving federal payments to tribes for Indian lands.
"My grandparents owned their own land. We owned our own land. It was a lot of years before we got paid for it, before my grandma could actually get a place that was actually her house with her money that she got from all of this, which wasn't very much," Buechler said. "My grandpa died before my grandma was finally paid. There was no tribal land where we lived. That was our land, owned by my grandpa and grandma."