"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Photos

"You will excuse me if I say that the members of the tribal council will sign this contract with heavy hearts.  With a few scratches of the pen, we will sell the best part of the reservation.  Right now the future does not look too good for us."

- George Gillette, Chairman of the Tribal Business Council of the Three Affiliated Tribes upon the signing of legislation that handed 152,360 acres of reservation land over to the Army Corps of Engineers to be inundated by the reservoir of the Garrison Dam

George Gillette covers his face as the legislation is signed. AP Photo - May 20, 1948

With a simple stroke of a pen, life changed forever for the Three Affiliated Tribes.  The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people had all moved up the Missouri River, farming the rich soil of the river bottoms and hunting bison as they went.  The dual impact of disease and warfare decimated these three communities but also brought them together in the nineteenth century.  From these pieces, they built a prosperous life on the Fort Berthold Reservation in northwest North Dakota.  It was a model of Native self-sufficiency and cultural strength.

The Three Tribes bent but they did not break.

That began to change in 1944.  The Flood Control Act of that year called for a massive series of dams to conserve, control, and make useful the waters of the Missouri River Basin.  The Army Corps of Engineers drew up plans for Garrison Dam, a massive earth filled dam immediately downriver from the Reservation.  The Three Tribes voiced their opposition, petitioned for a different plan, but the tide of progress and bureaucratic machinery was simply too much.

On May 20, 1948, the Three Tribes accepted an agreement that no one liked.  Ninety percent of the population on the Reservation would have to relocate away from the river.  Entire towns would be lost.  All of the good farming land and timber resources would be underwater.  And their emotional and spiritual ties to the Missouri River would be severely tested.

Even Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug admitted "This contract does not cover what these people have lost and further action is needed."  Further action would indeed come but not until long after an entire community was physically, culturally, and spiritually uprooted.

But just downriver things were a little different...

"Lewis and Clark Pageant Cast" Hazen Star - February 24, 1955
The town of Stanton, North Dakota was booming.  The construction of Garrison Dam brought much needed jobs and money to this modest farming and ranching community.  New businesses opened on main street and residents enjoyed a quality of life they had never experienced.  The future looked very good for Stanton.

The town began its life like many other small North Dakota towns.  Mainly German immigrants arrived via the Northern Pacific Railway to claim their individual 160 acre homesteads on the vast prairie of Dakota Territory.  Some of these settled in a wooded area at the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers and named it Stanton in 1882.

But the town of Stanton is different.  These immigrants did not actually settle the land but in fact re-settled the land.  Immediately outside the city boundary stand the remains of half a dozen Mandan and Hidatsa village sites.  It marks the last place they lived before their move onto the Fort Berthold Reservation.

For the "re-settlers" of this area, it was famous for another reason.  Lewis and Clark, the pioneering explorers of a young American nation, spent the winter of 1804-1805 just downriver from the Indian villages.  They traded and talked diplomacy and sought assistance for their journey ahead.  They met Sakakawea (Sacajawea), a young Shoshone girl who in the next century and a half would become a figure so mired in myth, legend, and downright fantasy, that an honest appraisal of her life is a task fraught with controversy.

But in 1955, any controversy was set aside to celebrate and commemorate this local heroine and the Indians who helped these explorers.  The Lewis and Clark Pageant was a community production.  Men and women, young and old sewed costumes, painted backdrops, and rehearsed their roles as Indians and explorers.  It was an opportunity to experience a simpler time, as pageant director Edith Janssen wrote:

"One hundred and fifty years ago the Indians trod the soil where Stanton now stands.  They had no worries of taxes, income tax due next March; Bank accounts; Gasoline bills; H Bombs or the new school to be paid for.  They had no woes of civilization.  They reaped good harvests, as the soil was very rich.  Hunting and fishing was excellent and the river water pure.  They were content."

On their own, such comments can appear detached or naive.  In light of the tragedy the Three Affiliated Tribes just experienced with the Garrison Dam, they are ironic, even cruel.

But this is not simply a story of cultural appropriation or Native injustice.  History is always more complicated.  The relationship between the Three Affiliated Tribes and the community of Stanton is marked as much by friendship and generosity as by indifference or naivete.

Over the next several months, I will be exploring the relationship of these two distinct communities.  I will touch on race, gender, representation, historical memory, land issues, authenticity, colonialism, and cultural sovereignty.  I do not know exactly where this journey will take me, but I encourage you to join me and find out.


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