Monday, May 16, 2005


Low water brings artifacts to surface


Indian Country Today
by David Melmer
May 13, 2005

LAKE OAHE, S.D. - Centuries ago, the inhabitants of central North and South Dakota buried their relatives on riverbanks, near their low-lying villages and the river that sustained life.

Now, however, intense drought conditions in the region are causing those ancestors' remains, possessions and tools to resurface.

Extreme drought has left the Missouri River and its reservoirs at dangerously low water levels. Each inch they lower means more of the ancient inhabitants' remains become exposed.

Ancient villages that for some 40 years have been hidden are rising from their watery graves. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, hydropower dams along the upper Missouri River flooded vast amounts of land to create reservoirs to prevent flooding and provide hydroelectric power. Ancient villages and prime bottom land were flooded, and some towns had to be moved to higher ground.

Today, arrowheads, pottery shards and personal items that were buried with the ancestors are surfacing and becoming prime targets for looters. Historic sites are found at all levels of the river banks. More artifacts show up each spring as runoff and spring rains erode the riverbanks.

''We have people out there who are collectors and don't know it is illegal to pick things off the beach on [U.S. Army Corps or Engineers] and tribal lands,'' said Albert LeBeau, archaeologist for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The Cheyenne River Reservation is located on the western shores of Lake Oahe on the Missouri River.

''Some people bring artifacts to us and there are full-blown looters out there for money. They are collecting and selling on eBay and at swap meets,'' LeBeau said.

Tribes affected by the drought include the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Three Affiliated Tribes at Fort Berthold in North Dakota.

The Cheyenne River Sioux and the Corps patrol the shorelines to educate and deter potential looters. ''When you pick up an artifact and take it, it is not right, it is not yours; leave it there. Take a picture if you want,'' LeBeau said.

With the drought at its worst stage in decades and predicted to worsen, protecting cultural property and funerary objects could become difficult. Federal laws prevail on Corps and tribal land, but for the most part artifacts seem to be fair game on state or private lands: South Dakota does not have any laws in effect that properly protect against the looting of sacred sites.

Discussions between the tribes and the Corps over the protection of cultural property along the river are still underway. An agreement between all parties involved that would set guidelines for enforcement and protection is close to approval.

The Cheyenne River Sioux will hire three people with boats to patrol the reservation's shoreline - a justified expense, LeBeau said. ''It's worth it to protect the resources. We are out there, so we are noticeable to thwart any looting activities and to educate. Part of what we do is an education component,'' he said.

The village sites are definitely ancient and probably belong to the Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa tribes now located in North Dakota on the Missouri River. The Lakota moved through the region later, and some of the human remains could be Lakota.

LeBeau said when any items are found, tribes that may have a claim are notified. Most of the time, if the remains are not human, the items are left alone. It is a traditional belief that any artifacts are to remain where they are found and that human remains should be reburied in a traditional manner.

Presently some reservoirs are two feet above their lowest-ever levels, and with dry weather forecasted for the summer the levels could reach more than two feet below what they are now. This offers looters hunting grounds that have not been seen for at least four decades.

''It is uncharted ground that these guys now have access to,'' said Tim Mentz, tribal historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux. The looters, he said, know the value of what they are finding and are picking up everything they can - the older, the more valuable.

What the looters might not know is that the FBI can be called into service and arrest them and, if convicted, they could face jail time and up to a $10,000 fine for each offense. Visibility on eBay has brought about some prosecutions in the past.

LeBeau asked people who find human remains to contact local authorities so they can notify the tribes.

''We don't want human remains out there for everyone to look at or take and put ... on a shelf. They are our ancestors; we share stewardship to take care of them and the river as respectful as we can,'' LeBeau said.

On Standing Rock, the northernmost reaches of Lake Oahe, the water level is at the old high-flood mark prior to the addition of the earthen dams: the lake is now reduced to just a river. What presents problems for protecting cultural sites also presents water shortages for much of the population on the reservation.


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