From Dams to DAPL, the Army Corps’ Culture of Disdain for Indigenous Communities Must End

The prophesied “Seventh Generation” is here—demanding justice for tribes and protecting what they have left. 

A woman and young child stand on a broken down train. The old photo is repeated in four different color blocks.

Troy Pretends Eagle as a child with his mother at the Last Train to Nowhere in Solomon, Alaska


Courtesy of Troy Pretends Eagle

One of the privileges of being a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe is that I can travel the world knowing that whatever happens to me out there, I have a place to call home. On rolling green hills in northeastern South Dakota, the Lake Traverse Reservation is somewhere I can always go to find a roof and a hot meal with family. My mother, another world traveler, and I call it our home base for when life chews you up and spits you out. 

I also know the idea of home can’t be taken for granted. Tribal lands have been taken, redrawn, and resurfaced too many times over recent centuries. Indigenous youth learn the history of our people in bits and pieces; a generational trauma still freshly sliced. When is the right time to tell your child your trauma, much less the trauma of your people? It is by subjugation’s design that Indigenous history is fractured to the point where we start to wonder how we got here. 

Until I joined the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), I didn’t realize just how often the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) had taken tribal lands in the Upper Midwest and beyond in order to build dams that flooded entire communities, transforming landscapes as well as lives. These are the wounds I didn’t know we had—wounds inflicted by deliberate calculations that deemed Indigenous communities expendable. Like a broken record, the betrayals of the federal government—the broken treaties, the broken promises, the broken trust—play over and over again.

Last week, the Corps released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that left open the possibility of DAPL continuing to shuttle Bakken crude oil beneath the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “We’re furious that the Army Corps has addressed none of our major concerns during the review process,” wrote Janet Alkire, the tribe’s chairwoman, in a statement. Among the concerns are the dismal safety record of the pipeline operators, inadequate emergency response plans, conflicts of interests with the EIS preparation and the oil industry, and an overall lack of transparency that includes “inaccurate characterizations of tribal consultation.” Again, this behavior by the federal government is nothing new.

  • A map of North America with the historic territory of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, which stretches wide across the Midwest.

    The historic territory of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, a group of seven tribes who speak dialects of the Siouan language, including Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota.

  • A map of North America with the boundaries of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which included sections of North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska.

    The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 began as an effort to foster peace between tribes and white settlers, but it was repeatedly broken by the U.S. government.

  • A map of North America with the boundaries of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which shrank significantly from the 1851 treaty to just an area in South Dakota.

    By 1868, a second Fort Laramie treaty had significantly shrunk Očhéthi Šakówiŋ territory and established the Great Sioux Reservation, which included all lands in present-day South Dakota, west of the Missouri River.

  • A map of North America featuring the diminished boundaries of the Sioux reservations and a dark line stretching across the Midwest representing the Dakota Access Pipeline.

    After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Congress seized those lands and neighboring properties in 1877. A little more than a decade later, the federal government divided what remained of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ territory into six smaller reservations, including Standing Rock, and continued to carve into those territories throughout the 1900s.

History (on repeat)

At the turn of the last century, the federal government forced many tribes along the Missouri River to move to reservations with arbitrary borders—like the one decades before that had separated families between the United States and Canada. The low river valley did, however, provide both cover from harsh winds and fertile soil, which helped in the adoption of a new farming lifestyle among those tribes. Yet within a few decades, many were forced to give up their homes again. 

Approved by Congress in 1944, the Pick-Sloan plan within the Flood Control Act put the Corps, along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in charge of constructing five major dams and reservoirs along the Missouri River, from Montana to Nebraska. Congress devised the plan as a way to prevent the river from flooding major cities, to provide irrigation for farmland, and to generate hydropower, but the benefits were to be enjoyed by predominantly European-American communities—at the cost of Indigenous ones. In too many cases, the Corps took tribal lands without consent via eminent domain to carry out Pick-Sloan. The Standing Rock Indian Reservation lost 87.5 square miles—an area more than triple the size of Manhattan—of the most fertile and productive land in South Dakota. 

The Cheyenne River Reservation, which lies just south of Standing Rock, also saw huge losses. Some 60 years later, I am particularly struck by those who still post pictures to a social media group dedicated to the communities flooded by the Oahe Dam. The photos depict homes, schools, post offices, and gardens—now all entombed beneath hundreds of feet of water

In his 2009 book Dammed Indians Revisited, historian Michael L. Lawson writes:

“The Oahe Dam destroyed more Indian land than any other single public works project in the United States. The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux lost a total of 160,889 acres [251 square miles]…including their most valuable rangeland, most of their gardens and cultivated farm tracts, and nearly all of their timber, wild fruit, and wildlife resources. The inundation of more than 105,000 acres [164 square miles] of choice grazing land affected 75 percent of the ranchers on the Cheyenne River Reservation.”

On top of the physical submersion of land and resources, the dams further destroyed Indigenous communities through the displacement of families and scattering of tribal members. In North Dakota, for instance, the floodwaters of the Garrison Dam, completed in 1953, split the Fort Berthold Reservation into five sections and displaced about 80 percent of the members of the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan tribes. In all, Pick-Sloan resulted in the forcible takeover of 550 square miles of tribal lands, but the cumulative damage to Indigenous culture and society cannot be quantified. 

The dams set tribes back from the progress they’d made since the creation of the reservations, and echoed their previous forced migrations. Because the Corps has a long history of condemning Indigenous communities through “negotiations” presented as faits accomplis, it’s hard not to see these actions as a coordinated attack on our people.

DAPL presents a similar scenario. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other members of the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance (GPTWA) have spent years pushing for the Corps to complete an Environmental Impact Statement in order to ensure the pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer LP, is held accountable. Since 2016, the GPTWA has fought for the most basic protections—the same protections afforded to predominantly white Bismarck, North Dakota, when the city’s concerns over DAPL contaminating its water supply led to the pipeline’s rerouting to Standing Rock. 

A threat to water is a threat to life. The Standing Rock Sioux rely on Lake Oahe for drinking water and irrigation for their crops. The lake’s ecological health is crucial for subsistence hunting and fishing. Its shores host sweat lodge sites while the lake itself serves as a memorial to what the tribe lost to the Pick-Sloan plan, losses that ripple both below and above the water’s surface.

Hundreds of people march along a road and waterway, with many holding messages against DAPL.

Water protectors march along a road in protest against plans to build the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, on November 18, 2016.


Stephanie Keith/Reuters

The prophecy of the Seventh Generation

Over the history of the United States, the oppression and exploitation of Indigenous Peoples have been omnipresent. However, I am not without hope—especially when I consider the future envisioned by the Lakota holy man Black Elk.

As a young boy in the late 1800s, Black Elk prophesied that the seventh generation born since the first contact with Europeans would pull all the people of the world out of darkness. He shared his vision with leaders Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, after which Crazy Horse announced, “Upon suffering beyond suffering, the red nation shall rise again, and it shall be a blessing for a sick world…I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life, and the whole earth will become one circle again.”

The Indigenous youth of today are believed to be that prophesied generation. Now is the time for our healing journey to progress from treating our wounds to demanding justice. To become an activist means to understand how to care for my family and my community, and to protect the ecosystem for future generations. It’s something I learned from the elders—to keep safe what we have left. It is something I feel I just have to do. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline threatens the water and welfare of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Send a message to the U.S. Army Corps with the Lakota People's Law Project.

Tell the U.S. Army Corps to Shut Down the Dakota Access Pipeline

The Corps's draft environmental impact statement (EIS) leaves open the possibility of DAPL continuing to threaten the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Demand it issue a new and valid EIS.

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