No Man's Land: The Last Tribes of the Plains

As industry closes in, Native Americans fight for dignity and natural resources

No Man's Land: The Last Tribes of the Plains

As industry closes in, Native Americans fight for dignity and natural resources

This is the final part of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read part one »

This is the final part of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read part one »

FORT YATES, North Dakota — Phyllis Young was 10 when the great flood came in 1960. She watched from the hills that January day as the Missouri River swelled and then swallowed everything she’d ever known. She bit back tears as her family’s chokecherry trees faded beneath the floodwater, and the ancient medicinal plants used by the elders swept away like suds in the wash.

Sacred burial grounds were swamped as well. Gone were the historic Lakota and Mandan villages along the lush river bottom where generations had grown gardens, hunted and subsisted off the earth.

“The poverty that has been imposed, and the taking of our riches says it all for their American Dream. It's very different for us.” Phyllis Young, tribal councilwoman for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Fort Yates, ND.

One old man, Red Tomahawk, watched from a perch of his own that day, seeing his home drowned by both the rising river and the white man’s unbridled ambition to tame what had been free.

Through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the U.S. government seized hundreds of thousands of acres of prime native American tribal land as part of an aggressive plan to build several dams along the Missouri River Basin, including a long stretch of the river in North and South Dakota that ran through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. As part of that program, known as the Pick-Sloan Plan, hundreds of Indian families from various tribes were forcibly relocated and their way of life completely destroyed. The staggering poverty that resulted from the program lives on across the Dakotas today.

Red Tomahawk was one of the last holdouts on Standing Rock, refusing the demands of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation to leave his home ahead of the planned flooding. According to locals, Red Tomahawk was eventually forced out at gunpoint.

In something of a prophecy, the old man knew then what many would realize soon enough: The government’s massive land grab, the dams and flooding of the tribe's most valuable land would be a death knell to life as the tribe knew it.

“He stood on the hill and sang his death song,” Young said of Red Tomahawk on that day. “He prepared for death because he had nothing left. We had nothing.”

Lake Oahe, a large reservoir created by the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River, submerged many homes on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

By the early 1960s, five large dams erected along the river inundated nearly 360,000 acres of land. One of the dams, the Oahe, flooded more than 200,000 acres on the Standing Rock Reservation and the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Natural resources and wildlife along the river bottom were almost completely eradicated, including 90% of the tribes’ timber, which also served as cover for wildlife. The tribe used the wood to build shelters and hunted the animals that lived in the forests for food. The tribe was able to live largely outside of the dollars and cents economy because it was able to source much of what it needed right there in the wilderness.

Entire towns were destroyed. Sacred ground, including gravesites and other places of spiritual significance, were lost.

“It completely stole our burials, our resources, our woods and a lot of the traditional plants,” said Kelly Morgan, an archaeologist with the Standing Rock Sioux. “A complete lifeway degradation and families completely uprooted.”

“We allowed everyone in the world to come to our lands and prosper in our lands and we don’t have anything to show for it.”

The tribes today contend they were never fully compensated for the lost assets or the relocations of their families. They say the seizure of the land was illegal and violated long-standing treaties between the federal government and the sovereign tribal nations.

Pick-Sloan has been heralded as one of the great engineering marvels, having harnessed the power of the Missouri River to convert it to usable energy. The project created vast economic opportunities for many along the river, including greater irrigation for farmers, expanded barge navigation and hydroelectric power.

But those affected most — the Native American tribes that dot the basin — benefited least. Their losses, in both economic and cultural assets, were a blow to an already beleaguered community still grappling for an economic foothold.

Such widespread loss meant the tribes developed a further dependence on the government. While the U.S. is bound by treaty obligations to protect Native rights and provide certain financial benefits to the tribes, often because of neglect, mismanagement and historic ill will, that relationship has often left tribes deeply vulnerable when it comes to economic, food and housing stability. That vulnerability, exacerbated by the impact of Pick-Sloan, continues today.

“We call it in the belly of the beast when it comes to development because we have given so much in terms of our land and our resources,” Young said. “We allowed everyone in the world to come to our lands and prosper in our lands and we don’t have anything to show for it. We only ask that we be allowed to continue to live in dignity in our own homelands.”

Western Minnesota where the Great Plains, once referred to as the “Great American Desert” begin and stretch to the foot of the Rockies.

Pipelines, Profits and Poverty

For Young and other members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Pick-Sloan’s injuries — financial and emotional — still sting, as the tribe continues to fight for its water and mineral rights and against the encroachment of big industry and the long reach of the federal government. At the same time, Standing Rock suffers the same deep social and economic challenges facing most of America’s 562 federally recognized tribes.

Native populations and reservations are most often geographically and economically isolated and are among the poorest communities in the country.

Crumbling homes and boarded up, graffiti-scarred buildings dot this forlorn place, where the great needs of families are etched in the faces of many who live here. There’s a crippling Third World-ness to many parts of the reservation, with life expectancy and quality of life rates among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.

  • Walkerville, Silver Bow County, Mont. Population is 675 and 39.4% live below the poverty level.
  • Pasco, Franklin County, Wash. Population is 59,781 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.
  • Pasco, Franklin County, Wash. Population is 59,781 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.
  • Pasco, Franklin County, Wash. Population is 59,781 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.

The two counties that encompass the Standing Rock Reservation — Sioux County in North Dakota and Corson County in South Dakota — are both ranked in the top 10 poorest counties in America.

A scattering of small, dilapidated one-story public housing units are in sharp contrast to the wide-open beauty of the buttes and flatlands that surround them. Health and housing are among the most pressing needs of residents, whose housing status is often dubious because of the willingness of families to pack into small substandard housing to meet the needs of relatives.

Of the 353 counties in the United States deemed by the federal government to be persistently poor — meaning the poverty rate has been above 20% for three consecutive decades — 85% are in rural areas that included Native American reservations like Standing Rock and its Oglala Sioux counterparts on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The Standing Rock poverty rate is 43.2%, nearly triple the national average of 14.5%. There is little economic activity to speak of and childhood mortality, suicide and dropout rates are among the highest in the nation. Food insecurity is vast. Access to quality healthcare and education is lacking. Far too many go without electricity or running water. These conditions are made worse by political and economic red tape that stymie growth and development.

“Many of the [reservations] are located in remote places that do not have the best opportunities for economic development because of limited resources and limited infrastructure. That really in and of themselves provide barriers to economic development,” said Nancy Pindus, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, currently studying housing needs of Native American communities. “On top of that there are varying land and legal issues related to their land and investments to their land and ownership that are making it not attractive to outside investors, and even a lot of their own population has to go through an enormous amount of red tape to lease land.”

What tribes like the Standing Rock do have, though, is land and water — arguably some of the most beautiful to be seen in the American plains.

“We need the land to continue to live. But it’s not only us as native people. It’s all of the human life that lives in America and it’s incumbent upon the powers that be to help us and to protect us.”
A Lakota woman in the tribes buffalo pasture north of Fort Yates, Sioux County, North Dakota.

Tribes have been forced to fight a series of losing battles to control and capitalize on the natural resources found on their land. In North Dakota, where an oil boom has bolstered the state economy and driven the unemployment rate down to just 3.1%, the unemployment rate in Standing Rock is 79%.

The thriving oil industry on or near the state’s tribal lands has created a tense tug-of-war between big industry and the tribes, some of whom have opted to work with corporations in order to claim at least some of what those corporations are sucking out of the earth. At the same time, there’s concern over what many native environmental activists call a con game, where corporations use loopholes and the messy state of tribal and government relations to push further into native lands for oil exploration.

Recent pipeline projects, including the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline, would have cut through various tribal lands. That, tribal members and environmentalists contend, would have violated various pacts but also posed serious environmental threats to the land and water held dear by the tribes. The Standing Rock Sioux and many other tribes have fought the development of the pipeline projects, at times physically blocking them and other times fighting in court.

“Our biggest concern is our water. We want to make sure a lot of the things being done today for economic benefit don’t damage the future.”

Those on Standing Rock have already witnessed the profit and peril of the collusion between big industry and tribes.

Upriver a few hours on the Fort Berthold Reservation and the surrounding area, home to the Three Affiliated Tribes, sit the Baaken oil fields, where massive fracking and oil drilling operations are taking place. For the past seven years the area has been on the forefront of the state’s oil boom, producing more than one million barrels a day and drawing thousands of laborers and investors.

Oil production has increased more than 600% in recent years, making North Dakota the second-biggest oil producing state in the country. Yet, at the same time, a sort of boomtown syndrome has set in. Crime is skyrocketing. Prostitution is rampant and drug traffickers have carved out new routes for the thriving illicit market. There have also been several toxic spills that have threatened the environmental well-being of the area. The spills, which have killed thousands of fish and wildlife as well as plant life, have increased with the drilling activity, environmentalists and energy watchdog groups say.

Between 2006 and 2014, an estimated 5.9 million gallons of oil have been spilled in North Dakota along with 11.8 million gallons of brine, a wastewater byproduct of fracking. Unlike some of the upstream tribes, the Standing Rock Sioux so far has refused any drilling or pipe operations on their land. There are currently 55 pipeline applications that would propose crossing Lakota country, according to the tribe.

“Standing Rock has always opposed oil development and pipeline development,” said Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which functions as the tribe’s president. “Our biggest concern is our water. We want to make sure a lot of the things being done today for economic benefit don’t damage the future.”

Reservation poverty goes unaddressed
Economic gains fail to reach American Indians
Total logging industry employment

Oil and gas extraction employment

American Indian and Alaska Native poverty rate

National unemployment rate
Reservation poverty goes unaddressed
Economic gains fail to reach American Indians

A perfect example of their concern is this summer’s spill on the Colorado River, in which workers with the Environmental Protection Agency accidently uncorked a massive pool of toxic sludge from a defunct gold mine.

The spill sent 3 million gallons of so-called wastewater into the river, a toxic byproduct of mining operations from several generations ago. The Navajo Nation, which the river runs through, declared a state of emergency, vowed to hold the EPA financially responsible for cleanup costs on their reservation and demanded that the agency provide the tribe with fresh water until the river was safe to drink from.

“This was mining for economic benefit from a century ago and the damage it created with arsenic and lead and mercury at record high levels in drinking water. The environmental impact that has been created happened almost a century after mining of a natural resources,” Archambault said. “What we are doing with oil is the exact same thing today without the foresight of what could happen in 100 years to our grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Already facing extreme health issues including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, nutritional deficiencies and a lack of access to quality direct care, the tribe has been further affected by the loss of state resources being syphoned away toward the growing populations of the drilling towns.

“We already have limited resources when it comes to overall health care, especially when it comes to mental health and substance abuse,” said Sarah Jumping Eagle, a pediatrician who works on Standing Rock. “Now that gap is even wider because of what’s going on up in the Bakken. Their issues are eating up what resources were available for the whole region.”

She said she is growing concerned by the increased oil exploration going on further north and what she sees as the use of euphemisms to blunt the reality of what’s happening up there.

“They’ll call it brine or salt water and they hide that on the fourth page of their reports,” Jumping Eagle said of the byproducts being released from fracking operations. “Every other week there’s a spill. They don’t care what we have to say because they’re going to continue to make more money.”

She shook her head in worry at the long-term health costs.

“This far down stream we’re not going to know for another 10 years,” she said. “Our whole community is at risk from what’s happening upstream. We’re not disconnected.”

For Standing Rock, already hampered by deep poverty and need, the struggle to protect the environment is as much about reclaiming its past as it is its future.

“If we’re going to be a victim of genocide then we have the choice of that dying for the protection of our land and our resources,” said Young, a tribal councilwoman serving the last days of her term. “So our people are at the very end of fighting for what we have left. And we need clean drinking water. We need the land to continue to live. But it’s not only us as native people. It’s all of the human life that lives in America and it’s incumbent upon the powers that be to help us and to protect us.”

Pasco, Franklin County, Wash. Population is 59,781 and 21.5% live below the poverty level.

Off the ‘Rez’

From the Native American reservations in the Dakotas and the Plains to the old lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest, poverty in rural and isolated communities in the upper reaches of America is striking.

Abject poverty on most of the reservations is gut wrenching and indicative of a host of social issues. But native Americans aren’t the only people struggling in this region. As natural resources are being exhausted, so are the hopes and dreams of countless Americans languishing in some of the country’s most picturesque areas.

The fates of many small cities and towns in that region have been tied to the extraction of natural resources like crude oil and lumber. In many places, the growl of lumber mills have long gone quiet. The expansion of oil rigs mean both prosperity and pain for the communities they’re drilling into.

Eugene, Oregon, has a white population of nearly 86% and a poverty rate of 24%. In Reedsport, Oregon, about an hour and a half west of Eugene, nearly one out of four residents also lives below the poverty line. That city is 88% white. Much of Reedsport’s economic struggles have come from the collapse of the timber industry.

Oregon has seen its poverty spike in recent years – it’s one of just four states that saw a 15% increase in poverty from 2000-2010, largely in its rural counties. The other three states were in the South. Across the western edge of the Midwest to the upper Pacific coast, county poverty rates range from as little as 3% to as much as 54%, with the highest rates found on Indian reservations in South Dakota. Nine of the 10 counties with the highest poverty rates — above 50% — were on reservations.

Tamed, Controlled and Reborn

Among the many creation stories of the Lakota and other indigenous tribes are several that begin with a joining of man’s world and the world of the great spirits. They are often stories of self-sacrifice and benevolence, a search for harmony and in some, a great flood and new beginnings. Of the birth of the sun, the wind and water, sometimes drowning the earth to beget a new world.

In so many ways the Pick-Sloan flooding did just that.

“I remember what it looked like before the flood,” said LaDonna Brave Bull, whose family was forced from its land by the Army Corps.

“We just want America to leave us alone. Just let us live.” Community leader and historian, LaDonna Brave Bull, Fort Yates, Sioux County, North Dakota.

Brave Bull spoke from a grassy hill overlooking a small valley and a winding stretch of the Missouri River, the big sky over the reservation lit in hues of orange with magenta. She walked through the grass, the tips of the stalks tickling her calves as she took in all the beauty that remained despite the years of devastation the molested river has caused.

“You stand here and you look out and you remember,” she said. “You accept and you try your hardest to forgive, but you never forget.”

The historically tense relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government has been manifest in many ways. But for many native people alive today, it has been the relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers that gives them fits. Indeed, the flooding under the Pick-Sloan Plan was engineered by Lewis Pick, then director of the Corps Missouri River office, and William Sloan, director of the Montana office of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“Pick’s famous saying back then was ‘I want control of the Missouri River,’” said Mike Grunwald, a senior reporter with Politico and author of “The Swamp,” a critique of the Army Corps’ destructive endeavors in the Florida Everglades.

Grunwald described the institutional DNA of the Corps as an “arrogant” military agency doing civilian work as if on some sort of military mission. Even with controversial projects and outcomes, the Corps has always enjoyed wide bipartisan support in Congress, Grunwald said.

“That has basically been the Army Corps approach to river and nature everywhere, that it’s something to be tamed and controlled and used for the benefit of man,” Grunwald said. “Usually for the benefit of economic interests who defend the Corps … and their water projects have been this sort of economic part of this political barter economy.”

“I’m sure the tribes are not really central to their thinking,” Grunwald added. “They certainly weren’t when Pick and Sloan were around and they probably aren’t now.”

The Corps controls the dams and the raising and lowering of the Missouri River levels. In recent decades, Standing Rock has lost more than 100 miles of shoreline due to erosion along the river, according to the tribe’s office of preservation. Each time the Corps manipulates the river levels, the remnants of the old villages that once lined the river bottom are dislodged. That includes pottery, tools and the remains of Lakota ancestors.

Throughout the year, volunteer teams head out to where someone reports seeing human remains, in order to rebury them in proper fashion.

In recent years, looters have entered tribal lands and taken what’s surfaced along the river, including human skulls and ancient artifacts like arrowheads.

Walking along a stretch of the river on a recent afternoon, tribal archaeologist Kelly Morgan pointed to the river bank which she said had been pushed dozens of yards. Each layer, she said, contains calling cards from the ancestors.

“If they dredge the river as they propose to they’ll be dredging up our relatives,” Morgan said, picking up a shard of pottery she suspected was a couple hundred years old. “It’s about the protection of something that is our most significant resource. By doing this they again threaten the life and livelihoods or our people.”

Back on her family’s property, Brave Bull said she grew up loving and learning from the land. Her elders would take Brave Bull and her siblings out into the grass at night to lie beneath the stars and connect with the spirits and to listen to the whistling and singing of the wild. She remembers the buffalo, the beautiful beasts whose numbers have been thinned astronomically over the decades.

“When talking about poverty, the death of the buffalo, the flood and colonization, they’ve essentially been erasing Native dignity. We’re the ones that suffer. We’re the ones that live here. We’re the ones who have to change that.”
A buffalo killed for food and ceremony in Fort Yates, Sioux County, North Dakota.

So much of who the Lakota are is tied to the buffalo, which had once been a source of food, shelter, clothing and energy. The way of the buffalo also shaped the way the Lakota set up their family structure, one shared by proximity to and nourished by extended relatives. They’ve called themselves Pte oyate, or, “Buffalo People.”

But as the buffalo have become an endangered lot, so too have the Lakota as the forces of time and development (or the lack thereof) have closed in on them.

Under the proposed plan for the Dakota Access pipeline, the pipe would butt right up against Brave Bull’s land. She’s fought hard with hundreds of others to stave off the project. Because of heavy natural minerals in the groundwater on the reservation, good water is hard to find. The river is increasingly threatened and good groundwater exists below the same land that many of the big industrial developers are salivating to seize.

“You don’t even begin to understand what is at stake. Where are we as a tribe? We’re seeing up to five new cancer patients a week. We know it’s coming down from the river. We’re talking about health and culture. We have to take care of our land, the earth,” she said.

Not far from where she stood that evening, the graves of various family members — including her father, her son and an uncle — are marked by crosses and flowers, tucked behind a thin metal fence.

“My dad taught us to protect that water,” Brave Bull said. “Who could give anyone the right to destroy our water? Nobody. It’s beyond me why we continue to destroy the land around us.”

A Radical Idea

Chase Iron Eyes, a young activist and lawyer who has become something of a thorn in the sides of local tribal politicians, walked through the Sioux Village housing projects where he spent part of his youth. A gaggle of smiling, scruffy young children surrounded him almost immediately, some wrapping their arms around him while others peppered him with inquiries about going on a bike ride or run with him the next day. A couple asked for money.

Since moving back to the reservation from Colorado more than a year ago with his wife, Sarah Jumping Eagle, a local pediatrician, Iron Eyes has become something of a prodigal son. He grew up a typical “rez” kid, fighting, drinking, getting into the kinds of trouble that kids with not much guidance or much to do can get into. He ended up spending a short stretch in prison for a house break-in he committed while blinded by alcohol. He emerged sober and with his eyes wide open to what he needed to do. More than anything, he said he wanted to return to the reservation and help spark some sort of change to break the cycle.

Detail from a pictograph of the "Long Soldier" Winter Count. Winter counts are calendars in which histories are recorded by pictures, with one picture for each year. They are called waniyetu wowapi by the Lakota.

He helped push for a Lakota language immersion school for young children. He started the Last Real Indians blog and website aimed at progressive young Indians. He’s harangued the tribal council for what many young Lakota see as an abandonment of the younger generations and complacency when it comes to lifting the tribe’s overall sorry economic state.

His efforts haven’t gone without pushback from the establishment, he said. Iron Eyes, some elders say, is smart but rebellious, sometimes abrasive.

“That’s a very radical idea for a tribe, to want to provide for itself,” Iron Eyes said. Lamenting the current tribal government, which is bound by its relationship to the United States, Iron Eyes said the system is largely “inept at meeting the needs of our citizens.”

“Modern day reservations, it’s like Puerto Rico. The U.S. treat us like we’re a ward and they are our guardians. That’s how it’s been for the last 100 years,” he said. “The United States has asserted supreme rights to our land. And we don’t have the military might to fight back. There are things we can do as a tribal nation, but the court of reprisal is the oppressor’s court.”

Part of that oppression, he said, has been the government’s cinching of the tribe’s control of its natural resources.

“The goals are lofty. But I just want something practical that says we are our own nation and we can provide for ourselves. Since the buffalo were killed off we haven’t been able to provide our own food, our own shelter or our own energy,” Iron Eyes said. “Most human beings, we react to our appetites. If your food and your house are uncertain things, you don’t have time to think about the higher order pursuits like freedom.”

One by one though, Chase is trying to shake awake tribal members. He recently came up with an idea that could help spur economic freedom and development for the tribe — growing industrialized hemp.

But his plan has a few hurdles and hiccups. It’s not currently legal to grow hemp on the reservation. Many have balked at the idea, linking industrial hemp to its more illicit cousin, marijuana. And, as Iron Eyes put it, the establishment is too scared to shake things up on behalf of the tribe.

Iron Eyes has started a petition to force a hearing by the Tribal Council on a handful of referendums he hopes will be introduced during the upcoming elections. He needs 450 signatures to force the hearing. In recent weeks, he was just a few dozen away. On that day at the housing projects he knocked on doors and explained to folks what he was trying to do and how he planned on achieving it. In the couple hours he spent that day going door to door or catching people in their yards, not a single person refused to sign.

“Poor people have not been able to fight with the tools that they’ve been handed. We lost our natural medicines, farmland, and fertile river bottom land. We lost a way to provide for ourselves,” he said. “When talking about poverty, the death of the buffalo, the flood and colonization, they’ve essentially been erasing Native dignity. We’re the ones that suffer. We’re the ones that live here. We’re the ones who have to change that.”

“You stand here and you look out and you remember ... You accept and you try your hardest to forgive, but you never forget.”
Harvested wheat fields outside of Prescott, Walla Walla County, Wash. The population is 318 and 20.8% live below the poverty level.

Hunger in the National Interest

Phyllis Young, the tribal councilwoman, said staving off growing inequality on the reservation will take more than just a magic bullet. It’ll take a complete paradigm shift, not just in the relationship between the tribe and the federal government, but within the tribe itself.

Having served four years on the council, she said she sees just how limited the tribal government is in effectuating meaningful change. She said she hopes that now, piggybacking on a wave of activism across the country calling for a reevaluation of how America values people of color, that now is a time for Indians to come together and demand the same. At the center of that fight, she said, are the rights of indigenous people to have full agency over the protection of its land and water.

“I’m going to live and I’m going to fight and I’m going to struggle and I’m going to ensure that my grandchildren survive.”

“I think it’ll be more than the legal struggle. We have always rose up in times of need and justification,” she said, referring to the Great Sioux War of 1876 when Lakota warriors led by Crazy Horse defeated Gen. George Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn, and the American Indian Movement siege in 1973.

Yet, even with that sense of fight and the fire in Young’s eyes when she talks about reclaiming what’s been lost and reinvigorating a sense of purpose in the tribe, the past seems never too far behind, constantly nipping at her heels. She described a sense of haunting from the flood as “intergenerational trauma.”

The memories of January 1960, of the water rising and of the waste left in its wake, are never far from her mind. She recalls heading into the hills with her family, all 23 members including relatives. With nowhere else to go they headed up into the hills of Fort Yates proper, they made a home out of one of the abandoned military barracks that her father had renovated.

“All of our young lives we had access to berries, the nutrients from all the natural fruits and natural foods and the garden foods in the river bottom. Not understanding the physiology of what it does to you in terms of the trauma of homelessness,” she said. “The most positive thing for us is that we had relatives. Having relatives is wealth. Having relatives is having love and that kinship is what really for us was the survival mechanism.”