Tribe Stops Recreation Construction
Wednesday 14 May 2003
PICKSTOWN - Members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe blocked construction at North Point Recreation Area with their bodies Tuesday in a protest that will most likely send the long-delayed project back to court.
In April, a federal judge ordered the state to replace soil from a Native American burial site discovered in May 2002. The state had been moving fill dirt at the recreation area to build a registration building, parking lot, fish-cleaning area and RV waste dump.
The tribe cooperated last week, but members turned defiant Tuesday, citing disrespectful acts from contractors and officials.
The confrontation began around 7:30 a.m., when the tribe's negotiating team obstructed a front-end loader, and officials from the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks threatened them with arrest.
The handful of protesters grew to more than 25 people before 11 a.m., when officials decided to halt construction.
"I'm here and ready to stand in front of these machines, and I'm ready to go to jail because I belong here," said Mabel Ann Eagle Hunter, a tribe member and veteran of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee.
"I don't give a dang if I go to prison. Now's the time," said Ellsworth Chytka, the tribal member in charge of repatriating the remains.
The protest gained some attention outside South Dakota, including reports on "National Native News," a public radio program, and WBAI in New York City. Amanda Holmes, the host of the "First Voices" program on WBAI, joined the protest Friday and was the first to step in front of the heavy equipment.
Holmes defended her participation in the protest. "I don't think that as journalists we can always not care," she said. "I think we are human beings first, and we have responsibilities as human beings, and that's how I choose."
Officials from the GF&P and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - which supervises repatriation of remains along the Missouri River - expressed frustration at the tribe's shifting tactics and the continuing delays in construction.
"We've been 10 months at trying to resolve what I consider to be our moral obligation to be sure that we properly and quickly repatriate those remains," said John Cooper, director of the GF&P. "I would just tell you that it's not us who's taken that long to decide what they wanted to do."
Rain delayed the work from Thursday to Monday, so contractors aimed to start early Tuesday.
Two dump trucks and the front-end loader broke the morning silence at 7:03 a.m., rolling out from behind a stand of trees near the construction site.
At 7:08 a.m., tribal historic preservation officer Francis Bernie left the tipis where some tribal members were camped and crossed the street to watch the earth-moving equipment. Three GF&P officials, two of them armed, watched him.
Around 7:20 a.m., a car with New York State plates parked near the site. By 7:35 a.m., Holmes stepped from the car onto the site and was talking on a cell phone - just one of the scores of frantic calls that would be made that morning by both sides.
At 7:37 a.m., Holmes stepped between the soil and the front-end loader, shaking her head at the driver and waving her arms.
At almost the same moment, a maroon Chevrolet van pulled up, blocking the loader's access to the dump truck. Tribal spokesperson Faith Spotted Eagle emerged and began talking to the GF&P officials.
She said the speed of the operation kept her tribe from properly inspecting and caring for the human remains found in the fill dirt. So they decided they wanted all activity stopped.
She blamed the state for the contractor's haste, pointing out that the state did not tell the contractor that human remains were present at the site. Thus the contractor made a low bid, assuming that the job would be relatively quick.
Dan Shaffer of the GF&P said he wanted to resolve the issue and obey the court order to return the remains.
"I've been instructed to advise you that if you do not move, we will arrest," he said, and gave the protesters an 8 a.m. deadline.
State Highway Patrol officers later arrived at the scene but stayed out of sight, and hours passed without arrests.
By 8:30 a.m., 10 people were standing in front of the loader, including tribe member Frank Sanchez, who would stand there most of the morning wearing a traditional headdress.
At 8:58 a.m., corps project manager Tom Curran approached the protesters. He tried to defuse the situation, but instead bitterness overflowed on both sides.
Chytka asked Curran what it would take to change the policy on Indian burial grounds, and Curran said it would take congressional action.
"I guess we should be here (protesting) until Congress shows up," Chytka said.
Curran too began to seethe in frustration.
"So the reason for this is you want the land back?" he said.
"We want respect for the remains that were uncovered that they said weren't even here," Chytka said.
"Your culture is about money," he added. "That's the only reason this land was taken from us - money. Make more money off them Indians."
"What about the remains?" Curran said.
"It's beyond that now," Sanchez said.
Behind the angry words is a debate over how state and federal agencies should approach suspected burial sites.
Many in the Yankton Sioux Tribe say any land along the Missouri is a possible burial site. They accuse the agencies of repeatedly ignoring warnings that riverside excavation will uncover more human remains - warnings they say often prove true.
Agency officials, by contrast, say that in the absence of archaeological evidence, riverside land should be available for construction, especially given its recreational value.
At North Point, for example, they say surveys have found no hint of remains, apart from the original finding in May 2002. The state should therefore be able to improve the area.
Mary Wynne, a lawyer for the tribe, said she hopes the upcoming court battle will help resolve that larger issue.
But she also plans to argue the finer points: that the corps and state have acted in bad faith and failed to adequately consult the tribe. Moreover, the amount of remains found recently constitutes a "new finding," she said. That would require a 30-day waiting period before more activity, regardless of what the previous court order said.
Curran disputes that argument. "I'm not sure what they're talking about," he said. "We're sure open to discussing that."
But the tribe has had plenty of time to raise those and other concerns, he said.
At North Point at 10 a.m., though, nobody was thinking about the legal niceties. Spirits began to rise, as smiles and laughter began to replace the bitter remarks.
Sanchez, still blocking the front-end loader, described the scene to a friend on his cell phone.
"Same old, same old. You know, throw the Indian in jail," he said.
About 10 younger tribal members arrived, and the men stood in a circle, beating a drum and singing traditional songs.
Soon after, the Highway Patrol cars left the area, and tribal members cheered and waved goodbye.
And around 11 a.m., the news came: Curran announced that work would stop indefinitely so the matter could go back to court.
The tribe planned to file the papers today in federal court in Sioux Falls, requesting a halt to the digging, Wynne said.
"We're willing to do whatever needs to be done to sit down with the tribes and work out the issues," Curran said.
It took until about 1:45 p.m. for the standoff to wind down. But once it did, the last tribal members stood atop the remaining fill dirt, staring down the retreating construction equipment.
They stood, relaxed, with their hands in their pockets.
But nobody believed it was truly over.
"I'm really happy, but, of course, this is just a small part of it. We know they're not going to give up, but we're not going to give up, either," Eagle Hunter said. "This is just the beginning of a long battle."